Recently, I walked you through exactly how I evaluate a sunscreen.
Now—by popular request!—I'm going to share some tips on how to evaluate beauty and skincare products in general.
As you might know, I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to ingredients. After all, when you strip away the pretty packaging, pseudoscientific claims and million-dollar ad campaigns, that's really what you're buying.
That's why it's so important to become an informed consumer and be aware of what you're ACTUALLY putting on your skin.
Safety is one thing, but ingredients that truly promote skin health are another. As RMS Beauty founder Rose-Marie Swift told the Vancouver Sun, "You have to remember that the cosmetic companies are making all this shit up... for the shareholders. That is all they are doing. They are not really making women's skin look beautiful."
I know it's becoming increasingly difficult to decipher all the technical terms on labels. So, allow me to walk you through my exact process for checking a product before I buy or apply it.
Here's my step-by-step guide:
Step 1: Consider Where It's Going
Okay, before you take the time to decipher a label, you might want to first consider where the product is going to be applied.
My thinking is:
- Products that I'm only using tiny amounts of, on small areas, aren't worth worrying about. For example, eyeliner, brow gel or mascara. Even lipstick, I'm not too fussed about.
- The same goes for anything I'm washing right off, like cleansers or scrubs, as long as they rinse away clean without residue. (The exception would be if they have sulfates.)
- Body products that stay on the skin, like lotions and oils, are the most important things to have clean ingredients. Because they're going over such a large surface area, you're likely to be using and absorbing a lot of product.
- I'm also very particular about face products, since that's where our skin is most delicate and we get the most UV exposure. This includes not just skincare items but also foundations, under-eye concealers, powders, etc.
Step 2: Ignore the Marketing
My second tip is to ignore all the hype and whatever it says on the front of the packaging.
Unfortunately, beauty marketers will use every trick in the book, such as:
Natural and organic: Of course, I do prefer natural products myself, but keep in mind that the terms "natural" and "organic" are not regulated, and may only refer to one ingredient. (See Health Canada statement here and FDA position here.) Plus, not all plant-derived ingredients are actually beneficial.
SPF numbers: We've talked about SPF numbers often being inaccurate. Longer explanation: The SPF rating process that brands must go through is not very well standardized, and there are many ways the test can be "gamed" to get a higher number (for example, by adding anti-inflammatories). That's why I suggest looking for certain minimum percentages of actives instead.
"Free of": Another popular strategy is to say what the product doesn't contain. You've no doubt seen phrases like "paraben-free" or "sulfate-free." That's all well and good, but it really has no bearing on what else is in there!
Benefit lists: Along the same lines are lists of benefits. Sure, it's expected for brands to call out what's great about their product. But don't let that deter you from doing your due diligence with the ingredients list. The worst is when a brand tries to give the impression of a natural product, but then you realize it's still got the usual mediocre fillers.
Active ingredients only: Since the full ingredients list is only required on the actual product label, I've seen brands disclose just the cool-sounding, active ingredients on their websites or retailers' websites—omitting the rest. If an ingredients list seems too short, they're probably not telling you something! Alternatively, some brands with make their ingredients lists hard to find, such as under a sticker. (The Body Shop is the WORST for that!)
Dermatologist-tested: Having a seal of approval from a dermatologist is pretty meaningless, as there's no standard industry definition of what that entails. The same goes for "clinically proven." Even a plain bland moisturizer can be proven to make wrinkles look better, simply by puffing up the skin with water!
Irrelevant claims: As I've mentioned on Instagram, the one that bothers me the most is when brands call out a benefit that is actually the norm for that type of product. This sleight of hand usually happens with companion products such as shampoos and conditioners. Think: "silicone-free" shampoo and "sulfate-free" conditioner. (Shampoos tend not to contain silicones, and conditioners don't have sulfates!)
So, instead of taking all those claims at face value, I suggest you head straight to the ingredients list on the back to see EXACTLY what's in there.
Even if I love the brand, I wouldn't trust them blindly—I examine every single product on a case by case basis.
Step 3: Look at the First Five Ingredients
The next thing you want to do is zone in on the first five ingredients listed.
Brands are always required to disclose their ingredients in the order of highest to lowest concentration.
As a general rule, the first FIVE ingredients compose most (roughly 80 percent) of the product. So those are the most important ones to check.
I usually look at the first five to 10, to be on the safe side—although some ingredients, like synthetic fragrances, I prefer not to see in formulas at all.
Step 4: Check Ingredient Reference Sites
So now, you're looking at the first five ingredients... but the problem is, you may not be able to identify all of them!
That's because ingredients are required to be listed according to their INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) names.
INCI is a standardized system of names that includes scientific, Latin and English terms. So you'll see "Aqua" instead of water, or "Tocopherol" instead of vitamin E. Unless it's a brand like Paula's Choice that helpfully explains what each thing is in brackets, things can get confusing real fast!
Fortunately, there are a few great websites where you can look things up if you don't know what certain ingredients are:
I use these sites at the first stage of my research, to identify what an ingredient even is, and why it's in a formula.
But I don’t rely on them completely, as I have some differences of opinion about the safety and comedogenicity of certain ingredients.
Step 6: Avoid Problem Ingredients
So what else do I look for? Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the ingredients I personally consider the most important to avoid or be cautious with:
- Synthetic fragrances: They're the number one cause of allergic skin reactions to products, and a catch-all term for hidden chemicals and phthalates (linked to hormone disruption). Look for "fragrance" or "parfum" on the label. Be cautious with "fragrance-free" products, as that often means they added masking chemicals.
- Sulfates: These detergents, found in cleansing products, are so harsh that they strip away the skin's oils and compromise its protective barrier. They can lead to increased dryness and irritation. Look for any words that end in "sulfate," such as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, etc.
- Silicones: These film-formers trap debris in your pores, prevent other ingredients from absorbing, and disrupt the skin's regulatory processes. With continued use, they promote acne and contribute to long-term dehydration. Read more about my opinion of silicones here. Look for words that end in "-cone," "-siloxane" or "-conol."
- Mineral oil: This deodorized form of kerosene (!!) also has an occlusive effect on the skin, which can interrupt cell renewal, aggravate acne and dryness, etc. Also known as petrolatum, liquid petroleum, paraffin oil or paraffinum liquidum.
- Polyunsaturated oils (PUFAs): These are oils that contain multiple double bonds in their fatty acid chains, which makes them inherently unstable and susceptible to free radical attack. Exposure to oxygen and heat causes them to rapidly oxidize, which is pro-aging. Some of the most common ones include sunflower, safflower, soybean, rose hip, grape seed and sesame oils. In general, I try to avoid any oil with more than about 10 percent PUFA content.
- Chemical sunscreens: Compared to zinc oxide, ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate offer inferior protection and are associated with hormone disruption and cell damage. Read more about what's wrong with chemical sunscreens here and learn how to choose a good sunscreen here.
- Parabens: We'll all heard of the preservatives known as parabens, but did you know that the reason to avoid them is because they mimic estrogen? Look for any words ending in "-paraben." Note: Many manufacturers have now replaced them with phenoxyethanol, which may be safer but can be irritating.
- Low molecular weight hyaluronic acid: I know hylauronic acid is a hot ingredient right now, but I've never been sold on it. Even more worrisome is the recent trend toward using fragmented forms, which are linked to inflammation and scarring. No matter what Deciem says, I'd be cautious!
- Formaldehyde releasers: Yep, there are preservatives that actually leach formaldehyde, and are linked to allergic reactions and endocrine disruption. They may even be carcinogenic! EWG suggests avoiding formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, bromopol and glyoxal.
Keep in Mind
We live in an imperfect world and most products DON'T tick off all these boxes.
If you find ones that do, great! But sometimes you have to make a judgement call and compromise on certain ingredients until something better comes along.
But I still think it's one of the best retinol options we have at the moment—along with The Ordinary's new and improved Retinoids and Retinols in Squalane. (See my review here.) Some people can't handle squalane, so their best bets would be Shani's formula, or CyberDerm's Retin+Erase.
So this ingredient stuff isn't black and white—things change as new launches and new information become available. I get a lot of emails asking "Why did you recommend ________ when it contains ________?" But I'm not a purist. Especially with actives, there are always different variables to consider:
- Your skincare priorities
- What your skin can tolerate
- What you can afford
- Whether there's anything else like it on the market
- What is easiest to get hold of
- How much of the "problem" ingredient is in there
My job is to give you options... all I ask is that you make informed decisions!
I hope this gives you some clarity on ingredients.
Whether you're shopping for something new or going through your own product stash, it's great to get in the habit of checking those labels.
Then, as you finish things and need to replace them, try to make healthier (as in skin-healthier!) choices.
I mean, we can all appreciate a clever marketing spin—but nothing brings you back to reality faster than the realization that it's the same old overpriced petrochemicals!
Remember, if you'd like to stay up to date on what I'm currently using and recommending, make sure to get on my email list. First, you'll get Better Skin in 7, my free introductory course. After that, you'll get my newsletter every week or so. My subscribers are always the FIRST to know about the products that meet my criteria!
In the meantime, I'd love to know:
What's your process for checking ingredients?
What do you consider the most important ingredient to avoid?