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How Do You Estimate the Amount of an Ingredient in a Skin Care or Beauty Product?

Posted Feb 08 2012 2:33pm

Dear Nicki,

How do you estimate the amount of an ingredient in a product?  I would love to be able to make this type of calculation on the fly as clients, especially new arrivals, are always bringing me their products to screen.  

-Christine of a Skin Care Company

Dear Christine,

The list of ingredients on the label for any skin care product must conform to the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) standard.  This requirement is from the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the FDA, which mandates that any skin care or cosmetic product provide a list of ingredients in a particular format on the label of each product.  Here are six essential facts the consumer must understand in order to properly estimate the amount of an ingredient in a skin care or beauty product:

1.  On the label, ingredients will be listed in the order of highest to lowest concentration.

Listings begin with the ingredient present in the largest concentration and move downward to often times trace elements. The vehicle is the element present in the highest concentration.  It is responsible to carry the other ingredients, creating the actual suspension.  So just because water may comprise most of many products, it is usually for good reason.

2.  Active ingredients may be listed separately on the label, but this does not mean they are in highest concentration.

Many times the actual active ingredient(s) may be listed by itself. This ingredient is what does the actual work in a product. That does not mean it is the ingredient present in the highest concentration, but rather, the INCI dictates that the company list the active ingredient in this way.  Examples include sunscreens and concentrations 1% or above of dimethicone (a silicone used in many moisturizers).

3.  Use common product ingredients as “markers” to estimate the amounts of the other ingredients.

Once you know the ingredients are listed from highest concentration to lowest concentration, there are a few ingredients you can use as “markers” to estimate the concentrations of the rest.  For instance:

  • If water is the first ingredient on the label, it is likely that 75-95% of the product is comprised of water.
  • Fragrance is usually anywhere between .50 and 3% of the product.  So any ingredient listed after fragrance is present in a concentration typically less than 3%.
  • Vitamin C, unless otherwise listed on the label, is typically less than 1% of the product.  Vitamin C creams tend to oxidize when exposed to light, heat, or air, so many companies will try to negate this effect by keeping vitamin C concentrations accordingly low.
  • Unless otherwise listed, most products will contain 0.025% or less retinol.  The weaker retinyl palmitate may be in higher concentration.
  • Buffers, such as EDTA, are usually present in less than 1% of the product.
4.  Any ingredient that is 1% or less of the product can be listed in any order.

Any ingredient present under 1% concentration may be listed in any order as long as it is listed after all of the other ingredients present at or above 1%. This means that a product may contain 0.00001% vitamin C and 1% EDTA, but vitamin C may be listed above EDTA on the label!

Another problem with this is that there is no guideline to disclose where the 1% cut off exists on the label!  The best idea is to search for “marker” ingredients like vitamin C or EDTA in order to try to ascertain where the 1% grouping generally occurs on the label, though this method is not foolproof.

5.  Consider how many ingredients are in the product.

It is also important to determine the number of unique ingredients in the list.  If you find a product with a lengthy list of ingredients (more than 20-25), it is very likely they contain extenders, fillers and bulking agents.

6.  Know ingredients can come in multiple forms, and a higher concentration of a weaker form does not mean you will get greater results.

There are some ingredients that can come in multiple forms. An example of this is Vitamin A that can be used in a product as retinal, retinol, or retinyl palmitate).  Many companies will claim a cream has a high concentration of vitamin A, but if it is retinyl palmitate, this is a form that is bound to a fatty acid.  What’s more, retinol or retinyl palmitate must first be converted into the active form in the skin through a process known as esterification, making it considerably weaker than prescription retinoids.

This is just one example of how similar-sounding names in skin care products can be confusing to the consumer.  Vitamin C also comes in different forms, of which L-ascorbic acid is the strongest but most unstable and available up to 15% over-the-counter, and forms like tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate are weaker but more stable and only available up to 2% over the counter.  Here, clearly, I prefer L-ascorbic acid, but there are also instances in which the weaker form is available in higher concentrations.  For this reason, in general, you cannot guarantee better results from a higher concentration of a weaker form of an ingredient.    

7.  Sometimes different names for an ingredient mean the same form.

To confuse matters further, there are two names for a product;  the INCI name and the commonly recognized name. For example: orange peel oil, which is also known as Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Peel Oil.  Many of the larger companies will now list ingredients with both names, in such format as Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil, but be careful. This is especially important for those with allergies; for instance, those allergic to carmine must know to avoid both carmine (common name) and INCI 75470 (INCI coloring number).

8.  Sometimes you may not be able to estimate concentrations altogether.

Secret or patented formulas do not have to show what the makeup of active ingredients is to the consumer.  Instead, they are required to submit an FDA application that lists the alias they use on the label in the place of naming the exact ingredients.  The Peter Thomas Roth company does this a lot; while I find excellent results from many of their products, their inclusion of trademarked items like 15% Dragon’s Blood SerumTM turns out to be (from my best estimate) only about 1-2% dragon’s blood and the rest other antioxidants, hydrators, and fillers.  So be careful.

Bottom Line

You can’t be “too” smart whenever it comes to estimating the products in your skin care or beauty products.  WIthout a chemistry degree, your best bet is to follow the eight tips above, and keep tuning into beauty blogs like this one to find out the science behind your favorite products.  :-)

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