Learn How To Read a Skin Care Product Label

Are you one of those people who ask others on social media about skincare products? 

Do you often wonder if, certain cosmetic products will work for you or not?

Are you one of those people who are inspired to read the Ingredient list before buying, but can’t make sense of the names and how they can help you? 

Well, stay rest assured, By the end of this blog, you will definitely be able to understand the ingredient list and decide if the product that you are planning to buy will work for you or not. 

So, there are so many ingredients used to create the cosmetics. By cosmetics I don’t just mean the coloured cosmetics (or makeup), but it includes the entire range of skincare care and hair care products. 

Before we move forward to understand the ingredients they contain. It is really necessary to understand what are the type of cosmetics.

There are usually 3 types of Cosmetic products:

  1. Anhydrous: These types of products don’t contain water. (An = no, hydrous = water). Usually cosmetics like oils, oil-based serums, balms, body butters, talcum powders and dry shampoos are included in this category.  
  2. Emulsions: Emulsions are created by mixing oils and water together. Your lotions, creams, shampoos and conditioners are present in this category. But there are exceptions too. Depending on the types of emulsifiers and the quantity of water and oils used. Some body butters, toners, mists and serums too are present in this category. 
  3. Water based Products: These are the type of products that are completely made of water or water like material like floral waters. Toners, facial mists, serums. They have very thin viscosity (thickness) and almost look watery. These sometimes are emulsions too. 

As wide range of the cosmetics are present in all the categories, we will discuss the most commonly used ingredients.

I would also like to point out that there are thousands and thousands of different types of cosmetic ingredients that are used in cosmetics industry. So, covering each and every type of ingredient in one post is really difficult. But in case you want more information about any ingredient not discussed in this post. Please feel to message me on p.yagnik@phenakindia.com. I will definitely try to answer your questions. 

Following are the groups of products that are usually found to be present in cosmetics:

  • Solvents:
  • Water / Floral waters: Water / Floral waters are used in maximum amount in most of the cosmetics. Hence, they are usually found first in the ingredient list. Different types of water are used in cosmetics, but the most common ones are Distilled water, deionised water and demineralised water. 

Function: Water is described as a “Universal solvent” meaning it dissolves most of things added to it. Hence, the main function of water, is to act as a solvent in the products. It dissolves other water-soluble ingredients / actives that have skin/hair benefits. It gives lotions, creams or foundations that light and smooth application feel. It also helps to keep the skin hydrated. 

  • Plant oils / Mineral oils: These form the major part of the anhydrous (water-less) cosmetics. These too acts as solvents. But in this case, they help to dissolve the actives / ingredients that are Oil-Soluble in nature. E.g. the actives present in Brahmi are Oil soluble in nature and will work better in oil-based products. Most common types of Oil based solvents are usually plant oils like coconut oil, jojoba oil, sunflower oil, Squalane; butters like mango butter, kokum butter, Sal butter; mineral oils, silicones, Cetyl Palmitate, Isolanolin, etc. 

In case of emulsions, meaning in creams or lotions they are the ones that give the plant-based benefits and work as emollients. 

Functions:  The Oil based solvents are great emollients i.e. They have smoothening and softening effect on the skin/hair, and are occlusive in nature. Meaning they cover the top layer of the skin and prevent water evaporation i.e. Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL).

  • Apart from Water and Oils; there are some ingredients that work as solvents and helps to solubilise different ingredients. Solvents dissolve active ingredients, plant extracts, antioxidants, preservatives. Sometimes they also help in absorption of the active ingredients into the skin.

Examples; Glycerine, Propylene Glycol, Ethyl hexyl Glycerine, Isolanolin, etc. 

  • Thickeners:

These are the types of ingredients that gives the structure to the products. What comes to your mind if I mention the products like sprays, serums, gels, lotions, creams, butters, balms. One thing is that they all have different consistency. Sprays are runny/watery, gels are thick but usually transparent, lotions are neither hard nor runny while balms are really thick. So different types of ingredients are used to achieve the different consistency of the products. These ingredients decide the structure of the products. Below are some of the categories and examples of the ingredients that are used as structure enhancers of a product:

  • Gums:  Carbomers, Acrylate copolymer, Sorbitol, Xanthan Gum, Hydroxyethyl Cellulose, Acacia Gum, Carrageenan gum, guar gum, etc.
  •  Waxes: Beeswax, Candelilla wax, Carnauba wax, Sunflower wax, Rice wax, Jojoba oil (liquid wax) etc. These are great Occlusives. 
  • Butters: Cocoa butter, Mango Butter, Shea butter, Kokum Butter, Sal butter Etc.
  • Fatty Acids/Alcohols: Stearic acid, Lauric acid, Myristic Acid, Palmitic Acid, Glycerol, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl alcohol, Isostearyl Alcohol. Fatty Acids/Alcohols not only function to thicken the product, but they are also great Emollients, co-emulsifiers and mild surfactants.
  • Emulsifiers / Solubilizers: 

Have you ever tried to mix water and oil together? Were you successful? No. That’s because both oil and water have different polarities and don’t mix without help. Here, is where Emulsifiers and Solubilizers come in action. Function: They are the ingredients that work efficiently to mix water and oil uniformly in a way, that they don’t separate in any case.

  • Most of the lotions and creams are a mixture of water and oil, that are mixed together with the help of emulsifiers. Hence these types of products are also known as “emulsions”.
  • Solubilizers too, have similar job. When quantity of water is very high and the amount of oil is very small, like in case of perfumes, body sprays; solubilizers are used to mix them together homogenously. 

Common examples of Emulsifiers / Solubilizers:

Glyceryl Stearate, Polysorbate 80, Cetearyl Alcohol, Sodium Stearoyl Lactate, Steareth-20, PEG-150 Stearate, Emulsifying Wax NF, Lecithin, Cetearyl Olivate (and) Sorbitan Olivate, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Polysorbate20 etc.  

  • Surfactants: 

Surfactant word is made from three different words. Surface Active Ingredients. These are usually found in the products that foam; like soap, facewashes, cleansers etc. 

Function: These are essentially cleansers; they have ability to bind with oil and water and emulsify them to clean the dirt from the skin while creating foam at the interphase (at point of contact). Based on the chemical structure there are anionic, amphoteric, non-ionic, and quaternary agents. Surfactants form the base of all personal cleansing products and can also have wetting, conditioning, defatting, emulsifying, & thickening effects.

 Common examples of Surfactants:

Alpha Olefin Sulfonate, Castile Soap, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Coco Betaine, Coco Glucose, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, etc.

  • Humectants:  

Humectants are hygroscopic in nature. Means, they absorb moisture from the air and retains it to the surface of the skin. They are found in most of the products that claim to have moisturising benefits.

Function: Humectants when applied on skin, keeps the skin moisturised. It increases the solubility of the active ingredients and increases their ability to penetrate skin. Humectants can also reduce the dehydrating effects of soaps and alcohols that are used in cosmetics. They are main ingredients that gives the product a label of being a “good moisturiser”. They also help to reduce the Tran Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL).

Most common Humectants are:

Algae Extract, Silk amino acids, Hyaluronic Acid, DL-panthenol (Pro vitamin B5), Glycerine, Allantoin, Aloe vera, Butylene Glycol, colloidal Oatmeal, Ceramides, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lactate, Sorbitol, Honey, etc.

  • Active Ingredients: 

The current and most trending group of ingredients in recent time are “Active Ingredients”. These ingredients are biologically active or are bioactive in terms of being a potent (strong) Antioxidant, Antiaging and Skin Lightening agents. Active Ingredients work to target the skin concern that is claimed by the product and are supposedly been scientifically proven. They are divided in different categories according to their type of activity. 

Alpha/Beta Hydroxy acids (AHAs/BHAs): These are basically chemical exfoliators. They usually have low pH. And work by removing the top layer of the skin gently. It removes the dead skin cells and allows new skin cells to be generated. 

Common AHAs include lactic acid (which is derived from lactose) and glycolic acid (which comes from sugar cane). These two are the most common as they’re the least likely to irritate your skin. Since AHAs don’t penetrate deep below the skin surface (due to the fact that they’re water soluble), they’re ideal for all skin types, even sensitive skin. AHAs are often found in anti-aging products as our natural skin cell cycle tends to slow as we age, but they are also useful in addressing acne, reducing pigmentation, brightening skin tone, and giving your skin a smoother and plumper texture.

BHAs (also called Salicylic Acid) can penetrate below the skin’s surface to clear your pores of excess sebum and dirt to reduce oiliness, while reducing inflammation and fighting bacteria on the skin’s surface. Salicylic acid is best for those with congested pores or oily skin and are perfect for treating blemish-prone skin and blackheads.

– Antiaging ingredients: These ingredients help in wrinkle reduction, skin brightening effects.  They promote the collagen and elastin production in skin and hence increases the cell turnover. Most common antiaging ingredients are: Retinol, Ceramides, Coenzyme Q10, Hydrolysed collagen, Peptides, Hyaluronic Acid, Niacinamide etc.

– Antioxidants: They practically scavenge (collect and destroy) for Free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are naturally formed when you exercise and when your body converts food into energy. Your body can also be exposed to free radicals from a variety of environmental sources, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. These cause Oxidative Stress in the body. Antioxidant molecules have been shown to counteract oxidative stress in laboratory experiments (for example, in cells or animal studies). 

Antioxidants suppress the reaction that occurs when ingredients in the product combine with oxygen in the presence of light, heat, and some metals. Antioxidants also minimize the damage to some essential ingredients or materials that are especially susceptible to oxidative damage.

Most common antioxidants used in cosmetics are:

Ferulic Acid, Resverstrol, Vitamin A (Retinol), Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Sodium Lactate etc.

  • Skin lightening Agents:

These ingredients tend to reverse the pigmentation. They help to reduce or prevent melanogenesis (production of melanin). Melanin is a naturally occurring pigment in the body that gives the eyes, hair, and skin their colour. An amino acid called tyrosine is needed to support the production of melanin.

Skin Lightening ingredients usually works by blocking tyrosine (a type of amino acid) from forming, which then prevents melanin production. Decreased melanin production may have a lightening effect on the skin.

Most commonly used skin lightening agents are:

Alpha Arbutin, Kojic Acid, Liquorice Extract, Resveratrol, Vitamin A (Retinol), Niacinamide, Vitamin C. 

  • Stabilizers: 

Stabilizers are usually used in a cosmetic to bind to the free metal ions that may be present in the formula. Free Metal Ions can cause oxidation in a product which can lead to discolouration, unfavourable aromas, pH shifts, and even separations in lotions and creams overtime. So, by using these stabilising ingredients reduces the rate of oxidative reactions and boosts the performance of preservatives and antioxidants used in cosmetics. They are used in very tiny amounts. 

Most common stabilizers are: EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid), Sodium Gluconate, Sodium Phytate, BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene), etc.

  • Preservatives: 

These are the most important ingredients for any cosmetic. Preservatives are added to products to prevent spoilage, whether from microbial growth or undesirable chemical changes. Preservatives prevent the growth of moulds, yeasts, and bacteria and can be used at relatively low levels to ensure that the product performs effectively over the time it takes the consumer to finish the product. 

Without preservatives, personal care products could become contaminated with microorganisms or degrade from the adverse effects of oxygen.

Most common preservatives are: Parabens, Benzyl Alcohol, Dehydroacetic Acid, Sorbic acid, Gluconolactone, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Glucono lactone, triclosan, triclocarban, benzyl benzoate, methylisothiazolinone, zinc pyrithione, benzalkonium chloride, etc.

  • pH adjusters:

Ingredients that are used to control the pH of cosmetic products. pH is a measurement of the acidity or basicity of a substance. A pH of 7 is considered neutral, a pH lower than 7 (0-6) is considered acidic, and a pH higher than 7 (8-14) is considered basic.

The pH system of skin and cosmetics.

The level of pH depends on the body part and the condition of the skin. Therefore, cosmetic products are developed depending on the desired acid-base index for a certain skin type. In healthy people, it varies from 3.0 to 7.0, depending on the body part.

Most common ingredients used to balance pH are: Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH), Citric Acid, Triethanolamine, Sodium Gluconate, Magnesium hydroxide, 

  • Fragrance / Parfum:

The first thing a consumer does when handed a new cosmetic is to smell it. Fragrances can communicate complex ideas – creating mood, signaling cleanliness, freshness, or softness, alleviating stress, creating well-being, and triggering allure and attraction. Research has shown that people prefer to use the products that makes them smell good. And they form an essential part of the experience a person gets by using the product. Fragrances are complex combinations of natural and/or man-made substances. They often used in form of naturally occurring Essential oils or is created by using fragrant components like linalool, limonene, etc.

Hope, all these detailed information helps you to create an in-depth insight of the ingredients that are most commonly used in the Cosmetic World.  There are of course so many ingredients that are available out there. This is just an introduction post for the ingredients but this should help you to figure out what the ingredient list at the back of the cosmetic product has and how much effective it can be for your skin. 

Thank You so much for reading such a long post. And helping us to spread the information about the cosmetics. If you liked the information, we shared… Please like, follow and subscribe to our social media platforms for more such insights about the cosmetic world.

Priyanka Yagnik  (Founder, Phenak India)

www.phenakindia.com | Follow Us on Facebook


Questions? Write to me on: p.yagnik@phenakindia.com 

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