Deconstructing Ingredients Lists

Ever looked at the ingredients list on your skincare product and wondered what the heck? Product ingredient lists can be quite intimidating to peruse, listing chemical names you’re never heard before that are difficult to pronounce. Some give off “harmful for you” vibes, while others sound like they could be plucked from your garden. On average, a product can have between 5 and 50 ingredients listed. We’re writing this post to help you deconstruct an ingredients list and better understand your product formulations.

Ingredients List Structure

Ingredients are listed in order of concentration from the highest to the lowest. By listing it this way, we are better able to quickly identify what ingredients we may be allergic to and avoid using them. Below a 1% concentration, ingredients can be listed in any order.

Scientific Names

Scientific names are still just names and should not be judged by how scary they sound. Great ingredients may sometimes have names that sound unfriendly and dangerous. Take Vitamin C, a hero ingredient we completely love at Bolden and is in our bestselling Brightening Moisturizer SPF 30. It’s INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) name “Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate” sounds like something that explodes in a lab. Or our beloved Shea butter, otherwise known as “Butyrospermum parkii”. However, we know both ingredients provide tremendous benefits and are great for our skin.

While there’s no need to learn all these names, a little more familiarity saying them and understanding their role in a formulation will get us more comfortable and less wary when we see them listed on a label.

Functions of Ingredients

We can organize ingredients by their functional role within a formulation.

Water: You’ll notice that water is listed first on the list as it is the solvent in virtually all formulations. It is usually listed as "water/aqua" as aqua is the INCI name for water. Distilled water is the standard as it is very pure.

Active ingredients: Over The Counter (OTC) products are regulated by the government and their ingredients must be listed with their percentages listed e.g. check out your sunscreen drug facts panel. Non-OTC products can also contain active ingredients that are directly responsible for the effectiveness of the formulation e.g. glycolic acid in our Nighttime Repair Serum or sulfur in our Overnight Spot Treatment. These don't need to have their percentages listed.

Emulsifiers: These are ingredients that help to mix oil and water well such that you don’t see the separation. They help give creams and lotions a smooth texture. Some examples are cetearyl alcohol, laureth-4, and glyceryl stearate.

Deodorizers/fragrance: These help give a formulation a pleasant smell. It’s very difficult to use a product, especially one you want to use daily, if it smells bad. Deodorizers help to mask the smell of chemicals. Some plant and flower extracts help achieve this.

Emollients: These are the conditioning and moisturizing agents that help soften the skin by preventing water loss. Some good examples we love and use are glycerin and shea butter (butyrospermum parkii).

Thickeners: Thickening agents help a formulation achieve a desired consistency e.g. thick creams, gel like cleansers, thin lotions etc. Some good examples in some of our formulations are xanthan gum, bentonite, silica, and carbomer.

Preservatives: These perform a very important function as they help a formulation stay fresh and prevent the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. When you purchase a new serum, you want a reasonable shelf life. The high water content of formulations makes it more likely to get contaminated which is why preservatives are needed. They allow you confidently use a product for several months without worrying about it going bad. The type and concentration of preservatives depends on how the product will be used or dispensed; open jar creams require more preservatives than pumps because the risk of contamination is higher. Some preservatives we use include phenoxyethanol, ethylhexylglycerin, and caprylyl glycol.

    While it may be trendy to include as many ingredients as possible in a formulation, incorporating too many ingredients may be redundant and counterproductive.

    At Bolden, we aim for minimalism when it comes to ingredients, only including what is required to get an elegant formulation that gets the job done.

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