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Decode Your Skincare Label: Know What's in the Bottle

The smart shopper's guide to understanding skincare products.

Skincare products in box

Chances are your skincare bottles are beautifully designed, you might even leave them out on your counter for the aesthetic appeal they add to your space. But do you know what’s actually inside the serums, moisturizers, and creams?

You might think you know based on the visuals and wording on the front of the package. Today we’re going to flip the bottle around and learn just what your skincare regime may be hiding in its label.

What You Should Know About Active Ingredients and the Descending Order on Labels

Active ingredients? Does that mean only part of my product is working for my skin?

Skincare product and box

In short, yes. The active ingredients are there to make the product live up to its claim. For example, an acne-treating skincare product will likely have salicylic acid as an active ingredient as it’s a common combatant against breakouts.

Pay attention to the ingredient label on the back of your bottle to determine what active ingredients are being used.

Some companies take the time to have these listed separately on the bottle. This makes it clear what is being used to meet their claims. It also makes it easy to identify any ingredients you’re looking for either as a necessity or to avoid altogether.

The more familiar you become with your skin’s reaction to different ingredients, the better you’ll be at selecting skincare products that work.

How to Determine Concentration Levels of Each Ingredient

When it comes to the concentration of each ingredient, you’ll be relying on your ingredient list once again. The label will list out all ingredients from top to bottom. This indicates how much of each ingredient is present in the product.

So those first few ingredients are at the highest concentrations over all other ingredients present in the bottle. This can be useful when searching for a specific ingredient as you can guesstimate how much is in the product.

If a brand is touting about an ingredient but it’s at the bottom of the ingredient list you have reason to be suspicious. However, you’ll need to know your ingredients and how they work in a product. Certain ingredients only need to be used in small concentrations to get the desired results. In fact, if used in excess it can actually be detrimental to the skin.

Deciphering skincare and cosmetic labels can be a nightmare - especially if you’re unfamiliar with common ingredients. Your best option is to do background research and make a decision based on the science behind the product - not the packaging.

Get Your Vocab Down

Do you understand the jargon slapped across all the beauty and skincare products on cosmetic aisles? Maybe. The problem is, you can think these mean one thing but it takes a bit of reading in-between the lines to truly understand what the labels are telling you. Let’s dive into analyzing cosmetic buzzwords to be on the lookout for.

Skincare Vocabulary


If you have sensitive skin, hypoallergenic products are a good place to start. However, the FDA doesn’t regulate the usage of this word on cosmetic packaging. That means you may be allergic to one ingredient in the formula.

Aim to buy hypoallergenic products, but test it out first on a small patch of your wrist if your skin is especially sensitive.


Non-comedogenic products are formulated with oily skin in mind. These can include facial oils and sunscreens and are aimed at creating products those with oily skin would otherwise need to avoid. The ingredients aren’t likely to clog pores.

Keep in mind, every person’s skin is unique. Watch for subtle changes in your own skin as you transition to a new non-comedogenic product. And remember, non-comedogenic products don’t mean you can ignore basic skincare tasks like removing makeup before bed and washing your face on a daily basis.

Unscented versus Fragrance-Free

These two types of fragrance vary slightly, but those differences can have a big impact on your skin.

Unscented - Unscented isn’t the same as a certified fragrance-free product. Unscented, or rather scent-free, means the product can contain fragrance masked by other chemicals. If you’re sensitive to fragrance you may want to skip an unscented product in favor of one with the certified fragrance-free label. Your dermatologist will likely recommend a fragrance-free formula, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Fragrance-Free - Since fragrances so commonly cause allergies, some opt for fragrance-free formulas. Unlike scent-free formulas, fragrance-free is a certified label only obtained by products absent of all fragrances. This includes chemicals used to mask fragrances.


The meaning behind dermatologist-tested is cleverly veiled as portraying dermatologists are raving about the product. If the product label says the product is dermatologist-tested, that’s all it means - a dermatologist, in some capacity, has used the product. The dermatologist in question could have loved it or hated it, but we’ll never know.

If you’re concerned about a product, take it up with your dermatologist. They’re an expert in skincare and can give you professional advice on what product will be best for your skin.

What Do Different Skincare Symbols Mean?

Does your skincare bottle make a claim using a symbol? Let’s breakdown the meanings behind these symbols and phrases.


Sulfates are made of sulfur-containing mineral salts. These can cause intense irritation and shouldn’t be present in skincare products. Check your new products for sulfate-free labeling as these will be better for your skin.


This can also be seen listed as vegan, 100% vegan, vegan ingredients, or suitable for vegans. This means the product does not have any animal ingredients or animal byproducts in its formula.


Phthalates can cause damage to the liver, kidney, and reproductive system. While they do act as moisturizers and can soften your skin, that’s too high a price to pay. Find skincare that is labeled phthalate-free to avoid negative side effects cropping up years down the road.


Parabens have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues which means you certainly don’t want them in your cosmetics. In skincare products, parabens act as preservatives against bacterial growth. With other preservatives available, it’s wise to find a product that is paraben-free.


Cruelty-free can also be denoted as no animal testing, not tested on animals, against animal testing, and we don’t test on animals. This means the product was produced without any testing on animals. Be careful that a cruelty-free product also specifies it is vegan-friendly as cruelty-free and vegan are not necessarily interchangeable.

For an extra layer of security, look for products with certifications from one of the following entities:

  • Leaping Bunny
  • Choose Cruelty Free (CCF)
  • PETA

Also, be aware, if a product uses the phrase, ‘No animal ingredients’, it is likely to not be cruelty-free. No animal ingredients means simply that - the product itself has no animal ingredients.

We’ll leave it up to you to decide what product is best for you and your values.


Organic skincare products are free of synthetic additives. This means no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or dyes.

Common Ingredients You’ll Find in Skincare Products

Skincare products and science

Skincare ingredients have hard to pronounce names like Coenzyme Q10 and Sodium Hyaluronate. Chances are if you flip over any skincare products to take a look at its label you’ll see at least a few ingredients you don’t know. Don’t worry - we’ve done a bit of decoding for some of the more popular ingredients.

Remember, some of these are core ingredients. While they may not be the fancy ingredient advertised, they play an integral role in helping the other ingredients work for your skin. Common core ingredients include:

  • Thickeners
  • Preservatives
  • Emollients
  • Emulsifiers
  • Water
  • Fragrance
  • Color
  • pH Stabilizers

Some other smaller ingredients that may be included in your product are:

Sodium Laureth Sulphate - A skin-conditioning emulsifier

Glycerin - A humectant used for moisturizing the skin

Methylparaben - A preservative used to prevent fungal growth

Butylene Glycol - Used as a solvent, humectant, and preservative

Tocopherol - Acts as an antioxidant that soothes skin while stabilizing oils and fats

Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7 - A peptide compound that works to reduce skin inflammation

Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate - Vitamin C made to better penetrate the skin and promote skin firmness

Ferulic Acid - Antioxidant used to reduce appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

Caprylic glycerides - Used as an emollient

Know What Preservatives are Present

Preservatives don’t have to be bad, depending on which ones are present. Without preservatives, skincare products can begin to harbor microorganisms quickly, this can lead to negative reactions. Preservatives must be used in products containing water, as water can create an attractive location for these microorganisms to begin growing.

Preservatives guard against microorganism growth during:

  • Formulation
  • Shipment
  • Storage
  • Product Use

What You Need to Know About Batch Number

The batch number allows the manufacturer to identify what batch that product was made with. This could be hiding the expiration date in a sense if there isn’t a clearly listed expiration date on the packaging.

The batch code varies from one manufacturer to the next. For example, they may use various letters to represent specific months or a set of numbers to represent months.

The batch number is less for consumers and more for manufacturers. If a product is recalled, you’ll notice they put out a batch number or numbers for the recall. If your product has that number you better toss it.

If the batch number is obvious and denotes a date it was made, you’ll be more likely to estimate the expiration date. If not, stick to using the PAO.

Batch number graphic

Finding the Expiration Date and the Meaning Behind the PAO Symbol

Skincare products aren’t good forever. In fact, using a skincare product past its prime can cause bad reactions for your own skin.

Most skincare products will have an open jar icon with a number and ‘M’ near the ingredients list. This is the PAO or Period After Opening.

PAO on bottle

These won’t always be found on your products. However, the general consensus for cosmetic products are as follows:

Period After Opening Guidelines for Cosmetic Products

Moisturizers 6 Months - 1 Year
Toners 6 Months - 1 Year
Cleansers 1 Year
Serums 6 Months - 1 Year
Lip Balm, Lipstick or Lipgloss 1 Year
Liquid Eyeliner 3 Months - 4 Months
Eyeliner or Eyebrow Pencil 6 Months - 8 Months
Mascara 3 Months - 6 Months
Foundation and Concealers (Non-powder) 6 Months - 1 Year
Powder-based Products 2 Years - 3 Years

Product packaging will also play into the PAO. If a product is in a jar where you’ll be dipping your finger to extract product it is likely to have a shorter PAO. Enclosed airtight pump bottles, however, can boost a product’s PAO.

PAO is also increased when:

  • You keep your fingers out of the product
  • You keep your product from exposure to temperature changes and light
  • You avoid leaving the product in your car
  • You don't share your product with others

If you’re not sure how long you’ve had the product and there’s no PAO, here are some signs to watch out for. If you notice any, be sure to throw the product out immediately. It’s not worth a risk to yourself caused by harbored bacteria within the product.

  • The formula begins to separate or become runny
  • The product becomes lumpy in texture
  • The product develops a strange odor
  • The formula shows a significant change in color
  • When placed on the skin the formula feels grainy or otherwise unusual

The PAO is not the same as an expiration date. An expiration date is a length of time from production. This is the duration the product is safe for use and able to stand up to its claims prior to opening. A PAO is the length of time the product is stable from the time you open the product.

Pro Tip: If you have a lot of products, you can keep up with the date you opened them by marking each product with a sharpie. This way you won’t forget and you won’t end up using any product past its prime. Ew.

What You Should Look for in Skincare Labels Based on Skin Type

Skincare isn’t one-size-fits-all, however, you can find products that include ingredients beneficial to all skin types (like our line of éternelle anti-aging skincare).

Once you’ve identified your skin type, assess your skincare regime. We bet you’ll find a few products that could actually be working against clear, healthy skin.

Acne-Prone Skin

Anyone struggling with acne-prone skin knows the aggravation of finding a product that works with your skin without leading to painful flair-ups. Search for ingredients that act as anti-inflammatories and are antibacterial in nature. Blackheads and whiteheads stand no chance once you begin using products that kill acne-causing bacteria and loosen up clogged pores. Just be careful, too much of something can be a bad thing. Avoid products that use ingredients, like salicylic acid, in excess as it can be too drying.

Look for: Products containing salicylic acid and antioxidants

Our Suggestion: Antioxidant serums can help prevent and rejuvenate damaged skin. Combat skin stressors and even skin tone with products rich in antioxidants. You can find antioxidants in ILLUMINATE.

Eye Illuminate

Oily or Combination Skin

Targeting unwanted bacteria is the mission of anyone with oily or combination skin. Bacteria can lead to excess oil. Battle oil and breakouts with products made with your skin type in mind.

Look for: Ingredients will low barrier repair

Our Suggestion: Hyaluronic acid is a staple for skincare products aimed at oily or combination skin. Hyaluronic acid won’t add excess oil to your skin or clog your pores even as it works to offer gentle, deep moisturization. You can find hyaluronic acid in EYE HYDRATE.

Eye invigorate and shea butter

Dry or Sensitive Skin

Softening, hydrating, and soothing is the name of the game when you have dry or sensitive skin. Search for products that will ease redness and boost collagen production.

Look for: Products high in emollients or humectants

Our Suggestion: Shea butter is the magic word here. Combat redness and boost collagen all while benefiting from deep hydration. You can find shea butter in EYE INVIGORATE.