Understand what’s in your products: mini guide to ingredients list

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Before I invested my time (and money) into my skincare journey, I was that person that was focused on the packaging/marketing, product descriptions and Sephora reviews before I made my purchasing decisions.

As a result, I bought many expensive products that didn’t work for my skin and worst of all — made my acne even worse. Luckily for me, Sephora has a great return policy! As a consumer, I thought I was the problem because I just couldn’t find the right skincare products. It turns out most of those products had well-known irritant ingredients that MY skin could not handle.

Fast-forward a few years later, I’m able to read the skincare ingredient list to ensure it’ll work for my skin. It turns out that some companies promote an ingredient on their packaging but have it listed at the end of their ingredient list. Lower on the list, lower the concentration – UGH.

You should want to understand what ingredient targets what, let alone what you are putting on your skin. It is also a clever way to find a dupe to an expensive product! It takes some time to learn the ingredients, especially with those difficult scientific-sounding names. I must admit, I still find it difficult to read some ingredients and I am still learning. Read until the end to get access to some great resources!

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How to read a skincare ingredient list (INCI list)

Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration

Every worldwide company goes by the INCI system, which stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. Understandably, if every country had their own naming convention or system for listing ingredients, it would be way too confusing. This means that all ingredients are named the same based on the INCI system – and this applies to almost every product we consume on a daily basis.

The general rule of thumb is that the first five ingredients have the highest concentrations. So pay attention to that! However, Renee Rouleau made an interesting observation stating that “an ingredient doesn’t have to be listed within the top five to have a positive impact on the skin.” For example, antioxidants, niacinamide, and even exfoliating acids can fall out of the top five, but we know to be essential in maintaining healthy skin. I highly recommend you check out her article to educate yourself a bit more.

However, there do exist a few exceptions to this general high to low itemization. Ingredients that are concentrated under 1% can be listed in any order. Companies often do this to avoid their formulas from being copied by their competitors. For example, fragrance is a vague description of a skincare ingredient, don’t you agree? That’s exactly because certain ingredients are considered as “trade secrets”. However, if some components of the fragrance have known allergens, they must be listed.

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Known allergens are listed at the end of the list

Sometimes (but rarely) companies print these known allergens in italic or bolded format. This includes (natural) essential oils and fragrances. Known allergens include limonene, linalool, and geranoil. See a full list of known allergists here.

Use resources to help make your purchase decisions

Like I said before, I am still learning because the skincare ingredient dictionary is ENDLESS. You’ll get familiar with the most common used ingredients – hello, water! I also prefer to remain up to speed on the most common and emerging ingredients in skincare to avoid those impulse buys — trust me, I’ve done that more times than I can count. Keep in mind that it’s always wise to use multiple resources to find your answers – due diligence is key! One source may have a different opinion than the other. Here are some resources I leverage to make informed purchase decisions:


Enjoy that little study sesh as you continue on your skincare journey.  One day we can all be experts in knowing exactly what we are buying.

Until next time!

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10 Comments

  • Natalie Richardson says:

    Great post Fleur – thank you for sharing this information!

  • Dutchie says:

    Thanks for publishing such informative article, Fleur. In Europe we adore the sun and using SPF is not a very common thing. Also, I remember that in the early days, SPF didn’t go higher than 30 and we only used it while on the beach. And when someone got a sun burn, we just laughed and put slices of cucumber on it to cool it down. You are absolutely right, we need to include SPF in our daily skin routine. Now one more challenge to go: introduce this to my husband.

    • Fleur Boomsma says:

      Thank you for sharing this little story! If we can normalize the use of sunscreen a lot of skin cancer could be prevented! Luckily the skincare companies are getting more innovative with their formulas to make sunscreen attractive for everyone of all skin colors/conditions/types!

  • Eva B says:

    So informative! Thank you for the sunscreen recommendations xx

  • Jennifer says:

    Sunscreen can save your life!!

  • Sue says:

    Your hair looks lovely. I want to try this now.

  • Celine says:

    Hello! I want to ask, after using the innisfree super volcanic mask, you rinse it off and then do you apply your skincare after that? or do you just leave your bare face after rinsing the clay mask off?

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