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Decoding the Jar - Part 2

In Decoding the Jar-Part 1, we talked about some of the ingredients to look for (and look out for) in your skincare products. Today we’ll discuss the difference in ingredient grades and a few steps on how to easily understand the ingredient label to help you when selecting the right product for your skin.

Ingredient Grading: A product’s formulation could contain the same group of ingredients as a product from another line, and in very similar concentrations but deliver very different results. That has to do with grading.

There are five grades of ingredients: pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic, reagent, and technical. Cosmetic grade is the most common (no surprise) in skincare products. These are not as refined (pure) as pharmaceutical grade ingredients. The FDA approves up to 30% impurities in cosmetic-grade ingredients. This is perfectly fine as far as it goes, but if you’re looking for a higher quality product, a pharmaceutical grade is required to be 99.9% pure.

For the most part, products that use pharmaceutical-grade ingredients will say so on the ingredient list (it’s a great benefit for you and good marketing for them). If it’s not listed, you would have to check with the company’s customer service department for information on grading.

Ingredient Lists: Although there are no FDA rules regarding approval for skincare products and their ingredients, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act does give you some protection. It requires the manufacturer to follow certain guidelines on product labels, including listing product ingredients in the order of concentration. All ingredients must be listed by their INCI name (The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients). This assures that product labeling is consistent across the board for everyone regardless of language differences.

Example: The ingredient coconut oil would be listed as “cocos nucifera (coconut oil)”.

The following steps are guidelines to translating any product’s ingredient list:

1. What is the first item (the base ingredient) on the list? In most cases it will be either water or aloe vera (which is a healing agent). Aloe vera is considered a higher grade.

2. What (if any) active ingredients are listed? The closer to the top of the list the ingredient is placed, the higher the concentration in the formula. A product may market that it contains hyaluronic acid, but if the actual ingredient is number 15 on the list, there isn’t a significant amount to deliver any appreciable results. Also, be aware that certain active ingredients (like retinol) may irritate in higher concentrations until the skin adapts.

3. Look for the presence of chemicals like acetone, camphor, menthol, rubbing alcohol, or phenol – you want to avoid these. They’re considered irritants and could cause a variety of reactions including redness, dry/flaky skin, rashes, and sensitivity.

4. Look for pharmaceutical-grade ingredients. They will usually be given a prominent spot on the packaging.

Be careful when researching product ingredients on the internet. There is a lot of misinformation out there and different viewpoints regarding the good, bad, and perceived ugly of a particular ingredient. Search for clinical studies on product formulations and reliable, science-based information.

For example, one of the most controversial ingredients these days are parabens. This is a topic best saved for another post but suffice to say parabens have been villainized since about 2004 when the public began to be bombarded with claims that parabens could cause cancer. Parabens are approved for use in cosmetics by the U.S. FDA, the European Commission, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and other regulatory agencies and have been for over 80 years. But fear around parabens continues, so many skincare manufacturers are throwing the baby out with the bath – forgoing the use of preservatives completely and marketing “preservative-free” formulations.

Why is that concerning? Most skincare products out there contain water. Water means the opportunity for bacteria, mold, and other microorganisms to grow. Which means to have any shelf life at all (or unless the product has no water present) there must be preservation of some kind. And in reality, many products claiming to be preservative free contain preservatives masked with some type of fragrance (remember the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose fragrance or “parfum” ingredients used).

The preservation story deserves much more detail than we have time for in this post. The point is, getting the right product for your skin that does more than smell pretty and feel good requires effort on your part.

But aren’t you and the largest organ in your body worth it? In addition to saving money and a lot of frustration at having a medicine chest full of products that don’t deliver results, you’ll love the satisfaction you get when you find the products that help you put your best face forward.


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