Unless you have a background in Latin or a degree in chemistry, a skincare ingredients check can feel like reading a foreign language. But that language actually has a name—it’s the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), and it exists to help create a standardized language of ingredient names to be used on labels around the world. And unfortunately, it’s not consumer friendly.
Sometimes manufacturers will throw the everyday shopper a bone, putting the more common name in parentheses next to the scientific name, like this: tocopherol (vitamin E). But without that nudge, an ingredients list often just looks like a string of long unfamiliar words separated by commas.
Know your skin type
For oily skin: Look for products containing alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic acid or salicylic acid), benzoyl peroxide, and hyaluronic acid. “These ingredients are effective at controlling excess sebum production while hyaluronic acid will produce hydration only in areas needed,” Dr. Green says.1An affordable face wash for oily skin containing salicylic and hyaluronic acids is CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser.
For dry skin: Look for products containing shea butter and lactic acid. “These ingredients provide hydration and mild exfoliation to keep dry skin looking radiant,” Dr. Green says.
For sensitive skin: Look for products containing aloe vera, oatmeal, and shea butter. “They’re good moisturizers and usually don’t break anyone out,” Dr. Green says. La Roche-Posay’s Lipikar Wash AP+ is an excellent drugstore body wash with shea butter for those with dry, sensitive skin who want extra hydration.
If you’re not 100 percent sure what skin type you have, it’s worth a trip to our clinic to confirm. Once you understand your skin type, you can start selecting products with more precision.
Know that natural doesn’t always mean better
Familiar words in the ingredients list can be comforting to see, but it doesn’t always indicate the safest route. For example, Dr. David explains that poison ivy is a natural oil, but it’s not one that you would want to rub all over your skin. “I have patients come in pretty frequently with reactions to natural essential oils, so again, it’s one of those things where everyone is unique and you need to do what’s best for yourself uniquely,” Dr. David says.
She also warns that seeing the terms natural and organic on a product label is sometimes more of a marketing trick than anything else. Because those terms aren’t regulated and there aren’t specific industry standards for them, they can offer empty promises. Additionally, sometimes a product will be labeled as natural in reference to only one or two of the ingredients on the list.
Pay attention to the order of ingredients
Once you know what primary ingredients you’re looking to avoid or go after, you’ll want to pay attention to where they fall on the ingredients list. As a good rule of thumb, Dr. David recommends looking at the first five ingredients, since that will often account for about 80 percent of the product’s makeup.
Ingredients will be listed in order of highest to lowest concentration, so if there’s a problematic or potentially irritating ingredient among the first five listed, you’ll want to steer clear of that product.
Similarly, if you’re seeking out a product for specific ingredients, but those ingredients are listed at the end, then that product isn’t worth your money. With such a small percentage of the overall product, you won’t experience the benefits of the ingredients at the end of the list.
Always do a patch test
A patch test is smart practice in your process of product elimination. Plus, it’s a great excuse to make a trip to Ulta or Sephora without spending money.
A patch test can help determine if certain products or ingredients will cause allergic reactions, irritate your skin, or clog your pores. “I think the take-home message is: If it’s making your skin worse or irritating your skin in any way, stop using it, it’s not the right product for you,” Dr. Green says.
Testing all your ingredients before committing to them takes a little time at first, but it can save you a lot of money and grief in the end.