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4 easy tricks to shop for skincare like a biochemist

Written By The Lab Team 02 Aug 2021
4 easy tricks to shop for skincare like a biochemist

The fact of the matter is: ingredient lists are INTIMIDATING.

What’s worse is that skincare companies often make them that way intentionally. The real "science" behind most skincare products is usually buried underneath an impressive marketing story, which often is put in place to distract you from what is completely incorrect skincare chemistry. Because of the lack of FDA regulations on the skincare industry, it is unfortunately completely legal to produce products that are known to be biologically incorrect/ineffective. 

To help with this situation, our Lab Team has put together a couple easy (and FUN, we think! 🤓) tricks of our own to help you cut through the clever marketing tricks and see what’s TRULY going on inside a product you’re considering. If you follow these when you look at ANY product on the market, you’ll be able to know exactly how effective it might be (or not be) and whether it’s worth your time and money BEFORE you buy.

The four easy tricks to analyze any skincare product like a biochemist:

  1. Find the REAL ingredients list (this is more difficult than it sounds)
  2. Use a browser trick to see what’s ACTUALLY in the product
  3. Check the concentration % (if it’s not listed, run!)
  4. Check to see if the product base is water, oil, silicone etc.

Step 1: Try to find a product’s REAL ingredients list 

This is more challenging than it sounds because a lot of brands have a section called “key ingredients” or “ingredient summary” that looks like ingredient lists but isn’t at all reflective of what's inside. 

As a quick example, try to find the real ingredient list on this page. 

In some cases, you’ll find that you have to go to a major U.S. retailer’s website (where ingredients are required to be listed) to get the real list. (Example: Full ingredients are not listed on this product. You can find them listed on Revolve’s website though. Note: If you’re looking for “hyaluronic acid” btw, you won’t find it. The form used in this product is “sodium hyaluronate,” the salt crystalline powder form. And it’s listed AFTER phenoxyethanol, which is a big no no. But more on that later.)

But once you find them, the ingredient lists are often long and intimidating to pretty much everyone except cosmetic chemists. So it’s important to use our other trick to help you find what you’re looking for! See Step 2.

Step 2: Use a fun website search trick to spot the specific form of retinol being used

As a quick reminder, because of the lack of regulations on the skincare industry, a skincare company can put a single molecule of an ineffective derivative (or as we call them “distant cousins”) form of a superstar ingredient like retinol and still call it a “Retinol Serum.” In other words, a product can contain no retinol renewing power and it’s totally legal. (Read more about this in our current regulations post)

The quick hack to avoid having to read through the whole list and to see which forms of ingredients are being used, go to real ingredients list and use the search function on your browser:

On a PC: Hold “Ctrl” and type “F”
On a Mac: Hold “Command” and type “F”

In the little box that pops up, type in the root prefix of the ingredient you’re looking for. For vitamin C, you’ll type “ascorb”––for retinol, type “ret.” These prefixes are the only used by all forms retinol ingredients. When you look at the ingredient list, the retinol ingredient will be highlighted for you, which is especially helpful the “retinol” ingredient is something like “hydroxypinacolone retinoate––which looks nothing like retinol.

Give it a try!

This product is a FUN example to try these steps on since it has TWO forms of retinol (and a hard-to-find ingredient list). 

Click the link above, find the REAL ingredient list and then use Command F/Ctrl F to look for “ret”! 

It should look something like this:

As you can see, the product contains both “hydroxypinacolone retinoate” AND retinol. Polyurethane is not a form of retinol as you may have guessed. So despite the exciting marketing names, you can see that those are fundamentally the two forms of retinol being used. This means that no matter what clever technology is in this product, it will be limited to the effectiveness of these forms of retinol. (For more info on that, read our post on “the most effective forms of retinol)

Note for advanced readers: Since ingredients are listed in order of amount, you can assume that in this product, there is more hydroxypinacolone retinoate (listed first) than there is retinol (listed after). You can also assume that there is less retinol than there is lactic acid (listed between them). This is a little confusing since the “Key Ingredients” summary (below) claims that it has 3% “encapsulated retinol,” 1% “pinaretinol complex” (probably hydroxypinacolone retinoate), and 0.1% lactic acid. What this likely means is that the “encapsulated” part (likely one of the polymers) actually comprises most of that 3%, which means that there’s actually less than 0.1% retinol in it... Another way to discover this same fact is that all of these active ingredients (including their hyaluronic acid form, sodium hyaluronate) are listed after phenoxyethanol. In most markets like the US and Europe, it’s illegal to include phenoxyethanol in concentrations greater than 1% due to toxicity concerns. Thus, you can know that anything listed after that has less than 1% concentration. 

Here’s another fun example for practice and just because we feel very ok throwing a little shade on doctors who are as guilty of creating absurdly priced, ineffective skincare products as anyone!

And here’s an example for a 20% Vitamin C. Remember that pure, natural Vitamin C is in the form “ascorbic acid.” But just like retinol, if you type just the root prefix (for Vitamin C it’s “ascorb”) you’ll see which REAL form of the ingredient is being used. 

  1. Click the link above
  2. Find the FULL ingredients list
  3. Type Ctrl+F or Command+F and type “ret” for retinol and “ascorb” for Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

You can see the answers below. For the “Retinol Concentrate,” you’ll see two derivative forms of retinol being used––both of which only have a fraction of the effectiveness and potency of regular Vitamin A retinol (as discussed here).

An advanced tip (and perhaps the most disturbing things about this product) though is that both of these forms are listed after “phenoxyethanol.” As mentioned, since in the US, Europe and most other markets, products cannot contain more than 1% phenoxyethanol to avoid toxicity. Again, since ingredients are listed in order of amount, you can then know that there is less than 1% of either of these forms of retinol in this retinol “concentrate” serum. 

$149 for less than 1% of derivative forms of retinol. If this doesn’t give you the creeps about what else is on the market, it should! We definitely recommend you try this phenoxyethanol trick with some famous $200 and $300 doctor hyaluronic acid serums and a proprietary cream on the market using the ingredients they highlight (mainly hyaluronic acid and ascorbic acid). 

In the Vitamin C product, you’ll also see two derivative forms of Vitamin C as shown in the image below. In this case, these derivatives are also synthetic (machine-made) forms of Vitamin C, which is a strange contrast to the herbal, holistic tone on the rest of the page. As we mention elsewhere, synthetic derivatives may have some effectiveness, but the main thing you can know for certain is that it will never have the same potency or effectiveness as the pure, 100% bioavailable form “ascorbic acid.” Because of this, we see no reason to ever pay more for less!

Step 3: Look for the concentration %. If it’s not listed, run!

The concentration percentage of an ingredient is one of the key variables that is measured and  established and dictated by clinical research. In almost every case, if an ingredient is above a certain concentration and you won’t see a clinical benefit and if its above a certain concentration, you might see adverse effects. A great example of this is ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. At certain concentrations (1-2% for HA, up to 30% for glycerin) they draw moisture from the air into your skin to help your skin retain and moisturize itself. If you go above those concentrations, they actually turn around and start drawing moisture from your skin instead of the air and thus doing the opposite of what they’re meant to do. 

As you can see in the “Retinol Concentrate” Serum above, it’s absolutely vital to look for a listed concentration of the key ingredients, since companies aren’t legally required to put significant amounts of key ingredients in their products! 

If a company is using proper, clinically-recommended amounts of ingredients, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be bragging about it. (We definitely do!) And the inverse is true to! If the concentrations aren’t listed, it’s a pretty sure sign that something fishy is going on. 


Step 4: Figure out the product’s base ingredient (water, oil, silicone, peptide etc.)

There is an entire generation of research dedicated to what can and can’t be absorbed through the outer layer of your skin (the stratum corneum) to where it can get deep enough to make an impact on your skin to change its appearance. One of the most fundamental components of this is that molecules of a certain size (500 daltons) or larger simply cannot get past the surface of your skin (source). (As a frame of reference, peptides are usually around 15,000 daltons.)

Based on this established research, as a general rule of thumb, products that have significant amounts of oil, silicones or peptides are not going to allow absorption of the active ingredients they contain. These base ingredients will act as great moisturizing elements, which will show you the benefit of an additional application of moisturizer in your routine. But part of what makes them successful as moisturizers is that they sit firmly on the outer layer of your skin to prevent molecules like water from leaving. This is called an “occlusive” moisturizing effect and is one of the three key moisturizing components (note to write about this). But by the same action, they prevent other molecules from absorbing into your skin too. 

The moral of the story:

Ignore marketing claims, fancy stories and even the "data" you see on company websites about their proprietary technology. In-house studies are easy to skew and twist to tell any story they want. Look at the REAL ingredients used and make sure they're included in proper amounts and forms as dictated by academic clinical research. 

YOU have to hold skincare companies accountable to the science because, unfortunately, no one else is.