When you're ready to get serious about your skin and what you're putting into it, you'll need to step up to some 201-level chemistry skills. First class: reading an ingredient list. This is critical to understand what you're buying and how your Geologie regimen stacks up against it.
Fear not! Ingredient lists aren’t as intimidating as they first appear—you’ve tackled much worse. Here are three quick tips for deciphering an ingredient list, without getting overwhelmed:
1. View Ingredient Lists in 3 Sections
Ingredients are listed in decreasing order of percent composition, just like food labels. Even for a product with 30 ingredients listed, the bulk of it – 80-90% – is comprised of the first 3-5 ingredients. Call this the top third of the list.
The top third of ingredients are responsible for the overall feel and function of the product, so pay attention. It’s these first ingredients that make a cleanser a cleanser, and an eye cream an eye cream.
The middle third of the list is made up of ingredients that contribute to stability and texture, and are generally present at levels between 1-10%. This may seem low, but these ingredients are not to be discounted; to a chemist, 1% is a significant amount! For some ingredients, a little truly goes a long way.
With the exception of color pigments, all ingredients present below 1% can (legally) be listed in any order that a brand chooses. Most choose to front-load the bottom section of the list with essential oils, and save the more chemically sounding ingredients for last, with the idea that most consumers think all ingredients are listed in descending order. We don't bother with this gamesmanship at Geologie and many of the ingredients that are listed at below 1% are still very powerful - retinol and kojic acid at 0.05% do a fantastic job!
2. Finding the 1% Line
How do you find the 1% line in most products? A good guide is to look for preservatives to help find the 1% line. Common preservatives include Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, and Sodium Benzoate.
Individual preservatives are used at very low levels, between 0.10-0.30%. Sometimes chemists use a premix of preservatives, totaling up to 1%. For the reason discussed above, however, chemists tend to list preservatives separately, using their individual percent composition so that they can list preservatives further down in the list.
Hold on - are preservatives bad? Absolutely not. Preservatives are absolutely essential to keeping skincare products safe and effective. There is no shame in that game.
3. Find the “Signal” Ingredient
Now read the first 2-3 ingredients before the first preservative, and any ingredients after. Are there any essential oils in this region? If there are, it’s likely one of two things is true: (1) the essential oils contribute a natural fragrance, while providing additional antimicrobials to boost the performance of the preservatives. (Remember, even ingredients at very low levels can be effective!) Or (2) if the essential oil is also listed on the front of the label, or is key to the product name or branding, the oil is likely added less for its chemical function and more for its marketing appeal as a “signal” ingredient.
Honest brands will either claim an essential oil, and use it at a precipitable amount—so that it appears within the first two thirds of the ingredient list—or they’ll use it as a subtle scent and preservative booster, but not as part of their marketing.
The rule of thirds is a simple way to gut-check the honesty of a product, and identify which ingredients really matter.