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The Writing’s on the Label

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I have no problem choosing organic over pesticides, canvas over plastic, and local over imported, but when it comes to skincare, I somehow just can’t bring myself to choose dandelion root over poly-what-its-name. I’ve made repeated vows to simplify my life with “natural” choices, yet I can’t shake the belief—drilled into me many years ago by my shiny-faced Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Guerin—that I need bleach to clean my toilet and acid to clean my face.

Last night while soaking in my unnaturally bubbly tub and trying to make peace with the periodic table of elements printed on the back of my shampoo bottle (and the scientific mumbo jumbo printed on the front), I wondered, “Is acid really all that bad?” and “Is retinol really all that good?”

I know a little about common beauty buzzwords tossed around by the skincare industry, and I know enough to avoid dangerous parabens, petroleum, and phthalates in my cosmetics, but I have to admit that I pretend to know what I am looking at when I read the back of a bottle in the beauty aisle. Most of the time, I skim past the science (just feeling comforted that nature has plenty of help from a French lab) and I satisfy the nagging organic voices in my head by pointing to that one “real” ingredient at the bottom of the list: beeswax.

A little research indicates that ingredients are actually listed in descending order of prominence: the top third of any ingredients label accounts for up to 90 to 95 percent of the ingredients in the product. Yikes, perhaps it’s time to stop skimming …

When I see “aqua” listed on the back of my glossing cream, I always cross my fingers in the hope that it contains the influence of the Danish pop group Aqua, best known for the song “Barbie Girl.” I could do with some Barbie-hair. Sadly, it just means what you think it means—water.

The Acids
Most manufacturers use the chemical names on packaging, and in some cases, the reality isn’t half as scary as the imagining. Like for instance, Ascorbic Acid sounds like something you’d use to peel plaster off your algaed swimming pool (hence, I look for it in every product), but it’s just a fancy name for our good friend vitamin C. In the same way, Linoleic Acid is science-speak for good old vitamin K, an essential fatty acid used for its redness-reduction properties.

Another acid I see on many products is Hyalauronic Acid. This one sounds less nature, more NASA to me, but hello, it’s a wonder-molecule that can hold many times its weight in water, so it’s an excellent moisturizer. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) are a group of plant-derived acids (including lactic, citric, and glycolic) used to smooth fine lines and surface wrinkles, improving the skin’s condition by exfoliation. Beta Hydroxy Acid (Salicylic Acid) is a cousin to Alpha, but it is considered less irritating to skin while providing a similar improvement in the pigment and texture of skin. It comes from the bark of a willow tree (who knew?) and is great at reducing inflammation, so you’ll often see it in products that help battle ingrown hairs or acne.

The Devil You Know: Some say AHA exfoliates so powerfully that it removes not just dead skin cells, but the skin’s natural protective layer as well. It can make the skin up to 50 percent more susceptible to harmful UV rays, leaving one vulnerable to the sun’s aging effect, and even skin cancer.

An anti-inflammatory and soothing agent, Azulene comes from German chamomile no less. You’ll find it in products like face creams, body creams, sunburn remedies, burn ointments, and bath salts.

Acetyl hexapeptide-3
This ingredient—sometimes listed as “argeline”—has started to show up in a lot of skincare and makeup products lately, especially those screaming, “It works like Botox!” It’s supposed to relax facial tension to reduce all those lovely lines and wrinkles; I say “supposed to” because it has yet to be validated. One concern with this product is that it could potentially relax your whole face so much that it would cause facial sagging—nice.

Also called oxybenzone, avobenzone, or just plain benzophenone without the “3,” this ingredient is a good weapon in the anti-aging battle. It’s a common ingredient in sunscreen, moisturizers, and foundation because it’s able to absorb UVB rays and some—but not all—of the sun’s UVA rays.

I see the word “collagen” and I think floppy lips, baby cheeks on an adult, and Meg Ryan—in other words, fake. Collagen is actually a protein that occurs naturally within our body tissues, working with elastin, to give skin its texture and structure. Because our skin loses its flexibility and ability to retain moisture naturally as we age (and expose ourselves to too much sun), we try to boost it unnaturally by using animal- and plant-derived collagens in our cosmetics—hence you’ll see it listed on every product I own. Collagen is a good water-binding agent, but sadly, it is not yet proven to stimulate or produce collagen in our skin. Still, I believe …

I usually avoid products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient in the same way that I hate to see colors like “yellow 5” listed on a label. While the chemicals are there for a reason, fragrance and color are simply there to mask the natural (or unnatural) smell and color of the product. Plus, fragrances in cosmetics are often skin irritants.

Glycerin, also called glycerol and glycerine, is a clear liquid made by combining water and fat (animal or vegetable), and is used in many cosmetics and toiletries because it improves the consistency of creams and lotions, helping them retain moisture.

The Devil You Know: Glycerin used to get a bad rap for drawing too much water out of the skin, making the skin even drier, but a 2000 study by the American Journal of Contact Dermatitis showed that glycerin in fact helps other skin fats do their job better. Go, glycerin!

Hydroquinone is not an alternate fuel source for your vehicle (my first guess), but when you see it listed on the back of your potions and lotions, you can lighten up. It’s there to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots related to pregnancy or hormone therapy.

I’ve always equated the ingredient “retinol” with eternal youth, and it’s nice to know that I wasn’t that far off—a little exaggerated perhaps, but close. Retinol is a form of vitamin A, and it’s absorbed through the skin to increase the rate of skin turnover and boost collagen. It improves pigmentation, skin texture, fine lines, wrinkles, and skin’s hydration levels.

The Devil You Know: Retinyl palmitate falls into the same family as retinol, but if the product you choose contains it, you’ll need to use more of this product than one that contains retinol to get the same effect.

I’d have great difficulty skimming over this ingredient on the back of my label, because if it doesn’t have enough letters in it to cause cancer, it would at the very least give me a headache trying to pronounce it. This ingredient is actually a plant extract (curcumin), and it’s used for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Go figure.

The beauty industry does not exactly make light reading of the labels on our skincare products, but I’m determined to read them in the same way that I read my food labels—as if I will gain a ton of weight and die (I need that extra incentive) if I skim over the main ingredients. I know to focus on the first few ingredients listed on the label and to look for the active ingredients that I care about there, remembering that if they are listed up top, the ingredient is more potent, and I get more value for my money. Knowing a little more than beeswax about my shampoo also means I get to relax a little more when soaking in the tub.


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