Not everyone loves skin care, and not everyone cares about skin care. And many of the people who don’t care for skin care insist that those of us who do are deluded, that “none of it works. It’s all just marketing.”
They’re not wrong about a lot of skin care products, but they’re completely wrong about some. And picking the products that work out of a lineup of empty buzzwords and shiny advertising hype is as simple as knowing how to read an ingredients list. Here’s a primer on how to do that.
Why ingredient awareness matters
As I just admitted, there are a lot of products out there that are just fluff. It’s inevitable in an industry that’s pretty lightly regulated and that caters to customers who are often driven to make emotional purchases out of insecurity or the desire to be on trend. But among all the wonder creams that don’t work and the miracle serums with nothing in them but water, glycerin, and empty promises, you can find many, many intelligently formulated and rigorously tested gems. And in my experience, few of those gems live in the luxury and prestige end of the price spectrum. Most that I’ve found are right in the midrange–and often at the low end of midrange. You can save yourself a ton of time and money by learning how to tell from the ingredients list whether a product belongs in the snake oil section or in an effective skin care routine.
It all boils down to ingredients. All the fancy packaging and glossy advertising in the world won’t make a mediocre formulation better for your skin, and no matter how rare, precious, or exotic an ingredient is (looking right at you, gold flecks in a moisturizing cream), if it hasn’t been shown to have an effect on human skin, you shouldn’t expect it to have one. Luxury and prestige skin care brands are the ones most often guilty of adding useless “precious” ingredients to their formulas, because those products need some memorable differentiator to set them apart from the more affordable competition, reinforce the brand’s perception of prestige, and justify an exorbitant price.
Here’s the truth: It doesn’t matter how special or fancy-sounding an ingredient is. It’s either been proven to affect skin, or it hasn’t. The end.
(Which is not to say that you can’t experiment with less proven ingredients like botanical extracts, snail mucin, dehydrated ground up starfish, or anything else you like. That’s half the fun of exploring Japanese and Korean skin care products! But don’t put all your eggs in one starfish-shaped basket.)
Once you have a basic grasp of the ingredients your skin needs, you’ll be able to make better purchasing choices. You’ll accelerate your skin’s improvement and reduce the number of products you buy that don’t work out for you. It’s well worth the time spent studying up on ingredients.
Examples of effective ingredients for different skin concerns
“But Snaily,” you might be saying right now, “that all sounds great, but where do I start? Am I supposed to take a class or something?”
Not at all. I’ll get you started myself with some short lists of common and proven ingredients to address various skin concerns.
- Acne: Chemical exfoliants, such as the AHAs glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid in concentrations of 5-8% and BHAs such as salicylic acid at a concentration of 2% and betaine salicylate at a concentration of 4%, all of which must be at a pH between 3 and 4 to safely but effectively exfoliate; skin turnover accelerators like retinol; benzoyl peroxide; and anti-inflammatory ingredients, including my all-time favorite ingredient, niacinamide.
- Fine lines and wrinkles: AHAs (following the pH and percentage guidelines listed above), the L-ascorbic acid (LAA) form of vitamin C, retinol in over-the-counter formulations, prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin, and niacinamide.
- Dry skin and/or damaged moisture barrier: Barrier-repairing ingredients like niacinamide; barrier-supplementing ingredients like collagen, elastin, ceramides, and lipids; humectants like hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate, hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and lanolin; emollients like essential fatty acids and various plant oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, and argan oil; and occlusives like mineral oil and dimethicone.
- Dullness and/or hyperpigmentation from acne or sun damage: Correctly formulated AHAs, niacinamide, LAA, the sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP) form of vitamin C, the magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP) form of vitamin C, licorice root extract, arbutin, and hydroquinone (which you should never use except under a doctor’s supervision).
These are by no means complete lists of proven solutions for the skin problems I’ve listed above, but they are a good place to start your ingredient education, especially since the ingredients I listed are among the most commonly used at many price points.
I have a suggestion for you. Look in your cabinet. Find one product you use now that you believe is working for you, even a little bit. Google the ingredients if they aren’t on the label and see if you can find any of the ingredients I listed among the ones in your product. And for extra credit, think of one product you bought but returned or threw out in disgust because it didn’t do anything it claimed to do. Google those ingredients, too, and see if the loser contains any of the ingredients it should–or if those ingredients are near the top of the ingredients list or the bottom.
Guesstimating the effectiveness of a skin care product
The exercise above leads us to the second thing you need to know about a product’s ingredients list: how to tell how much of a given ingredient the product actually contains.
Just like food, cosmetics products list their ingredients in order from most to least. That’s why most moisturizers will have either water or mineral oil as their first ingredient: water or oil is the base of the product, into which much smaller quantities of the other ingredients are blended. And as you might have guessed, quantity matters with many ingredients. If retinol is among the last ingredients in your anti-aging cream or serum, then it doesn’t matter how prominent the word “retinol” is on the package: it isn’t going to have much of an effect on your skin. While you can’t usually find out the exact proportions of a product’s ingredients, their order can give you a decent idea of whether the product is worth buying or not. And don’t buy an LAA, AHA, or BHA product unless the label lists the exact percentage of the active ingredient. LAA should be between 10 and 20% to work (higher is okay but may be irritating); AHAs should be between 5 and 8%, and salicylic acid, the most common BHA by far, should be at 2%. AHAs are humectant and BHAs are anti-inflammatory, so they’ll continue to have those effects at suboptimal percentages, but they won’t exfoliate as expected.
Putting it all together
Now that we know a bit more about evaluating a skin care product’s ingredients, let’s take a look at the ingredients list for the CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid.
Here we see several appealing ingredients. Instead of plain water, the BHA Blackhead Power Liquid has an apple water base; apples, like many fruits, are a great source of antioxidants and may contain natural AHA exfoliants. There’s also glycolic acid fairly high up in the list. BHA can be drying, so here I’d welcome the humectant moisturizing capabilities of the AHA. There’s also niacinamide, which is not only anti-inflammatory, but helps repair the skin barrier and lightens hyperpigmentation, and sodium hyaluronate for more non-greasy humectant moisture. And the label lists the percentage of the BHA: 4% betaine salicylate, which from what I’ve read is ideal for that particular acid.
I decided to buy the CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid without trying a single sample, based purely on the ingredients list. It’s working out fantastically well for me so far. In fact, since I began developing ingredient awareness, I don’t think I’ve tried a single daily use skin care product that hasn’t done what I expected it to do–there have been products I haven’t enjoyed or that have been disappointing for subjective reasons, but nothing that I would consider ineffective at what it claims to do. I tend not to get ripped off anymore, because I know what to look for. Now you can start learning to do the same.
Where to go from here
“Nuh-uh, Snaily,” you’re saying. “We’re not done. You said those aren’t all the possible ingredients that could work for my problem. How am I supposed to find out about the rest?”
The same way you find out about anything: read about it! I learned a lot, and continue to learn a lot, about ingredients from joining communities like Reddit’s Skincare Addiction and Asian Beauty and reading high-quality, ingredients-oriented blogs like Snow White and the Asian Pear, Of Faces and Fingers, Ratzilla Cosme, and Skin and Tonics–analytical blogs written by smart cookies who understand ingredients and how they work. I Googled ingredients I saw over and over in my skin care products and figured out which ones my skin responds best to (hint: niacinamide) and which ones it doesn’t care for (mineral oil; no breakouts, but always an oily residue). And I continue to learn. These days, I’m in the habit of Googling just about every unfamiliar ingredient I see in everything I plan to use, including sheet masks, and trying to find sources that are more “scientific study” and less “random blog with naturalistic fallacy and anti-‘chemicalz’ agenda.” I’m not so much looking for triggers as I am aiming to learn about even more ways to improve my skin.
Keep an eye out for buzzword ingredients! Some common buzzword ingredients besides the ones I’ve already covered in my Hype Watch series are:
- Any kind of “special” water: Water from some specific glacier or spring or other source. Water is water. It has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Period. (The exception is micellar water, which is apparently a great makeup remover, but I haven’t yet read much about it.)
- Anything having to do with precious gems or metals. I can’t think of a better way for a luxury brand to make a mediocre cream or serum seem special than by sprinkling in some gold or diamond dust, but your skin doesn’t really care about bling.
- Plant stem cells. Unless you’re some kind of Lovecraftian monstrosity excavated from the Antarctic ice, you’re not plant-based. Plant stem cells are therefore not going to rejuvenate your skin. Lately, skin care companies love the stem cell concept. Not all stem cells will fix human cell function. You know what stem cells fix human cell function? Human stem cells. I’m pretty sure La Prairie hasn’t found a way to harvest and utilize those yet.
Finally, as you embark on your ingredient education and your skin care journey, nothing will help you keep track of all your newfound knowledge and all your product evaluations like a skin care notebook or spreadsheet. I say this in all seriousness: start it now, so you won’t learn things and forget them later, the way I did all through high school.
And that’s it for a starter course! Now dig up some product labels and get Googling!
How much attention do you pay to skin care ingredients? Do you know which ones work best for you?