Reading Between The Lines: How To Decode a Skincare Label

Illustration by Dermstore

Lines? Lines on my forehead? Nope—the lines of text on your skincare label! Even for those of us who are self-proclaimed experts, reading and understanding skincare packaging can be a very daunting experience. Finding the right skincare brand for you is like finding the right romantic partner: you want to be sure that your values align so that you can always trust the claims they make, and we all know this takes time and patience. In the meantime, here at Mirra we want to be sure that you are able to evaluate skincare on a basic level. When navigating a highly unregulated industry, it’s worth doing our homework to be sure we are spending our hard-earned cash on the good stuff and the right stuff. If reading skincare ingredients is feeling like trying to interpret your BFF’s drunk texts from last night, you’ve come to the right place.  

Ingredients Are Listed From Highest to Lowest Concentration

Skincare companies for the most part do not reveal the exact percentage of each ingredient in their products, but we can find some clues by reading the ingredient label from top to bottom. Imagine you’re in the market for a fab new moisturizer because it’s the dead of winter and its flaky town population YOU. That cool friend from work with annoyingly uh-maze skin told you to look for a new moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid because it’s highly effective in locking in moisture. If hyaluronic acid is listed fifth on the label, this means that it is the fifth most concentrated ingredient in the product.


As a rule of thumb, the first 5 ingredients comprise the majority of the formula, and are listed from highest to lowest concentration. But, it’s important to note that the ingredients that make up less than one percent of the total and can be listed in any order.

Size (I mean amount) isn’t everything

It’s also important to remember that sometimes, certain active ingredients only need to be present at .5 or .1 percent of the concentration to be affective so absolute value of concentration isn’t always everything.

Beware of Misleading Claims

When it comes to skincare packaging, it is important to take all claims with a grain of salt. The FDA does not govern the use of a lot of terms that you are going to see on skincare labels like “hypoallergenic” or “dermatologist tested” [1]. The truth? The claims companies brands make are only as good as the brand behind them, so doing your homework on the brand itself is everything.

By the same token, other claims like “oil free” should also be taken with a grain of salt. “Oil free” on its own does not mean that it won’t clog your pores. Actually, a lot of oils have been proven to be great for oily and acne prone skin. So again, understanding the full ingredient list is important so you can evaluate the claims for yourself.

Natural vs. Synthetic

Just because a product has natural ingredients does not necessarily mean it’s a better product than its synthetic alternatives. For example, there are a whole host of natural ingredients that can be irritating for sensitive skin (essential oils for example), and there are plenty of synthetic ingredients that are totally safe for your skin. So need to fear of the unpronounceable! Stumbling over a multi-syllable word like “hexa-peptide-8” might bring you back to those hellish high school days in AP chem, but just because something is synthetic and has a scary name does not mean it is unsafe or that it won’t be great for your skin.

Filler Ingredients: Avoiding Them Like Your Ex At The Gym

Certain ingredients are included in a formula not because they will benefit your skin but because they make a product look or feel a certain way. In exchange for adding some sensory value (and helping the brand to cut costs), those do-nothing ingredients can trigger breakouts, dehydrate your skin and deprive you from getting ingredients that your skin really craves. [2].

Top fillers to avoid? Well, one of the most pervasive and irritating ingredients is non other than fragrance! (Btw, fragrance is also often listed under “parfum”). Also, watch out for colors, dyes and heavy silicones.

Know Thyself and Know Thy Skin

At Mirra we are doing our homework to formulate products with your skin in mind, but ultimately our main advice to you is to really make sure that you find a brand in which aligns with your values, because finding a brand you trust will make decoding labels all the more easier.

Related Article: We're Calling Bullshit On All Fragrance, Even Natural

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