Skincare is a wild west. For the most part, companies are allowed to "claim" virtually anything they want when it comes to the effects of their skincare products. Unlike pharmaceutical companies, skincare companies are not subject to rigorous testing and proof that a drug is effective. For decades, dishonest skincare companies have been creating skincare products and claiming virtually anything. As a consumer, it's hard to tell which skincare products are legitimate and which ones are only saying things for marketing purposes. So here are some essential things you should know about skincare products.
#1 Skincare companies can claim an ingredient even if the product doesn't have an active amount that will actually have this effect.
It's literally all about marketing. There is no regulation when it comes to claims on the front of a skincare product. So what does this mean? Let's say a skincare company "claims" that there is aloe in their moisturizer. Legally, they can create a whole pool worth of moisturizer and add one drop of aloe. They can then proceed to claim in large font at the front of their product that the moisturizer contains aloe. This means that while technically the product does contain "aloe," your skin wouldn't benefit from any of the effects aloe can have on your skin. So when a company claims that their product has shea butter, cocoa butter, or any other ingredient. It could literally just be one tiny drop, with no effect at all.
#2 Legally, skincare companies are required to list ingredients ABOVE 1.0% concentration from the highest to the lowest on their ingredient list.
What companies are legally required to do is to list out skincare ingredients by concentration if they are above 1.0%. So how can this help you become a more informed consumer?
My rule of thumb is to look at the first dozen or so ingredients of a list as they likely comprise 95 to 99% of the composition. Now when it comes to skincare ingredients, even a small percentage of an ingredient can have a significant effect. 1.0 or 2.0% Salicylic Acid, an ingredient that helps shed dead skin, is plenty effective, so don't be concerned if the ingredient they claim on the front isn't the first ingredient.
If you ever look at an ingredient list of most products, the first ingredient will usually be water. Just like how water makes up 70 to 80% of your body, water makes up the majority of most skincare products. However, there is a caveat to the order of ingredient lists in the back.
#3 Skincare companies are allowed to list any ingredient below 1.0% concentration in any order they want.
With ingredients that are less than 1.0% concentration, skincare companies can reorder the list. This gives the opportunity for companies to move up that "cocoa butter" they put in at 0.01% concentration and push it ahead of other ingredients - even ones with 0.9% concentration. So how can you tell if a skincare company has moved its ingredients around? It's definitely harder, but one thing I like to watch out for is the preservatives. Some examples are phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, and ones listed here. These ingredients are often between the 0.2% to 0.5% concentration and usually fall in the mid to lower-middle part of the list. If you notice that, instead, these preservatives are listed in the end. That means that the skincare company most likely altered the list to move up its "claimed" ingredient.
So how can I use this knowledge to my advantage?
Get a sense of whether the brand is being truthful or just using ingredients as a marketing claim. Not each sense check is perfect, but if you start noticing that the ingredient they claim isn't near the front of the ingredient list and the preservatives are near the bottom, those are some warning flags. Most of all, if the product doesn't seem to have the same effects as other skincare products you've tried that claim that ingredient, then it's most likely just marketing that ingredient without the real effects.
Reading ingredients isn't easy. Regulations around skincare are lax, and companies are not required to release their formulations, but it doesn't hurt to know how to do some easy sense checks. Checking the positioning of ingredients on a list is not perfect, but it is a simple way to become a more informed consumer.