How To Decode A Skin-Care Ingredient List

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That new, already-sold-out moisturizer might look bomb on your bathroom shelf — and in your obligatory Insta pic — but what's going on with the actual formula inside that trendy packaging? The latest buzzworthy beauty products may sound dreamy, promising you everything from a dewy glow to smaller-looking pores, but they may not be achieving those things at all. And even if they are, they may not be working in the best or healthiest ways.

That's because not all ingredients are created equal. While some get to work softening and hydrating skin, others can wreak havoc by causing irritation, bringing on allergies, and potentially messing with your hormones or acting as carcinogens. So it's worth getting up close and personal with the ingredients in your beauty products. It just takes a little extra effort to read the full list, double-check that nothing suspicious or potentially harmful is in there, and ensure that whatever you're putting on your face coddles and nourishes your skin without causing any harm. To make your investigation simpler, we've partnered with True Botanicals to help you decode the ingredient list of your skin care and identify star products. Here's what to look for.

Go For Oils

Many skin-care products list water, or aqua, as the first ingredient on the list, meaning it makes up the highest percentage of the formula. A close second is wax (which can be occlusive and clog pores), followed by other random fillers. Oils, on the other hand, can easily sink through the lipid barrier to deliver beneficial nourishment to the deeper layers of skin — which is where the magic happens. Look for products that list an oil within the first few lines of the ingredient list.

...And Not Just Any Oils

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Oils do more than just rehydrate skin. Certain ones also pack protective antioxidants (which zap damaging free radicals) and essential fatty acids (which do everything from regulate inflammation to reinforce skin's moisture barrier). Look for oil blends that combine both benefits, such as papaya seed oil alongside chia and kiwi seed oils, like in True Botanicals Renew Pure Radiance Oil, and hemp seed oil paired with red raspberry seed oil in True Botanicals Basics Hydrating Oil.

Investigate Mysterious Ingredients

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Just because they're tough to pronounce doesn't mean they were cooked up in a lab. Here, your guide to a few weird — but great — ingredients:

  • Haematococcus Pluvialis Extract: Also known as astaxanthin, or red pond algae extract, this antioxidant MVP boosts moisture, spurs collagen production, and brightens skin — and serves as a mainstay in True Botanicals Clear Pure Radiance Oil.
  • Simmondsia Chinensis: Surprise! It's jojoba oil, the skin-friendly oil that moisturizes, reduces inflammation, and even regulates your skin's natural oil production — a perk for oily- and acne-prone skin types.
  • Baobab Seed Oil: A superfood for your skin, this stuff pairs up nourishing fatty acids with powerful vitamins to baby your skin. No wonder it's a staple in True Botanicals Calm Pure Radiance Oil.
  • Helichrysum Splendidum Oil: Derived from a flower, this oil is kind of like a therapist for your skin. It soothes inflammation, helps to heal wounds, and makes irritation a thing of the past.
  • Marula Seed Oil: This oil from the marula tree is brimming with essential fatty acids and is therefore the antidote to Sahara-dry skin.

Know The Warning List

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Even one nasty ingredient can put you at risk, since certain chemicals can build up in the body over time and may contribute to health problems. Read every ingredient list closely, and keep an eye out for sneaky, possibly harmful offenders, such as:

  • Parabens, a common preservative that may throw your hormone balance out of whack by mimicking estrogen—an effect that's associated with a heightened risk of breast cancer.
  • Hydroquinone, a popular brightening ingredient that damages DNA and is already banned in the UK, Australia, and Japan.
  • Fragrance (or parfum), an umbrella term for countless other things. Since fragrance is proprietary—meaning manufacturers don't have to share exactly what, exactly, makes up the said fragrance—they can hide irritating or harmful ingredients, like phthalates, into the formula under the disguise of "fragrance." Phthalates, which are commonly used to create scent within products, are especially concerning because they have been linked to allergies, endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, and even breast cancer.
  • Mineral oil, which only sounds natural—and is in fact considered to be a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Look for the MADE SAFE™ Seal

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Certain certifications on the seal will do the homework for you — and you should let them. In terms of ingredient safety, few things beat the MADE SAFE™ seal, which means that scientists have confirmed that the formula is free of questionable ingredients and doesn't release potentially harmful vapors, gases, or other by-products. The certification means that you can trust the ingredient list. Just take these products home, slather them on, and see the difference for yourself.

The Bottom Line

Just because a skin-care product looks good on your shelf—or smells good, or feels good on your skin—doesn't mean it's actually good for you. Cute packaging worthy of a double-tap is nice and all, but you shouldn't judge your formula by that. A close look at the ingredient list is your best bet for ensuring safe skincare—and clearly worth the extra minute or two.

This post is sponsored by True Botanicals.

Design: Allison Gore/Bustle