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How to Read an Ingredient Label

If you want to be a more informed skincare shopper, the first step you can take is to read your products’ ingredient lists. The only problem with that is ingredient labels are hard to read. They’re basically intricate codes that we non-chemists are tasked with deciphering—not the easiest of tasks…

So let’s start at with the basics: The first thing you should know is that ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. “The highest percentages are always listed first,” says Kerry Benjamin, esthetician, skin expert, and founder of StackedSkincare. It’s normal to see water up top—the active ingredients need a base. “Typically, the preservatives are listed last, being the smallest percentage of the total formula,” she explains. Unlike in the food industry, preservatives in skincare aren’t bad. In fact, they’re necessary if you want your products to work for more than a couple weeks, but there are some unsafe preservatives to avoid.

On that note, it’s a good time for a reminder that there’s no need to be alarmed by long, scary-sounding ingredients. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate, for example, is just the formal name for vitamin C. When looking for the active ingredients in Versed ingredient lists, check out the Ingredients tab on the product detail page. We list the formal names alongside the common names there.

While it’s probably not feasible to go over every single ingredient in every single skincare product (at least not in one article), it is feasible to talk about the most common red flags. Keep scrolling to learn tips on what to your eye out for (and rest assured you won’t find any of these in Versed products).


Ingredients to Avoid

Parabens: “Paraben-free skincare” is a phrase you’ve likely seen a lot as of late. That’s because parabens are widely acknowledged as being harmful. But let’s back up first. Parabens make up a category of preservatives. The purpose of preservatives is to do just that—preserve a product’s freshness and potency. “The common preservatives used [in skincare] are phenoxyethanol and ethylhexylglycerin,” Benjamin says. “Vitamin E is also a great natural preservative.”

The only kinds of preservatives that Benjamin recommends straying from are parabens, which may have prefixes such as methyl, ethyl, propyl, or butyl. “These are preservatives that some studies say can cause cancer, which is now a widespread belief, and most well-known reputable brands have moved away from parabens.”

Formaldehyde: This is a specific type of preservative that is found in certain skincare products. According to the Environmental Working Group, it’s a possible carcinogen. Notably, it won’t always be listed as “formaldehyde.” It can also go by such names as imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, bronopol, and 5-bromo-5-nitro-1, d-dioxane.

Sulfates: These are widely regarded as one of the most aggressive ingredients in beauty products. This ingredient category, which includes sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate, are cleansing agents that can strip and irritate the skin.  

Fragrance: “These can be very irritating and cause a reaction and inflammation,” Benjamin says. When you see “fragrance” on an ingredient label there could be dozen, hundreds, or even thousands of chemicals making up that one ingredient. That’s because brands are not required to disclose fragrance ingredients because fragrances are considered trade secrets.  

Phthalates: These are ingredients added to skincare products to moisturize and soften the skin as well as dissolve certain ingredients. The most common one is called DEP (diethyl phthalate), and it’s widely acknowledged as having the potential to damage certain organs in the body.

Silicone: This ingredient is added to skincare products in order to smooth the texture of the skin. One of the most common being dimethicone. It forms a barrier across the skin that can trap moisture, but can also lead to congested pores and breakouts. While not necessarily harmful, it’s not ideal for people with oily or acne-prone skin.

Be sure to also read up on the difference between natural, organic, and clean skincare.