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Decoding the Jar - Part 1

Skincare products can be one of the most attractively packaged items on the store shelf. Once the package grabs your attention, it doesn’t take long to be taken in by the product’s fragrance and texture and get sold. It’s a fact that skincare products are in many cases more about design than its effect on the skin.

This two-part blog will help you protect yourself from purchasing products that aren’t effective (or could cause a harmful effect) and instead choose products with ingredients that will improve your skin condition. The FDA doesn’t currently have any regulation regarding cosmetics (the category used for skincare products) before they are put on the market. Most ingredients in the formulations aren’t regulated either. You need to watch out for you.

Understanding the basics of skincare means you can:

· Stay away from products that contain known irritants, allergens, etc.

· Find products that contain ingredients with science behind them shown to be effective in skincare applications.

· Simplify your skincare regimen and save you money by not buying products that don’t work.

In Part 1, we’ll define the basic components of skincare products. In part 2 we will discuss ingredient grades and translate the ingredient list.


To be safe and effective, skincare formulations should be a balance of ingredients, added at the right time and in the right concentration and quality. Most skincare products are passive, which means that they don’t do much to physically stimulate skin function. This is key if you’re trying to find a product that actually works. Contrary to most skincare marketing claims, products are only effective if they contain the right amount of “active agents.”

Active Skincare Agents: These enhance skin cell repair by stimulating and improving naturally occurring skin functions. Some examples include:

· Alpha hydroxy acids, including glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid

· Amino acids

· Anti-inflammatories, including aloe vera and bisabolol

· Antioxidants, including L-ascorbic acid, alpha lipoic acid, and tocopherol

· Beta hydroxy acids, including salicylic acid

· Lightening agents (kojic acid)

· Ceramides

· Retinoids (vitamin A), including retinol

· Vitamins and vitamin-like substances, including niacinamide and ubiquinone, commonly known as coenzyme Q10

Passive Agents: These make up most of the ingredients in a product and are necessary for helping the active ingredients perform. Actives are blended with passive ingredients to buffer them and to help the product maintains its composition, consistency and help it penetrate the skin.

Ingredient categories found in skincare products include:

The Base or Main Ingredient: The main ingredient of any skincare product, is the delivery for the entire formulation. The base must be able to penetrate the skin to move the other ingredients to where they need to go. Water is the most common base. (You’ll see this as the first ingredient listed on the ingredient label of most skincare products). That said, only a small amount of water gets absorbed into the keratin skin layer. It doesn’t penetrate the layers where skin rejuvenation happens.

(NOTE: One water-like base that does penetrate the skin is aloe vera. An active ingredient, aloe has strong anti-inflammatory properties and helps eliminate symptoms of inflammatory skin conditions like acne, dermatitis, and rosacea.)

Esthetic Additives: Color and fragrance. Fragrances are one of the leading causes of sensitivities from skincare products.

Antioxidants: They protect our cells from free radical damage. The body produces fewer antioxidants as we age, which makes them important in formulations for mature skin. Look for L-ascorbic acid, coenzyme Q10, alpha lipoic acid, and vitamin E.

Biological additives: Derived from a natural source and used to improve how the product looks, feels and smells. Recent studies are showing the potential of these additives to have real benefits to the skin. Examples are extracts that come from flowers, herbs, and fruits as well as collagen and elastin supplements and skincare products.

Physical sunblock: Protection from UV rays by physically covering the skin. This includes zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Emollients: These help lock in moisture and provide a protective barrier to the skin’s surface. They make your skin feel temporarily softer. Examples include: cetyl alcohol, glycerin, panthenol, and dimethicone.

Emulsifiers: These blend water and oil parts of a formulation together (water and oil generally don’t mix). Look for these words: glycereth 20, isopropyl palmitate, and polysorbate.

Exfoliants: Mechanical or chemical, they help dissolve the buildup on the skin surface from dead skin cells and external debris (dirt, environmental pollutants). Some examples are live enzymes (pineapple, papaya, pumpkin), glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic, malic and citric acid. Superfine silica and jojoba beads are present in scrubs.

Humectants: Chemical substances that absorb water. They help prevent moisture loss from the skin surface. They are a must for moisturizers to be effective. Common humectants: propylene glycol, lanolin, sorbitol, urea, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid.

Preservatives: Necessary to prevent bacterial contamination in a product. Look for these names: methylparaben, polyparaben, butylparaben, and phenoxyethanol.

Solvents: Used to obtain the proper consistency of a product. They can dissolve other ingredients or “suspend” them and not change the basic chemical property of the ingredients. Solvents in skincare products include propylene glycol, glycerin, certain oils, and water.

Surfactants: These dissolve dirt, oil, and debris on the skin surface. The most common surfactants are sodium laureth sulfate, sodium stearate, and sodium palmitate.

And remember these basic skincare guidelines:

1. The most effective skincare regimen should be simple.

2. If a product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

3. An effective skincare regimen shouldn’t break the bank.

4. There aren’t any shortcuts to beautiful skin. Part of the journey is a commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

5. Marketing claims and influencers shouldn’t be the guide to your decisions on what products to purchase. Be an educated consumer! Empower yourself by evaluating product claims and with your knowledge of product formulations to find the best ingredients for your skin.


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