InWithSkin

Decoding Product Labels

With all of the complex ingredients listed on beauty products today, one often feels they have to be a chemist to know what we’re putting on our skin. The key is in cracking the ingredients list, a feat often easier said than done. These lists can be difficult to decipher – what with the rolling microscopic text, the long chemical names and, of course, the Latin! In some cases ingredients lists are intentionally off-putting. Dr. Michael Tick is a Naples, Florida biochemist, laboratory director for The Institute for Skin Sciences and founder of Edimi, a line of natural skincare and body care products sold at luxury spas and salons around the world. Dr. Tick understands that most women purchasing beauty products are not chemists and wants to help the everyday “beauty gal” know exactly what they are buying without having to understand Latin!  

Dr. Tick states that, “Understandably, to protect their formulas, skin care companies don’t reveal the exact percentage of each ingredient in their products. However, you can find some clues by reading the ingredient label. The FDA requires that skin care ingredients on the product label be listed in the order of highest to lowest concentration.  For example, if hyaluronic acid is the fifth item in the ingredient list for a moisturizer, it is the fifth most concentrated ingredient in the product. You want to be certain that the active ingredients – the ones you are paying for to improve your skin – are listed near the beginning of the list. Ingredients listed near the end of the list product typically comprise less than one percent of the total and if so, can be listed in any order.”

The following are some tips from Dr. Tick:

1. Read from Top to Bottom

Ingredients are always listed in proportional order with highest quantities at the top of the list.

So if an ingredient you don’t like the sound of features somewhere in the top half, it’s probably best to leave that product on the shelf.

2. Understand your ingredients

The Cosmetics Safety Database is a useful tool for getting to know your ingredients.

It’s an online directory of cosmetic ingredients that gives each a toxicity hazard score  (0 being least harmful and 10 being most harmful).

3. Know your Organic Kitemarks

Not all organic standards are equal.

Look for the Soil Association or USDA kitemarks as these demand the cleanest ingredients – with 70% of their non-water ingredients having to be organically grown, harvested and extracted.

Standards such as ECOCERT allow companies to use as little as 10% organic ingredients in products that carry their ‘organic’ kitemark.

4. Seek out Organic Stars

A product claiming to be organic should have its organic ingredients clearly marked, usually with a star ‘*’.If 70% of its non-water ingredients are organic then you’ll expect to see quite a few stars. If there are just a couple then you’ll know that its organic credentials are, at best, tenuous.

5. Know your irritants

Customers don’t just want to know that their products are organic; they want to ensure they are sensitive skin friendly too. The following ingredients tend to be most irritating. This is by no means an exhaustive list and everyone’s skin is different, so it’s important to isolate your personal triggers:

I. Detergents – Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine

II. Preservatives – Benzyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol and Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate.

III. Fragrance – ‘Parfum’ the term can signify artificial fragrance which is a bad irritant. With natural essential oils – care must always be taken as in high dosages they can be irritating. Some, such as lemongrass, are irritating even at concentrations as low as 0.1%.

If you know you are allergic to a specific ingredient, it helps reading the list before buying.  If you don’t know what you are allergic to, do a patch test before using the product regularly. Verify what the product claims to do and know why you are paying money. Is it really worth it? Or can you get the same for less?

Quickly read what the product claims to do and find the ingredients that are in the description. In general, the list starts with the most concentrated ingredient and ends with the least concentrated one. With some exceptions:

•Active ingredients may be in a separate list.

•If an ingredient is classified as a drug, it will be listed before everything else.

•Color and fragrance are often listed last.

•When the concentration is below 1%, the ingredients might be listed in no particular order.

Should we believe what the product claims to do when the good ingredients are at the bottom of the list? It may be a good cleanser, but you are probably paying too much for it.

Here are some potentially harmful ingredients to watch for:

Paraben

This is also known as Methylparaben, Propylparaben, IIsoparaben, Butylparaben, and Ethylparaben. Parabens are a group of chemicals widely used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. They have been linked to possible carcinogenicity, as well as an estrogenic effect from being exposed to the continued use of parabens as preservatives.  Parabens are used in over the counter personal products as a preservative to extend the shelf life of the product. These chemicals can be found in face, body moisturizers, body wash, and cleansers.

Phthalates

A truly toxic skin care ingredient.  Dibutylphthalate (DBP, DEP, also butyl ester) helps skin care absorb into skin. DEHP has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the EPA. The Department of Health and Human Services has also classified DEHP as a potential carcinogen. Dr. Tick points out that, “skin care that may take longer to absorb is preferable to a product that absorbs rapidly, while injecting phthalates into our skin cells. Do not use it.” However, there are a few natural ingredients, herbs and botanicals that do help with faster absorption without causing undue stress to the skin or the body.

You also want to look at the total number of unique ingredients in a product.  Products with an extensive number of skin care ingredients (more than 15-20), probably contain fillers.  Basic arithmetic will tell you that products with a large number of ingredients have lower concentrations of any given active ingredient.

Since government regulations are inconsistent (and, in this case, relatively nonexistent), it’s ultimately up to consumers to make the call as to when a product has expired. Luckily, the basics of determining this are somewhat intuitive. If a product seems unusually discolored, runny or lumpy, has separated, has a strange odor, or feels different on the skin, then it should absolutely be thrown away. Packaging that has expanded or has signs of deterioration is definitely a warning that something is wrong inside. A product doesn’t have to be old to have gone bad or have been exposed to bacteria, so you should always pay attention to how your products are holding up every time you use them.

Making Your Products Last

Here are some easy tips for prolonging the shelf life of your products, while keeping your skin and body as healthy as possible:

•DO store products in a cabinet or drawer

DO store products in air conditioned homes or even refrigerators in hot climates

•DO wash your hands before using products

•DO tighten/secure the cap after each use

•DO consider how climate and humidity will shorten a product’s shelf life

•DO write the date of purchase in permanent ink (use a Sharpie) on the bottom or back of the package

•DO toss out eye products after you’ve had an eye infection

•DO abide by the expiration dates on sunscreens, acne products, and prescription medications such as topical antibiotics and Renova or Retin-A

•DON’T buy products packaged in jars of any kind (no matter how pretty they are!) because fingers getting into jars add unwanted bacteria to the contents. Most jar packaging carries a 100% risk of bacterial contamination.

•DON’T store products in direct sunlight

•DON’T share your products with others

•DON’T add water or saliva to thin out or remoisten products

•DON’T “pump” your mascara

•DON’T purchase products with broken seals or other signs of tampering

Now that you have bought the products, know when to toss them!

Dr. Tick offers that, “As a rule, products that contain water as one of the first ingredients have the shortest shelf life after opening because water encourages the growth of bacteria and other microbes. Also susceptible to bacterial contamination are products that are mostly waxes with minimal water, but that also contain plant extracts. Think about how long produce lasts in your refrigerator—not very long! Products made up of almost no water (such as powders) last the longest, because almost nothing can grow in these kinds of products. Lastly, if your product is labeled “preservative-free” you should definitely take extra caution, because without some kind of preservative system bacteria can flourish easily.”

Though products vary greatly, as do the conditions of consumer usage and storage, the following is a helpful guide for assessing what needs to go or how long it has left:

1.Mascara, liquid or gel eyeliners: 4 to 6 months (always toss out dry mascara—never add water to extend its life)

2. Moisturizers, Serums, & Foundations: 6 months to 1 year

3.Powder-based products: 2-3 years

4.Lipsticks, Lip Gloss, & Lip Pencils: 2-3 years

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