Whether you’re just getting into skincare or want to update your current routine, figuring out which products you should use can be tricky. Even trickier is learning how to read a skincare label and interpret what each ingredient listed can do for your skin – especially when it comes to those long, complicated names that you can barely pronounce, let alone understand.

But we’re here to help. Read as we explain everything you need to know about skincare labels and how to decipher them, so you can spend your money wisely on your way towards glowing skin.

Ingredient order

“It is important to consider the order in which ingredients are listed to discern whether an active ingredient is in an amount to exert benefit or purely label claim,” says Dr Prasanthi, a GP at Software.

“Ingredients are listed in descending order from greatest amount to least amount up to 1%. From here, ingredients with less than a concentration of 1% can be listed in any order,” she explains.

“This could include emulsifiers or texture enhancers that give the product its feel and preservatives to prevent the product from going off. But if you see a really good ingredient at the bottom, you then know it is in less than 1% concentration and unlikely to exert the benefits you want.”

Ingredient scientific names

“Ingredients are usually listed by their international nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients (INCI, for short) and this is often followed by their common name in brackets,” Dr Prasanthi explains.

“For example, if you bought a Vitamin C serum, you may see the term L-Ascorbic Acid, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate or Ascorbyl Palmitate, which is the INCI name, followed sometimes by ‘Vitamin C’ in brackets.”

This can be quite confusing, especially if you don’t know the scientific names of the ingredients you’re looking for.

Of course, there are thousands of ingredients that can be used in skincare, so we can’t list them all in one single article. But to make your life a little easier, here are some popular ingredients that often go by their scientific name:

  • Ascorbic acid. A form of vitamin C, which can repair photoaged skin and increase collagen production.
  • Alcohol. A bit of a controversial skincare ingredient – some people avoid it altogether, others don’t mind so much. Fatty alcohols like cetyl and stearyl alcohol help moisturise the skin, while denatured and isopropyl alcohol can have the opposite effect.
  • Benzoyl peroxide. A powerful ingredient that kills bacteria and helps to treat (and prevent) acne, whiteheads and blackheads, though it can be drying on the skin.
  • Beta hydroxy acid. More commonly known as salicylic acid, this is a gentle ingredient often used to treat acne along with benzoyl peroxide.
  • Parabens. Another controversial ingredient, with some studies showing that parabens have endocrine disruption effects in animals (although effects on humans haven’t been studied conclusively). They’re approved for use in Australia, but if you’d like to avoid them, look out for any ingredient ending in -paraben.
  • Retinol. A strong (and quite popular) ingredient that can reduce acne, fine lines and wrinkles. It can also be referred to as retinaldehyde in ingredient lists.
  • SLS. Commonly used in soaps, shampoos, and cleansers that strip oil from the skin, SLS is another ingredient that gets mixed reviews. Some enjoy its cleansing properties, while others find it irritating (particularly those with sensitive skin).
  • Tocopherol. A form of Vitamin E, which can have antioxidant effects and help the skin retain moisture.
  • Zinc oxide. A UV filter frequently used in sunscreen, which helps protect from UVA and UVB rays, control excess oil, heal wounds, and treat acne.

Open jar symbol and expiration date

All skincare has both a period after opening and an expiration date. You want to be aware of both to make sure every product you use is working for, and not against your skin.

6 month period after opening“The open jar symbol is important to look at to understand how long a product is safe to use from a stability standpoint before you should throw it out. Some will say 3M for 3 months, others 6M-12M.”

In other words, a serum that has a ‘3M’ symbol on its label will be good to use for 3 months after it’s been opened, a moisturiser that says ‘6M’ will be good for 6 months, and so on.

“This is different from the expiration date, which is how long an unopened jar or packaging can last on shelves and will be printed next to a batch number on the label,” Dr Prasanthi adds.

Certification symbols

“Lastly, if you are looking for cruelty-free or vegan products, or other excipients – like parabens or sulphates – you will sometimes see these listed on the label also.”

Interpreting a skincare label may seem overwhelming at first, but if you want to achieve the best possible results from your routine, learning the basics can go a long way. Keep Dr Prasanthi’s tips in mind next time you go skincare shopping and find the best-suited products for your specific skin type, needs, and concerns.