The number-one way to find out what’s in a skincare product is simple: just read the ingredient list. But in many cases, that’s a lot easier said than done. In some cases, ingredients can read like a different language. (Looking at you, sodium hydroxypropylsulfonate laurylglucoside crosspolymer.) Without a cosmetic chemist on speed-dial, it can be tough to understand what it does as well as why you need it. And even when words are recognizable, such as alcohol and fragrance, you might wonder what exactly they’re doing in there.
One way to make sense of it all is to consider the order of ingredients. In the United States, the ingredients are listed in order of highest concentration to lowest. That can help you get a better sense of how much of a given ingredient is actually in a product — for instance, a formula with an ingredient list that begins with alcohol will be very, very different than one that ends with it. Here, what to look for and why they might be there.
Ingredient to Watch: Alcohol
Alcohol has gotten a bad rep for being drying and harsh on skin — as was the case in first-gen toners, for example. But not all alcohol is created equal, since some are good and others are bad. In the latter camp are drying alcohols, which you might see on the ingredient list as denatured alcohol, SD alcohol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol. These were considered a plus way back when, particularly for removing excess oil from oily skin. And in small doses, it can still be beneficial — for example, our Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask has a very small amount of alcohol to help the formula absorb more quickly, making it pillow-proof. It’s a fraction of the rest of the formula, which contains hydrating hyaluronic acid and watermelon extract, and thus won’t dry out skin.
Want to learn more about what’s not in our products? Here’s what clean beauty means to us.
Some types can even be beneficial in skincare products, as is the case with fatty alcohol, such as cetyl alcohol (which thickens formulas), stearyl alcohol (which acts as an emollient to moisturize), cetearyl alcohol (an emulsifier to keep formulas stable), and propylene glycol (which serves as a humectant). They can actually nourish your skin, support your skin barrier, and offer other benefits.
Ingredient to Watch: Fragrance
Ah, fragrance — love it or hate it, you probably feel some way about it. Fragrance in skincare is polarizing these days and understandably so, because high concentrations can be sensitizing to skin and potentially lead to irritation. Not only that, but fragrance, because it’s so often proprietary, can be used as a cover for other concerning ingredients, such as phthalates.
However, the upside of fragrance is that it can elevate the experience of daily skincare products, encouraging consistency. And consistency leads to better results. So, the concentration matters a lot for this one. That’s why we’ve chosen to use a tiny amount of fragrance—less than 0.5%—across our products to give you the real-deal experience of, say, a watermelon-fueled Watermelon Glow Pink Juice Moisturizer without any of the sensitizing drawbacks. Also, brands should be transparent about what fragrances do and do not include. Here at Glow Recipe, all the fragrances we use are tested and free of PCM, PTFE/PFOA, Styrene, Polyacrylamide/acrylamide, Acetaldehyde, Acetonitrile, Methylene chloride, Animal fats, oils, and musks, Benzalkonium chloride, Toluene, Resorcinol, Acetone, Butoxyethanol, Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, Methyl cellosolve, Methylisothiazolinone/methylchloroisothiazolinone, Mercury and mercury compounds (thimerosal), and Bisphenol A (BPA).
Learn more about the how and why of fragrance in your skincare products.
Ingredient to Watch: Acids
If you see multiple acids in a formula, you might take it as a cue that it’s not exactly gentle — acids being the dead skin cell-removing powerhouses that they are. But not all acids are created equal and, with that, not all acid-containing formulas are created equal. For instance, a combo of beta hydroxy acids and polyhydroxy acid might look intimidating, but PHA is one of the gentlest (yet still effective) acids out there. Same goes for BHA.
Speaking of BHA, not all acids appear as “acids” on the ingredient list. For instance, the ingredient in our Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner that contains BHA is willow bark, and that’s what appears on the list. Same goes for PHA, which is called gluconolactone on the ingredient list.
Not only does the level of exfoliation depend on the acids themselves, but the other actives in the formula. The BHA and PHA in the Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner are paired with soothing ingredients, such as cactus water and cucumber. Finally, it’s not just the concentration of acids that matter, but the whole formula. If you’re using multiple Glow Recipe products, rest easy knowing that all of them are designed to be used safely in the same routine, acids or not.
Ingredient to Watch: Dyes and Colorants
Synthetic dyes and colorants, including FD&C BLUE 1 and FD&C RED 40, are responsible for giving color to makeup, skincare, and hair color — it’s all about aesthetics for these. That said, the use of certain types are restricted by the FDA due to their potential to cause sensitivity or irritation in skin.
All of our skincare formulas are free of colorants. Instead, we just let the fruit do their magic, which is why, for example, all of our Watermelon Glow products are watermelon-pink. That said, our Watermelon Glow Lip Pop does contain synthetic dyes to enable the color to adjust to your pH — but we’ve carefully formulated it to counteract any sensitivity.
Ingredient to Watch: Silicones
There are a lot of rumors about silicones. They don’t let skin “breathe,” they can clog pores, or they’re just filler ingredients. But that’s not actually the case — on all counts. Silicones are often found in skincare products for a few reasons. They give formulas a signature slip and velvety-smooth finish on skin, and certain types can actually be used as emollients to trap moisture in skin.
That said, some silicones can be more occlusive than others. For our Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream, we chose to go without silicones because with all the other moisturizing and deeply nourishing ingredients in the formula, they just weren’t necessary.
Ingredient to Watch: Preservatives, like Phenoxyethanol
Unless you’re into mold and microbes hanging out in your skincare products, preservatives are a must for some formulas. The problem: Some preservatives, such as parabens, have been linked to health concerns, and though the evidence is inconclusive at this point, we’ve decided to err on the side of caution and leave them out. Still, you may see others, such as phenoxyethanol, on our ingredient lists. We went with phenoxyethanol because it’s commonly used and gentle on skin. Plus, research backs up its safety record and has found that it has a very low risk of sensitizing skin.
The Bottom Line
While reading the ingredient list is a good start, it only tells part of the story. Just like a recipe that can use the same ingredients and taste different depending on who makes it and how it’s cooked, many factors — the portion, how it’s extracted, the blend, the processing method, the quality of the ingredients — contribute to the final product.
Read more about what’s inside your skincare products: