Have you ever thought about it? Our skin is a giant organ capable of absorbing many of the compounds it comes into contact with. It’s important to understand what you’re putting on your skin and how it interacts with your skin. This is crucial in understanding how a particular product works and how to best use it.
A product may claim that it will moisturize, plump, darken, etc, but you should ALWAYS try to understand HOW the product is aiming to achieve those claims. Take plumping for example, which ingredient claims to plump and how does it do it? This knowledge can also save you money by helping you understand when to splurge on an expensive brand and when to go with a cheaper product. Having a basic understanding of cosmetic ingredients will help you use them more effectively!
The sheer number and complexity of ingredients in many cosmetic products can make this task seem daunting but you don’t need to be a professional chemist to have a better understanding of your cosmetics. There are many sites (see list at the bottom of this post) dedicated to educating their users on cosmetic ingredients and debunking false information on media-hyped ingredients like parabens (we’ll talk about those on another day). For now, we'll talk about the basic building blocks of most cosmetic products:
Water is found in nearly all cosmetic products and most often acts as a solvent for other ingredients.
If you’ve ever tried to mix oil and water, you know it’s next to impossible. Emulsifiers keep unlike ingredients like these from separating. This allows emulsions such as lotion containing both water and oils to be created. Polysorbates, laureth-4, and potassium acetyl sulfate are commonly used in cosmetics for this purpose.
Have you ever smelled a cosmetic product gone bad? It’s usually pretty rancid and very obvious when it happens. Here’s the really gross part though, it’s most often an indicator of bacterial or fungal growth - ew! Preservatives are added to prevent the growth of these things, so if you opt for preservative-free products you should be mindful of any physical changes (smell,color,texture,etc) that could indicate the product is no longer good.
The effectiveness of a cosmetic product can be extremely dependent upon its pH. The pH of a product will affect how it interacts with the skin, which usually has a pH somewhere between 4-6. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are a great example of this; used to promote exfoliation and boost collagen production, these AHA containing products must have extremely consistent pH levels in order to remain effective.
Thickeners are added for the simple goal of achieving a more appealing texture in a product. There are several different types of thickeners that work in different ways. Some work by absorbing water or oils and some lend their natural thickness to the mixture.
Emollients help protect skin by shielding against water loss. Common examples include beeswax, coconut oil, petroleum jelly, and glycerine. They prevent skin from drying out which helps to keep it nice and soft!
Colors and Fragrances
Coloring and fragrance are both extremely important components of many cosmetic products. They can come from natural sources such as minerals, plants, and other organisms or they can be artificially created.
Understanding what category to put your ingredients into is the first step in comprehending your complicated ingredient labels.
Want to Know More?
The following sites are a wealth of information on the basics of cosmetic chemistry and were used as sources in this article!
(A wonderful introduction to making sense of your ingredient labels)
*Be sure to check out the comprehensive ingredient database while you're here!