How to Read Skin Care Ingredients

Ask a friend what they love most about their favorite skin care product and you'll hear everything from “it feels great on my skin” and “I love the smell” to “It helps to minimize fine lines” and “my skin looks better when I use it.” These answers speak to the art that is skin care product formulation. Through a delicate balance of ingredients, skin care chemists create products that cleanse, moisturize, lighten, protect, and/or fight the signs of aging, with features such as pleasing consistency and pleasant fragrance - characteristics that appeal to customers’ senses. While there are thousands of ingredients available to product formulators, each of them fits into one (or both) of two categories – those that are “functional” and those that are “active."

Stick with us for a few moments and we'll explain the differences among some of the more common categories of skin care ingredients. By understanding the basic composition of a skin care product and gaining a better knowledge of how to read skin care ingredients on the label, you'll be better positioned to make smarter skin care buying decisions.   

Ingredient Categories

Active Ingredients

Any skin care product that stimulates or enhances skin function and/or structure must include active ingredients. Examples include hydroxy acids used in anti-aging and exfoliation products, such as glycolic acid; tretinoin or benzoyl peroxide found in acne products; polysaccharides in moisturizers; hyaluronic acid or kojic acid in skin lighteners; and antioxidants found in a wide variety of skin care products. There are hundreds of active or "performance" ingredients available to skin care formulators.

Active ingredients are not necessary in all skin care products. Take, for example, facial cleansers. While a good number of cleansers include active ingredients like salicylic acid or antioxidants, many of them are simply designed to cleanse dirt and excess oil from the skin and, therefore, don’t require the use of actives.

Functional Ingredients

Functional ingredients determine a product’s form (e.g. gel, cream, serum, etc.) and aid the performance of active ingredients by helping to deliver them into the skin tissue. You can add the very best active ingredients to a formulation, but they’re worthless unless the vehicle is optimized to allow them to blend onto, or penetrate into the skin.

In the functional ingredients category, there are several sub-categories, including:

  • Base - Imagine a glass filled nearly to the top with liquid. This is what a skin care product base is like. It’s the main ingredient in the product, with all other ingredients being added in just drops. Given its prevalence in a formulation, you can understand why the quality of the base is important. Nearly all skin care products use a base of water. Lexli is different in that all of our products use a base of  organic, pharmaceutical-grade aloe vera. Not only is aloe clinically proven to benefit the skin, it can also penetrate skin tissue – something water cannot do.
  • Emollients - Used to help improve the spreading ability of a product, emollients also form a protective layer over the skin, which helps the skin to hold in moisture. For that reason, they’re commonly used in moisturizers. Examples include lanolin, cetyl alcohol (not a traditional “alcohol”) and petrolatum.
  • Emulsifying Agents - Emulsifiers bind water-soluble and oil-soluble components of a formulation, thus, preventing a product from separating. Also referred to as “thickeners,” examples include glycereth 20, carbomer, isopropyl palmitate and polysorbate.
  • Fragrances - There are two reasons for using fragrance in a skin care product. The first is to make the product more attractive to consumers; it’s part of the psychology of marketing. The other reason is to mask the unattractive odor that accompanies some of the other ingredients in a skin care formulation.
  • Humectants - Chemical substances that can absorb more than their molecular weight in water, humectants aid in the prevention of water loss from the surface of the skin. The more humectants in a moisturizer, the heavier it will be. Examples include propylene glycol, glycerin, mineral oil and urea.
  • Preservatives - Preservatives are natural or synthetic substances used in skin care products to prevent microbial growth and product decomposition. Examples include methylparaben, isobutylparaben, DMDM hydantoin, and quaternium-15.
  • Surfactants - Surfactants are generally used in cleansers to lift oil and dirt away from the skin. Because their role is to reduce the surface tension of a liquid, surfactants can also be used to improve the spreading ability of a product. Examples include sodium stearate, steareth-20, and PEG-100 stearate.

Beyond understanding the role of ingredients in a product formulation, there are other factors to be mindful of when selecting skin care products:

Ingredient Concentration:

Adding too much of an active ingredient to a formulation can often be harmful, as some of these ingredients can cause irritation or result in other negative side effects. On the other hand, if a product contains too little of an active ingredient, you, as the consumer, will never see a benefit. Despite that, companies can still highlight the ingredient in its marketing efforts and feature the ingredient prominently on the product label.

Ingredient Quality:

Simply having an ingredient in a product says nothing about its quality. Product ingredients fall into one of five quality grades. In descending order of purity, they are: pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic, reagent and technical. Most over-the-counter cosmetics utilize cosmetic-grade ingredients. While this is still a reasonably high quality, cosmetic-grade ingredients contain allowable impurities. Pharmaceutical-grade ingredients, however, which are used in drugs, many cosmeceuticals, and some over-the-counter skin care products, have the highest level of purity (99.9% pure) and contain higher levels of the components that encourage cellular repair.


Most active ingredients become unstable over time. This is why skin care products have an expiration date. This instability may be further exacerbated by exposure to light and improper temperatures. Therefore, most manufacturers take care to package products in containers that protect the formulation as much as possible.

Formulations may also be compromised by chemical reactions among ingredients. When this is an issue, ingredients are often encapsulated before being added to the formulation. Those of you who use  Lexli AloeGlyC are familiar with encapsulation. The blue beads found in that product contain l-ascorbic acid, an antioxidant that would break down if it sat amongst the glycolic acid in the formulation.

So how should you use this information when shopping for a skin care product?

First, let us tell you what not to do.

Don’t look at the front of the label or the box, which contains marketing content. Also, don’t just test the product on your skin. Doing so may lead you to purchase based on the fragrance or the fact that it feels silky on your skin. Instead, go to the ingredient label.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) via the  Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires manufacturers to follow specific criteria when developing product labels. For starters, all product ingredients must be listed in order of concentration. Additionally, all ingredients must be listed by their INCI name, that is, the scientific term for each ingredient. For example, INCI takes a simple ingredient like shea butter and requires it be listed as Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter). While this may seem to make labels more difficult to read, it actually ensures that labels read consistently across brands, languages and cultures.

While the label will not help you determine the exact quantity of the active/performance ingredients present in the formulation, you can make a determination based on its rank in the ingredient list. The label will also allow you to determine if a high-quality base is present. (Just look at the first ingredient on the label. That’s your base.) Most manufacturers that utilize pharmaceutical-grade ingredients will highlight this fact on the label. Finally, look for an expiration date and any storage instructions so you can extend the product’s shelf life as much as possible.

Simple Skincare, Beautiful Skin: A Back-to-Basics Approach Book

Interested in learning more? Download your free copy of the skin care ebook written by Lexli founder and lead product formulator, Dr. Ahmed Abdullah!

If your skin had a user's manual, this would be it! Get the ebook that simplifies skin care and outlines the key practices that optimize your skin's health.

Get your copy!