Cosmetic Ingredients Explained
You know those tiny words on the back of your skincare bottles?
Written by Carlyn
In a 2017 study looking at female buying behaviour, it was concluded that 81% of those surveyed do not recognize ingredients on the label of personal care products at least somewhat often. In fact, only 2% of women said they always understand what all of the ingredients are!
So, we had to go straight to the source.
Today, my friend Brian E. Jahns, PharmD, is here to give you alllll the ~tea~ on cosmetic product ingredients and chemicals.
Check out our chat highlights below, and peep our video clip at the end!
C: To you, what is the importance/ significance of understanding what ingredients we’re using in our cosmetic products?
B: I think there’s an element of personal choice. By virtue of being consumers, we have a right to know what is going in, on, and around our bodies. Sure, the Canadian government, the FDA, Health Canada, etc. have high standards compared to many other countries in the world. But I still think you can’t take the decision of what to put in and on your body and completely give it over to Health Canada and the FDA. You need to take some accountability and be aware of what you’re putting in and around your body.
C: When I look at the ingredient list specifically for our products, the Clear Clinical line, I notice that there are SO many. I’m wondering, do you know approximately how many ingredients or chemicals on average go into one product?
B: The bottom line is a lot! If something is a cream or oil-based ointment, or an emulsion (oil dissolved into a water-y base) you need a whole bunch of chemicals. For instance, you need surfactants, emulsifiers, pH balancers, and preservatives. So, the ingredients for even the most straight-forward and ‘simple’ products have so much there. The names can be rather intimating too. For a consumer to read through and see these 8-syllable names and ingredients that have the scary word ‘acid’ in them, it’s very intimating.
I’m always blown away by how simple things can be made complex. You know, if you read an ingredient and it says “Tocopherol” you’re like oh my gosh, what’s a Tocopherol?! Well, that’s actually just Vitamin E! So you likely already know what some of these ingredients are, but maybe don’t fully appreciate them because of the name presented.
C: Do you know why there are all these ‘scary’ names for cosmetic ingredients? Why do they make it so hard for us?!
B: It’s so that chemists and pharmacists can stay in work! Haha!
But really, generally, the ‘scary’ names are chemical names that are standardized according to international guidelines. What that means is individual companies can’t have their own name or their own spin on chemicals. It’s like providing a universal language to understand the ingredients within a product.
C: When I look at the ingredient list for our products, I see that they’re separated into two sections, active ingredients and product ingredients. Can you talk about the difference between the two categories?
B: An active ingredient does something specific related to the application that you’re using it for. In an antibiotic ointment, for example, the active ingredient is the antibiotic; it’s there to kill a bacteria. The “inactive” product ingredients would be the ointment part of it. If I’m taking a Vitamin E cream or a retinoid cream, the active ingredients would be Vitamin E or a retinoid—they are added to do something specific to my skin. It’s the cream part that would be considered the “inactive” ingredient or part of the product ingredients. So, it’s the stuff that makes up the cream or ointment.
C: Can you speak on the concentrations or percentages that we see on the back of our products? You know, like Oxybenzene 0.4% and those accompanying numbers.
B: Percent means number of grams per 100 grams. So, 1% would mean that there’s 1 gram in 100 grams of the cream. For example, if I have a Vitamin E 1% cream, it would mean that there is 1 gram of Vitamin E in 100 grams of the tube.
C: Are you aware of any cosmetic ingredients that work really well together, and conversely, ingredients that should never be mixed or combined?
B: Generally speaking, companies do not want to blend ingredients that react together or inactivate each other. For example, with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), the idea is that it creates a healthier skin cell metabolism. To put that ascorbic acid into a cream where the acid component (the pH), breaks down another substance would be a big problem.
I’m a big believer in not stacking on different products and substances. I think applying, then waiting a bit, and applying another product is the way to go. This encourages the substances to be used separately.
C: I wanted to play a little game with you. From the Clear Clinical line, one of my favourite products is the Polishing Gel Cleanser, which is a gentle exfoliating cleanser. Using your knowledge, I would love to see if you can roughly guess what ingredients would be in this product.
B: Hmmm. I’m guessing it will have a physical abrasive for starters. I’m guessing it will also have a detergent, something to emulsify and remove dirt, and I’m also guessing it will have an alcohol, maybe not ethanol, but there will be an alcohol in it. My last guess is that there will be a low concentration preservative of some sort too.
FYI, Brian was right! For the full interview check out the vid below <3