How to Read Skin Care Ingredients

How to Read Skin Care Ingredients

Nobody ever said, “Ah, yes, smoothing a little methylisothiazolinone and butylated hydroxyanisole on my face before bed is absolutely lovely.” 

Sadly, some of the active ingredients in your cosmetics are the exact opposite of lovely.

Like it or not, preservatives are a major additive in most mass-produced cosmetics, taking up as much as 50% of the product’s ingredient list. But that doesn’t mean your sensitive skin should settle for the status quo. 

If you’re suddenly looking at your detox acne masks, creams, and serums and thinking, “I don’t recognize half this stuff,” read on to learn how to read skin care ingredients and demystify your product labels so you can make natural skin care choices that benefit your body and bolster your skin health. 

Common skin care Ingredients

To make healthy skin care choices, it’s essential to translate the active ingredients in skin care on the back of your products. Fortunately, learning to read skin care ingredients lists is as easy as:

  • Knowing what you want to be in your skin care product and why
  • Researching the rest of the stuff that’s also stuffed in there
  • Figuring out if there’s a way to get the stuff you want without all the rest

So, first off, what do you want to be in your skin care products? Here are some common benign or beneficial ingredients that you might find in a natural skin care product to learn how to read cosmetic ingredients:

  • Water Often the first ingredient in a skin care product, water is primarily used as a solvent, dissolving the other ingredients into a solution. However, it can also be used to emulsify the oil into tiny droplets to form creams and lotions.
  • Oils – There are quite a few popular oils for skin care, and they all have slightly different properties, although their main function is usually to moisturize dry dehydrated skin and create a layer of protection. Some facial oils that you have probably already seen and used include argan oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil, rosehip seed oil, and marula oil. Because all oils have different feels, finding the right one for your skin type,  means knowing exactly what heaviness or density of lotion or cream appeals to you and works for your natural skin care routine.
  • Vitamin E (Tocopherol) – A fat-soluble compound, tocopherol is the most widely used form of vitamin E added to skin care products. Tocopherol may act as an antioxidant, meaning it may be able to protect the skin from free radicals, have anti-inflammatory properties, and moisturize the skin. It’s commonly combined with vitamin C for a double-punch of skin care power.
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) – Long associated with a strong immune system, vitamin C can also be an important part of a natural skin care routine. Although it comes in several forms, ascorbic acid is the one associated with stabilizing and creating collagen molecules, acting as an anti-oxidant for UV damage repair, and reducing hyperpigmentation. 
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide) – This vitamin may help increase elasticity, strengthen the skin’s collagen layer, and brighten an uneven skin tone by reducing inflammation and age spots. Also, it can be an effective agent for fighting blemishes due to its anti-inflammatory properties and because it may prevent pimples from developing in the first place.
  • Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) – Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two common AHAs, organic acids that may be used to improve skin texture, reduce dark spots, and exfoliate the skin. However, these beauty product acids can increase sun sensitivity.
  • Hyaluronic acid – A natural substance made in the human body and naturally found in the fluids in the eyes and joints, it acts as a cushion and lubricant In cosmetics, it can be a powerful moisturizing agent in serums, lotions, and creams. Applied topically, it may help improve skin firmness as well as reduce redness associated with dermatitis. It can also be injected into the skin for a deeper treatment.
  • Ceramides – These long-chain lipids occur naturally in the skin, but their production drops with age. Beauty products sometimes contain manufactured ceramides that are identical to those produced naturally.
  • Green tea – High in vitamin C and polyphenols, green tea may be used to reverse sun damage by decreasing the breakdown of skin-vital collagen.
  • Algae extracts – Algae comes in a wide variety of types and extracts, but generally, they’re all thought to benefit the skin with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Also acting as a cleanser and a moisturizer, algae can help improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Some algae may even help to reduce blemishes. 

Deciphering Preservatives

Now take another peek at the ingredient list on your face lotion. After all the things that sound like they’d make a delicious iced tea, chances are there’s a whole string of ingredients that you can’t pronounce or recognize. In all likelihood, these crazy long words are the product’s preservatives. 

Preservatives are all around you—in your foods, your drinks, and, yes, in your cosmetics. But what exactly are preservatives and why are there so many of them?

Put simply, preservatives are anything added to prevent the growth of microorganisms in a product. Preservatives keep a product shelf-stable, meaning it doesn’t need to be kept cool to inhibit contamination. 

Because most cosmetics are made with water and some combination of oils, vitamins, and nutrients, they might easily become a Petrie dish, supporting the growth of:

  • Molds
  • Fungi
  • Bacteria

Microorganisms of all kinds would absolutely thrive in the moisture-rich, nutrient-laden medium of a skin care product. So that’s where preservatives come in. Preservatives work to prevent cellular growth. However, while some preservatives are harmless when absorbed through your skin and into your bloodstream, others are known carcinogens. 

But how do you know which is which? Common carcinogens include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Phenacetin
  • Benzene
  • Ethylene oxide

The truth is you absolutely must become an informed consumer. Don’t simply purchase a skin care product for the ingredients touted on the front of the box. Turn the box over and look at every single ingredient. If you don’t immediately recognize something, research it before putting it on your skin.

Common Cosmetic Preservatives

While the preservatives in your skin care products will depend on the type of product and brand, we’ve outlined four of the most common ingredients to avoid:

  • Parabens – These are a group of man-made chemicals used to prevent the formation of fungi, bacteria, and mold in deodorants, creams, shampoo, and other self-care products. Some research has linked them to breast cancer and misfunction of the reproductive system due to their ability to mimic estrogen. However, the research is not conclusive on these preservatives.
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) – Foaming agents used in cleaners, cleaning products, and even toothpaste, these closely related compounds are not carcinogenic but they can become carcinogenic when mixed with other compounds.
  • Formaldehyde – Called formalin in liquid form, this flammable compound is mainly used as a preservative in nail care products, hair straighteners, shampoos, and makeup. It can be released by quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin, so watch for those in your ingredients as well. This is a known carcinogen.
  • Benzones – A filter that helps preserve cosmetics by preventing degradation by ultraviolet (UV) light, which can damage scents and colors in skin care products.

The All-Natural HPPY Promise

You wouldn’t eat something without knowing its ingredients. By the same logic, you should never put something on your skin if you don’t know what it contains.

At HPPY, we’ve dedicated ourselves to bringing you a new kind of skin care product—one you can feel secure in using day after day, knowing we never use chemical preservatives. 

Our cold-water pressure technology extracts, stabilizes, and sanitizes the cleanest and healthiest ingredients for your skin to create a natural alternative to chemical preservatives. Not only are our skin care products better for your body, but they’re also better for the earth.

If you’re looking to introduce your skin to the world of all-natural preservative-free skin care, shop our Anti-Aging, Clarifying, Calming, and Hydrating masks. Treat your skin to a combination of all-natural, easy-to-read ingredients, including: 

  • Aloe vera
  • Manuka honey
  • Raspberry puree
  • Gluten-free oat flour
  • Papaya
  • Konjac root (glucomanaan)
  • Squalane oil (from olives)
  • Vitamin E oil
  • White willow bark
  • Bakuchiol oil

Treat your skin to HPPY, the natural solution.


Molecules. Cosmetics Preservation: A Review on Present Strategies.

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: A Project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. Preservatives.,cosmetic%20and%20personal%20care%20products.

Michigan State University Center for Research on Ingredient Safety. Preservatives – Keeping our cosmetics safe & fresh.

Safe Cosmetics. Carcinogens in Cosmetics. 

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