If you know us, you know we’re obsessed with the ingredients in our skincare. I mean, we literally built a platform on getting to the bottom of them. In the spirit of investigative journalism and the aforementioned obsession, we decided to learn more about the actual formulations of the ingredients. Enter Alison Cutlan of CUTLAN Lab, molecular scientist, and product developer extraordinaire to answer our burning questions, this time, about ingredient percentages.
Just to get started, can you define what an “active” ingredient is?
An ‘active ingredient’ typically refers to an ingredient that has a positive activity on the skin. It usually refers to advanced ingredients like extracts, vitamins or peptides, but in very simple formulas it can be a seed oil like Argan oil.
We’re seeing so much skincare that claims to have x% of an active ingredient, but how is that percentage really factored/calculated?
This is definitely a grey area and lots of brands misrepresent this (knowingly or unknowingly). If it is a percentage of a pure compound like L-ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C), there is little confusion, but take an active that is a liquid mixture or a dilution (like peptides, hyaluronic acid and other extracts) the percentage they quote is often that of the mixture, not the pure compound. For example, if someone says their serum has 10% hyaluronic acid, that is likely 10% of a 1% solution, so 0.1% pure hyaluronic acid. If you used 10% pure HA powder it would be a solid jello block.
What are some things a consumer should know about percentages when shopping for a new ingredient to add to their routine?
Ingredient lists are listed in terms of concentration. The first ingredient is the highest going on down to 1%. After 1% concentration, the ingredients can be ordered in any way they want. So make sure that the actives are high up on that ingredient list! Also, note if water is the first ingredient versus something else, like Aloe or a ferment or plant water. Products with an ‘active water phase’ like this are higher quality. Dual function people!
Active ingredient percentages are standardized and useful for certain pure chemicals like vitamins L-ascorbic acid, retinol, niacinamide or AHAs. These are things you can ask about and brands will often state these if they are the main actives in the product. If there are new ingredients it’s helpful if a brand shows the studies for it at the level they are using it. Many brands worry about boring their customer with science and I disagree. Information and transparency are key and I believe today’s consumer wants to know.
Great advice! So do you think it’s better to have fewer ingredients? Or more?
I would say it’s a case by case basis. If I see a product with an extreeemely long ingredient list it’s a turn-off. Lots of ingredients can signal a marketing ploy. If it's not and there is an excess of concentrated actives, it can be too much for the skin to handle and you’ll get irritation. Also, don’t assume that by having only a few ingredients that it’s concentrated. You could just be buying a lot of water and glycerin so it’s good to be able to read ingredient lists. Well formulated products are in the middle. They have enough actives at efficacious levels and don’t go way overboard.
What’s the point of adding “inactive” ingredients to a product? Do they cut down on the effectiveness of the “active” ingredients?
Inactive ingredients are things like thickeners and feel modifiers or...water for that matter. They don’t necessarily cut down on the actives’ effectiveness at all, sometimes they increase it, sometimes it has no effect. A well-formulated product is one that intelligently uses dual function ingredients, like using a thickener that can also be considered a skin-active by having anti-inflammatory and hydrating aspects or using an ‘active water’ such as aloe, plant waters or a ferment at the water phase.
Got it. So do these percentages factor into the retail price of skincare? Or are some ingredients just “trendy” and thus marked up?
It can, but it depends on the brand. There are honest skincare brands and dishonest skincare brands. And because so many people are getting into the game, let’s be honest, many brands simply don’t know what is quality and what is not! They just want to selllllll.
Quality ingredients at effective levels cost money and this must be reflected in the price. Like anything, there are always going to be shitty products everywhere and some are super cheap and others have great packaging and a good marketer behind them that charge way too much and that’s a shame.
Want to see if ingredients are in-line with your skin goals? Check them on Rate Your Routine!
Ain’t that the truth… Are there companies that don’t share the percentages of active ingredients? Why?
There can be many reasons for this:
- They don’t want to give their formula away. Too many percents declared in the ingredients means the formula can be easily decoded.
- The ingredients are at a lower level than they’d like to claim
- More is not always better. Certain ingredients are best used at very low levels for efficacy (growth factors or certain peptides). This becomes a difficult education process for the consumer.
So if we want to take this knowledge to the streets (or to online shopping), what are your shortcuts for dissecting an ingredient label? How can we quickly know what’s what?
If it’s water-based and it’s a lotion or a white-ish serum, it has a water phase, and oil phase and an emulsifier to bring them all together. Just water phase will be water and some sort of thickener. Pure oils are just that. Preservatives are found anywhere there is water. Oil products do not need preservatives.