How to Read an Ingredients Label (Part 1 of 2)

How to Read an Ingredients Label (Part 1 of 2)

Knowing exactly what’s in your beauty and personal care items can help you figure out what types of products work for you. If you know you have a sensitivity to certain ingredients, it can also be crucial in making knowledgeable decisions for yourself and your health. With products becoming increasingly more ingredient focused, decoding an ingredients label can be a handy way to see through the marketing clutter and determine whether a certain product’s claims hold true. 

Reading an ingredients list is not as simple as it sounds

We’ve all noticed that some products work better than others despite advertising the exact same active ingredients. For example, hyaluronic acid seems to be incorporated into every skincare and topical beauty product these days. And yet, two hyaluronic acid containing products certainly don’t always work the same. Though the FDA requires all cosmetic and personal care products to have an ingredient declaration and list out every ingredient used, reading an ingredient label may not be as straightforward as it appears. 

The order matters

The first order of business (pun intended), is the structure of the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration. In other words, the more a product contains a certain ingredient, the higher it will be on the ingredient list. This is why water is oftentimes the first ingredient on a list for a water-based product and oil (of any kind) is the first ingredient for an oil-based product. They are the bases of the formula and hold the other ingredients together and in solution. 

Different textures of different products

Active ingredients

Now, amongst the many ingredients that are present in a given formula, the active ingredient(s) is arguably the most important. The term “active ingredient” is used regularly in both the pharmaceutical industry and beauty industry, but the difference is nuanced. 

In the pharmaceutical industry, the active ingredient refers to a specific ingredient and/or compound that is biologically active and directly affects the part of the body that the product is intended to target. For example, the active ingredient in Rogaine is minoxidil. It is the specific compound in Rogaine that is intended to treat hair loss. It’s the same idea for ibuprofen in Advil tablets, or diphenhydramine in Benadryl. With drugs like these, the active ingredient is fairly easy to find on the ingredients label because they are explicitly stated. In fact, the ingredients label on a drug is often partitioned into “active ingredient(s)” and “inactive ingredients” which eliminates the need to decipher an ingredients list altogether if all you care about is the active ingredient. In addition to that, a drug label states exactly how much of that active ingredient it contains. 

Key parts of an ingredients label, broken down

Beauty and personal care products, on the other hand, may have the active ingredient buried amongst a laundry list of other ingredients included in the formulation to help with solubility, texture, scent, etc. Though companies will usually make their claimed active ingredient known with marketing language like “formulated with” or “contains,” it’s difficult to say exactly how much of the ingredient is actually in formulation - especially if it’s not directly stated. This is where the order of ingredients come into play. If you are interested in using a product that is formulated with high concentrations of a certain ingredient, you’d expect it to be closer to the front of the list. With everything in order, this should be an easy way to decipher products’ ingredients lists. Well, that is until you get to the 1% line. 

The 1% Line

The 1% line is an imaginary line in the beauty and cosmetic world that refers to where the ingredients are at or below 1% in concentration. And past this line, companies no longer have to list ingredients in order. You might be wondering, why is this important? 

Imagine an after sun product that claims to have aloe vera to help soothe sunburned skin and, that this product has only 5 ingredients:

sample ingredients list

At first glance, this looks great! Aloe vera is the third ingredient in this list and so that must mean it’s at a high concentration. Right? But, what if I told you that this is where the 1% line is:

 

sample ingredients list with 1% line highlighted

This means the aloe vera concentration is either at or below 1% - nowhere near its biologically active concentration. Even still, a brand can feasibly push and advertise their product as an aloe vera after-sun treatment regardless. Because there is no real line and brands are not always transparent with the concentration of their ingredients, it is the trickiest part of decoding an ingredients list. 

But don’t lose all hope of decoding ingredients lists just yet! There are fairly simple ways to define the 1% line even without being an experienced cosmetic chemist. It all comes down to where ingredients-of-interest are relative to other ingredients on the list. 

1% Line Indicator Ingredients

There are certain popular ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products that are good indicators of the 1% as they are either limited by regulations or by their physicochemical properties. 

Thickeners

Thickeners are classic 1% line indicators. A product may contain some form of thickener to improve its texture but too much can lead to a gummy and unpleasant feel. Formulators will usually keep thickeners at 1% or below. Here are common thickeners to keep a lookout for:

  • Cellulose Gum
  • Xanthan Gum
  • Gellan Gum
  • Guar Gum
  • Hydroxyethylcellulose
  • Methylcellulose
  • Polyethylene glycols

Thickeners are, of course, not limited to this list but if you suspect that an ingredient is serving as a thickener, it is a telltale sign of the 1% line. 

Preservatives

The EU and FDA regulate the legal limit for certain popular preservatives to be no greater than 1%  and therefore, are probably a good indication of the 1% line. Additionally there are limited types of preservatives used in topical cosmetic and wellness products because of their general negative connotation. 

  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Parabens 
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Potassium Sorbate

Phenoxyethanol is the go-to preservative as it is a greener, safer alternative to parabens. A side note: preservatives are usually a good thing in cosmetics, but that is a whole different conversation. So don’t be afraid if you find phenoxyethanol in your favorite products!

Extracts, Essential Oils, and Fragrances

Many people find pure extracts, essential oils, and fragrances very irritating to the skin. Because of that reason, they are limited to 1%, or more likely, below 1%. This is particularly true for products that are applied near or on the face.

Other Indicators

Other ingredients like stabilizers, solubility enhancers, certain penetration enhancers, and color additives could also be a good indicator of the 1% if the aforementioned ingredients are tricky to locate.

  • Disodium EDTA
  • Polysorbate 20
  • Isopropyl myristate
  • Colors/dyes

Why is the 1% line important to consumers? 

Other than being a master at decoding ingredients lists, why should we care about the 1% line as consumers? There is a ton of marketing in the beauty world. That, in combination with more relaxed regulations in comparison to pharmaceuticals, makes it extremely difficult to weed through tricky marketing language and find products that can really work for us. 

Let’s go back to the original example of the theoretic after sun product: 

 

sample ingredients label with 1% line highlighted

A brand promoting this product can easily say something along the lines of “formulated with aloe vera to soothe the skin and vitamin C to brighten.” We now know that both of those ingredients are below the 1% line and actually may, in fact, be well below 1%. Neither aloe vera nor vitamin C are effective at such low concentrations and yet nothing is stopping the brand from messaging the product otherwise. You may be wasting your money on this product if the goal is to soothe and brighten your skin, because there is simply not enough of the active ingredient to make a real difference. 

On the flip side, the 1% line can be very helpful if you want to avoid a certain ingredient. For example, if you know your skin reacts poorly to aloe vera at high concentrations, you may be able to get away with using a product with it below the 1% line!

Exceptions to the rule

It’s very easy to get caught up in the 1% rule and broadly say that all active ingredients and claimed active ingredients should be above the 1% line. However, that is not always the case. It’s a very common misconception that higher concentrations of active ingredients means better efficacy and faster results. 

Stay tuned for PART 2 on why this is completely false. 
Spoiler alert: ProCelinyl is below the 1% line, but so are some of your other favorite skincare and wellness active ingredients.
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Reviewed by: David Zhang, PhD |

David is an immunologist and bioengineer with over a decade of medical research experience. He completed his PhD at Harvard University, where he worked on developing life-saving cancer therapies. He received his undergraduate degree in immunology from McGill University and his master's degree from the University of Toronto

Written by: Elizabeth Lee |

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