Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Skin Care Ingredients Guide

Photo taken from ohio.gov
Skin is an important barrier against harmful entities. It’s our bodies’ first line of defense against diseases. What we apply topically greatly affects the health of our skin. Many cosmetics and skin care products are available in the market. However, some of these might contain chemicals that may give you allergic reactions. Some may even contain harmful ingredients that may enter the bloodstream. Not all claims written in the bottles are true. Most labels are often misleading. A closer look at the ingredients should be the first step to help us choose the right products.

The following is a list of ingredients commonly found in skin care products. You may find the list quite long and difficult to remember. But don't worry, you can always check back later. Just don't forget to bookmark this page so you have something to refer to when you check your favorite products' ingredients. I will keep this page up-to-date for your reference.

List of Skin Care Ingredients

Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are cleansing agents used in personal care products. They help water mix with oil and dirt and are therefore effective ingredients. However, they are known common skin irritants and can cause hair loss and damage to hair follicles, especially to residues that weren’t washed off. However, they are not carcinogenic as opposed to Internet claims. They are declared safe by the FDA and are best when used cautiously, followed by a thorough rinsing.

Alcohol Denat. is the general name used to alcohol added in cosmetic products. Many countries, such as the US, require manufactures to add a denaturant to alcohols added to non-food products to prevent oral ingestion. This gives the bitter taste to the liquid. Alcohol is found in many skin care products for its antifoaming properties. It also serves as a solvent, astringent, and antimicrobial agent. Too much concentration of this substance will lead to dryness and irritation. Products with this substance written on top of the listed ingredients should be avoided.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid or AHA is naturally derived from citrus fruits, apples, pears, sugar cane, and milk. It can also be synthetically made. AHAs are used to remove dead skin cells that can clog pores, as well as reduce the appearance of fine lines, age spots, and large pores. Because of their cosmetic properties, they are commonly found in lotions and creams. They aren't as effective in cleansers because AHAs need to be absorbed in the skin to work. Effectiveness also depends on the type of AHA used, the pH level, and concentration in the product. AHAs may cause mild irritation especially in higher concentrations. They can also slightly increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. It is therefore recommended to use products with at least 10% to 15% AHA gradually until the skin gets used to it. Since AHAs increase sun sensitivity, application of sunscreen is necessary.

Some of the common types of AHAs found in skin care products are glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, citric acid, mixed fruit acid, triple fruit acid, sugar cane extract, alpha hydroxy and botanical complex, L-alpha hdyroxy acid, glycomer, alpha-hydroxyotanoic acid, alpha-hydroxycarprylic acid, and hydroxycaprylic acid.

Ascorbic Acid or better known as Vitamin C is used in skin care products for its antioxidant properties. It helps build collagen, a protein that makes the skin firm. It is also used to control the pH level of the product. It can also be used to prevent the product from deteriorating due to oxygen. Ascorbic Acid is also found in skin care products in the form of salts such as Calcium Ascorbate, Magnesium Ascorbate, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Sodium Ascorbate and Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate.

Beta Hydroxy Acid or BHA, better known as Salicylic Acid, derives from the bark of willow tree. They are used to exfoliate the skin. They are different from AHAs in that BHA dissolves in oil. Because of this property, products with BHAs are suitable exfoliants to oily skin. They effectively penetrate oil-clogged pores to remove dead skin cells.

Botanical Ingredients are ingredients extracted from plants. Plants have a long standing history for cosmetic use. They have a variety of purposes in skin care products. They moisturize, give fragrance, treat skin problems, and hides blemishes.

Butylene Gycol or 1,3-Butanediol is a colorless liquid added to cosmetics and personal care products as a solvent to decrease viscosity. It also acts as a humectant, a type of substance that absorbs moisture in the surrounding air to humidify the skin.

Carbomer is a polymer (a long-chained molecule with repeating units) made up of acrylic acid units. It is used as an emulsifying agent for skin care products. It affects the consistency of the products and is used in gels. It does not cause irritation even at a 100% concentration.


Chemistry Facts: 
Emulsion refers to a mixture of two liquids that do not normally combine. A classic example would be oil and water. These two liquids could be temporarily mixed by stirring them together. Over time, the two liquids will separate, forming two distinct layers. To make their mixture permanent, a third substance should be added. The third substance is called an emulsifying agent. This process is widely used in cosmetic and personal care products to produce gels, creams, and serums. 
Common emulsifiers found in skin care products are: butylene glycol, ceteareth-20, cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate, palmitates, PEG, polysorbates, stearic acid, stearyl alcohol, and trieathanolamine.


Ceteareth is a combination of Cetearyl Alcohol and Etyhlene Oxide. It has many forms, indicated in a form Cetareth-n , where n refers to the number of ethylene oxide attached to the cetearyl alcohol. They are generally used as emulsifiers - to help dissolve ingredients to solvents wherein they won’t normally dissolve, cleansing, and decreasing of viscosity of the product. Some forms, such as Ceteareth-15, are mild irritants. Ceteareths may produce a probable carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane as by-product of its manufacturing process, but could be removed by a step called purification. They shouldn’t be used on damaged skin.

Cetyl, Cetearyl, Myristyl, Isostearyl, Behenyl Alcohols are fatty alcohols that should not be confused with rubbing alcohol. They are used in skin care products to stabilize the ingredients. They are oils used for moisturizing the skin.

Colorants are substances that give color to a skin care product. It makes the product more attractive. Colorants can be derived from natural sources or can be synthetically produced. Manufacturers tend to choose the latter, as such is a cheaper process.

Important Tip: 
Opt for a product that is colorless and fragrance-free.

Copper, Copper Peptide or Copper Gluconate is added to cosmetic products for its antioxidant properties. It promotes collagen and elastin production, two proteins responsible for making the skin firm and elastic. In addition, it also removes dead collagen and elastin found in the skin. It is usually found in anti-aging products.

Dimethicone is a silicone-based polymer that is found in many personal care products including soaps, shampoos, and creams. It is used as a skin protectant and conditioning agent. Dimethicone is used instead of petrolatum for oil-free products. They give a less greasy feel and are noncomedogenic, suitable for acne-prone skin.

Fragrance or Parfum refers to any ingredient, natural or synthetic, that adds an attractive smell to the product. Since this is a collective term that may include any ingredients, a product with this ingredient should be avoided. They may contain irritants.

Hydroquinone is a solid substance added to cosmetic products to inhibit melanin production. It is a common ingredient found in bleaching creams and whitening products. However, it is a misnomer because it does not bleach the skin, but only eliminate skin discoloration. Products with hydroquinone are available over-the-counter.


Iron Oxides are pigments that are added to cosmetics as colorants ranging from yellow, black, orange and red. It is listed as CI 77489, CI 77491, CI 77492, and CI 77499. Iron oxides are naturally occurring compounds but those used in cosmetics are synthetic. However, the raw materials used to synthesize iron oxides may come from the earth, thus its purity is being regulated by FDA.


Glycerin or Glycerol is a substance that can be derived from carbohydrates or propylene. It is found in animal and vegetable fats and oils. When added to skin care products, it serves as a skin protectant and humectant (absorbs moisture from air to humidify skin).

Glyceryl Stearate is used in skin care products for its emollient properties. It slows down the evaporation of water and humidifies the skin. It is also used to stabilize the ingredients in the product. It also reduces the greasiness of the product.

Hyaluronic Acid or Glycosaminoglycan is made up of several sugar units that can be found naturally in the skin. It can hold a large amount of water due to its spherical shape. As the person ages, the amount of hyaluronic acid lessens. When added to skin care products, it can improve dry skin and increase thickness of the product. It can also be injected under the skin to help decrease wrinkles.

Kojic Acid is derived from the fermentation of malting rice. It is the by-product of a manufacturing process of sake, a Japanese wine. When added to skin care products, it can inhibit melanin production of the skin, resulting to a lighter skin tone. Although it has been proven effective when combined with glycolic acid, some researches has shown that this substance may irritate the skin. In addition, it can be unstable when exposed to oxygen, rendering it ineffective. It is due to this reason that many manufacturers use kojic dipalmitate instead, which is a more stable form. However, kojic dipalmitate might not be as effective as kojic acid.

Magnesium Sulfate is a naturally occurring compound also known as Epsom salt. It is used in cosmetics as bulking agent due to it's nonreactivity with other particles.


Mica is a white powder found in rocks. It is used in cosmetics to give a shimmer look. It may also be used to as pigments for coloring of makeup. As mica is found in earth, it contains traces of heavy metals. When used in personal care products, the trace amounts are reduced to safe levels, as regulated by the FDA.


Mineral Oils, also called liquid paraffin, liquid petrolatum, white mineral oil, and white paraffin oil, are produced from the distillation of petroleum. They are added to cosmetic products to moisturize the skin by lubricating and/or trapping the moisture in the skin. It is used for dry skin.

Niacinamide, or Nicotinamide, is a form of Vitamin B3. It is used in skin care product formulations to reduce inflammation and the appearance of a flaky skin, as well as increase the skin's suppleness. Niacinamide is water soluble, noncomedogenic, and has anti-aging properties. It is also an effecting whitening ingredient.

Parabens, in the form of methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isopropyl and isobutylparaben, are added to cosmetics and skin care products as preservatives. Without preservatives, products, especially those containing water, could easily spoil and become the breeding grounds of harmful micro-organisms. This could lead to unsightly discoloration, molding, and malodour of the product. Parabens are considered safe by the scientific community despite the panic caused by the study conducted on animals. High doses of butyl and propylparabens were found to have hormone-disrupting effects that mimic the effects of estrogen. However, actual amount of these parabens are only found in small quantities and is far less potent than the naturally occurring estrogen in the body. (Learn more about parabens)

PEG-4 or Triethylene Glycol is a clear and odorless liquid added to personal care products to reduce their viscosity. They act as solvents and prevent the loss of moisture of the products. They are safe ingredients of personal care products but cannot be used on damaged skin.

PEG Stearate or Polyethylene Glycol Stearate is produced from a naturally occurring fatty acid called stearic acid. They are used as cleansers and moisturizers, commonly found in soaps, skin creams, and shampoos. They also serve as emulsifying agents (a substance that binds ingredients together and makes them stable). There are different forms of PEG Stearates found in personal care products. It is usually followed by a hyphen and a number, in the form of PEG-n Stearate, where refers to the number of monomers attached to the main chain or the molecular weight of the polymer. Some PEG ingredients, such as PEG-100 Stearate, produces 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde as by-products of a manufacturing process called ethoxylation, which are possibly carcinogenic. The level of these by-products are however very low and is therefore concluded safe by the FDA. However, frequent use of products with contamination of these by-products could accumulate in the body over time, thereby proving to be harmful. The risk of these by-products could be controlled by removing them from PEG ingredients through purification before adding them to the cosmetic formulation.

Phenol or Carbolic Acid is a substance used to kill microorganisms. It can be used as a preservative. Phenol is prohibited in Canada and Europe as an ingredient in skin care products. A high concentration of this substance could lead to skin burns. In the US, it is available over-the-counter as antiseptics and drugs for oral health.

Polyethylene is a polymer (a long chain with repeating units) that is used to hold the ingredients together. It also increases the thickness of the product, and can also act as a skin lubricant. It can also from beads that can act as an exfoliator for the skin.

Propylene Gycol, or PPG, is an ingredient commonly found in skin care products due to its moisturizing properties. Propylene Glycol is a form of alcohol that holds water into the skin to keep it supple and hydrated.

Retinyl Palmitate is a combination of Retinol, a form of Vitamin A, and palmitic acid. It is a fat soluble substance that can also be found naturally in plants and animal fats, but is often produced commercially as cosmetic ingredients. Retinyl palmitate is added to skin care products for its antioxidant properties that improve the appearance of dry and damaged skin. It reduces peeling and increases elasticity of the skin. It can react to sunlight and become ineffective, and should therefore be used only at night.

Stearic Acid is a fatty acid derived from animal fats and vegetable oils. It is used in cosmetic products as a lubricant, emulsifier (a substance that binds different ingredients and makes them stable), cleansing agent, emollient (protects moisture in the skin), and adds opacity to color (can be used in makeup to hide blemishes). Stearic acid is naturally found in the outermost layer of the skin to serve as a barrier and protect moisture. Other fatty acids with similar purposes are Oleic Acid, Lauric Acid, Palmitic Acid and Myristic Acid.

Stearate Salt, such as Lithium Stearate, Aluminum Distearate, Aluminum Stearate, Aluminum Tristearate, Ammonium Stearate, Calcium Stearate, Magnesium Stearate, Potassium Stearate, Sodium Stearate, and Zinc Stearate, is a white powder added to skin care products as a lubricant and emulsifier ingredient. It can be obtained commercially from animal or vegetable sources. It may cause minimal irritation, but is considered mild as compared to other surfactants.

Talc, also known as Magnesium Silicate, is a naturally occurring powdery mineral originating from the ground. It is used in cosmetics to absorb excess oil from the skin and to keep the skin dry. However, according to the Ecologist magazine, it may pose hazard when inhaled in excess amounts or when applied near the genital area. So although declared as generally safe by the FDA, some countries such as Canada and European Union require manufacturers of powders intended for children under 3 years to include a precautionary statement to keep the products away from the nose and the mouth. (see a scientific literature review of talc in cosmetics here). Common products with talc are baby powder, makeup such as eye shadow, and deodorizing powder.

Stearyl Alcohol, Oleyl Alcohol and Octyldodecanol are naturally occurring fatty alcohols found in animals and plants. When used in skin care products, they act as lubricants that protect the skin from dryness.

Tocopherol or Vitamin E is added to skin care products for its antioxidant properties. It also serves as a skin conditioner. However, instead of using it in its isolated form, it is usually formed into esters when used in skin care products. Examples of Tocopherol-derived ingredients are Tocophersolan, Tocopheryl Acetate, Tocopheryl Linoleate, Tocopheryl Linoleate/Oleate, Tocopheryl Nicotinate, Tocopheryl Succinate, Dioleyl Tocopheryl Methylsilanol and Potassium Ascorbyl Tocopheryl Phosphate, and Dioleyl Tocopheryl Methylsilanol.

Triclocarbon is a substance used as a preservative and antibacterial ingredient, but unlike Triclosan, it can only kill limited spectrum of bacteria and microbes. It is found mostly in bar soaps.

Triclosan is a substance used as a preservative and antibacterial ingredient. It is often found in deodorant for its antimicrobial properties. It has a broad spectrum antimicrobial property.

Xantham Gum is cream-colored and odourless powder found in cosmetics and skin care products. They are made from the fermentation of corn sugar. They act as emulsifiers that help stabilize the mixture of ingredients. They also add thickness to the liquid. They are safe to use and can also used as food additives.
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