Deciphering Labels

ask an expert

Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, October/November 2007.

Q: I’m often confused by the terminology on ingredient labels. Can you offer some pointers?

A: When it comes to deciphering the long list of ingredients on the labels of skin care products, you might feel like you’re reading a different language. Pay close attention to products claiming they are unscented, as unscented doesn’t mean fragrance-free. Unscented products can contain a masking fragrance, in other words, a chemical ingredient that can irritate skin. Avoiding products that contain fragrances is especially important if your clients have sensitive skin because fragrance is the number one cause of contact allergies. If it doesn’t say fragrance-free on the label, make sure to search for the word fragrance on the label. If the word isn’t there, you are in the clear. If your clients are acne prone, you should look for oil-free products, not just non-cosmedogenic. Although non-cosmedogenic products have been tested on people with oily skin, there still is no proof a single product can be completely non-cosmedogenic for everyone. These products may contain oil and therefore have the potential to further clog pores.

Be wary of expensive products containing exclusive micro-algae complex and other esoteric-sounding ingredients. There are no scientific studies showing these ingredients have any real benefit to the skin. This doesn’t mean they don’t have potential to help; it’s just a good idea to be cautious before paying high prices.

The simplest pointer when it comes to decoding labels is to use caution with products with large numbers of ingredients. The more ingredients present, the greater the chance your client will have an allergic reaction to it.