Whether it’s a drugstore moisturizer or a $200 eye cream from an upscale spa, the first thing you need to look at for any cosmetic product you buy isn’t the claims or product description—it’s the ingredient list.

Understanding ingredient lists isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone. How can you tell which ingredients are good for you, which aren’t, and what about those long, technical names? We’ve been deciphering these lists for years, and have the tools you need to become cosmetic-ingredient savvy.

Tips for Understanding Ingredient Lists

Every skincare or makeup product should have its full ingredients listed on the packaging. If not listed on the actual tube or jar, it might be on the outer carton (also check for peel-back or “accordion-style” stickers, which are common on makeup products that come in small containers). Regardless, it should be somewhere you can easily find it—you shouldn’t have to dig for the information online or elsewhere.

Once you’ve located the list, the next thing to do is to find out what the ingredients are, and begin to learn about the purpose each serves in the product. Some ingredients, like water, retinol, or glycerin, are easy enough to understand. But what about cetearyl glucoside, tocopherol acetate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and others?

Our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary is a great resource, containing the definitions of hundreds of skincare and makeup ingredients—and you can access it on our website from your mobile device. It includes the technical as well as non-technical names of ingredients, what their purpose is, descriptions of how they work, and research supporting their use in cosmetics. Once you spend some time there, you’ll become familiar with the most common ingredients and be able to identify them quickly.

Perhaps most important is knowing which ingredients can irritate skin. Many makeup and skincare products contain irritants, so stay sharp when looking out for these!

Active Versus Inactive Ingredients

In most cases, ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration—in other words, the ingredients present in the highest concentrations top the list, and so on. Then there’s a group of cosmetics that are considered over-the-counter drugs (like sunscreens and anti-acne products), whose ingredients are listed as “active” or “inactive.”

An active ingredient is one approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to perform a specific function for a specific condition. Examples are titanium dioxide for sun protection, benzoyl peroxide for acne, and hydroquinone for skin lightening. Active ingredients are listed, along with their percentages, a short description of how they work in a product, and how the product that contains them should be applied. “Inactive” ingredients aren’t really inactive per se, as they provide support for the active ingredient or lend cosmetic benefits like hydration.

Note: There’s one aspect of products with active ingredients that can make it a bit tricky to understand exactly how much of each ingredient you’re getting from the product. In the United States, if a label has active ingredients, it’s acceptable to list the inactive ingredients alphabetically, instead of in order of concentration. Not many brands do this, but some do, which makes it more challenging, especially if you’re looking to avoid higher amounts of specific ingredients.

With these tips in mind, you’re now ready to do your own fact-finding to select the products that will do the most good for your skin!

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