Cosmetic cover-up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 April, 2005, 12:00am

Does your face cream really contain the miracle ingredients it claims it does? Here are some clues to deciphering the contents listed on the label

Ever wonder what you're really putting on your face? The contents of cosmetic products are no secret. They are listed on the packaging, but deciphering what they mean can be a challenge. Here are some tips.

Descending order of quantity In the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the ingredients of cosmetic products to be listed in order of quantity.

The closer to the top of the list an ingredient is, the more of it there is. In a typical skin cream, water tops the list as it usually accounts for the bulk of the contents.

In addition to water, the top half of a list is also usually made up of emollients to moisturise the skin and emulsifers (such as caprylic/capric triglyceride, glyceryl stearate, cetearyl alcohol and stearic acid), which keep the oil and water from separating and give the mixture a smooth texture.

The second half tends to include preservatives and the so-called active ingredients that claim to benefit the skin. In skin creams, they will likely be sunscreens, antioxidants - vitamin E (tocopherol) and vitamin C (sodium ascorbate) - and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). At the bottom of the list are the colour dyes and fragrances.

If you are buying a cream because of its supposed natural ingredients, such as lavender extract, and these ingredients are listed near the bottom of the list, you probably won't get enough of them to feel the benefits.

Likewise, if you're buying an expensive anti-ageing cream because of its purported revolutionary ingredient, you'll want to know how much of the ingredient it contains.

What do they really mean?

Cosmetics companies use buzzwords because they have considerable marketing value but, according to dermatologists, they have little medical substantiation. The FDA has tried to establish official definitions for certain terms but its regulations have been overturned in court.

Here is a list of common buzzwords and their meanings:

'Natural' implies that ingredients are extracted directly from plants or animal products as opposed to being synthetically produced. But there is no scientific legitimacy to the notion that products containing natural ingredients are good or better for the skin. A word of advice: if you want a product with pure essential oils, steer clear of terms such as 'essence of', 'extract of', or 'aromatic oil'. These are less potent blends or synthetics. The pure stuff will simply say 'essential oil' or the name of the oil, such as 'roman chamomile oil'.

'Hypoallergenic' implies a product is less likely to cause an allergic reaction. There are no scientific studies to substantiate this claim. Likewise, the terms 'dermatologist-tested', or 'non-irritating' carry no guarantee that they will not cause skin reactions.

'Alcohol free' traditionally meant that certain cosmetic products do not contain ethyl alcohol. But they may contain other alcohols such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl or lanolin, which are known as fatty alcohols and are needed to emulsify creams and carry essential oils. Some alcohols, such as isopropyl, methanol and ethanol, can have a drying effect on the skin if they are used in large quantities.

'Fragrance free' does not mean no fragrance has been added. Rather, it implies that the product has no noticeable odour. Fragrance may be added to a cosmetic to mask any offensive odour originating from the raw materials used.

'Noncomedogenic' suggests that products do not contain common pore-clogging ingredients that could lead to acne.

'Cruelty Free' implies that the end-product was not tested on animals. However, what many customers are not aware of is that most ingredients used in cosmetics have at some point been tested on animals.

While it is a daunting task to get to know all the commonly used ingredients in cosmetics, it pays to ask questions when buying a product.

In some cases, it boils down to common sense. By knowing your skin, you will know what's best for it.

For example, if you have oily skin, you should avoid mineral oil, isopropyl palmitate, petrolatum and various oils that can clog pores.

Conversely, dry skin can be enriched by oils.

Those with sensitive or allergy-prone skin should avoid synthetic fragrances, FD & C dyes and AHAs.