Demystifying Ingredients

Want to know how to read the ingredients labels on your favourite skincare products? Here's how to unravel what's actually inside them. 

Want to know how to read the ingredients labels on your favourite skincare products? Here's how to unravel what's actually inside them.

I could honestly write hundreds of pages going through these. Over the years, factors such as technology, research, marketing, economics, cosmetic chemistry, climate and our wants and needs, have all affected what we see, believe and buy.

Let's start with the surprising fact that the word natural is unregulated in the Australian skincare industry. This can be confusing and misleading when it comes to labelling your favoured skincare products and truthfully revealing what they contain.

When selecting skincare, the ingredient list should be on the packaging. The list is in order of highest concentration to lowest. This will indicate if more chemicals, fillers, parabens, or fragrances take up most of the product, compared to the more active ingredients. I've underlined the active ingredients we use, to highlight what you want to find in your products.

It may be obvious, but it's important to note that if an ingredient or product is certified by a third-party association, it has more grounds of truth, and therefore quality.

Now, to provide you with a general overview of what goes into a typical skincare product, I've broken down these ingredients into categories. They can be naturally derived or synthetic, chemical-based or clean, organic, and animal or plant-based:

  • Preservatives
  • Emulsifiers
  • Surfactants
  • Emollients
  • Humectants
  • Thickeners
  • Fillers
  • Chemicals
  • Alcohol
  • Colours & Dyes
  • Fragrance


This will give you a brief understanding of each ingredient. If you want more information or specifics, there is a lot more out there, I recommend you delve deeper in your research.

Below you will find crucial information to help you make educated choices for your skin. No matter if you're buying, sampling or already using. Now don't worry, we don't expect you to know all the ingredients, let alone pronounce them. Scientific terminology may overawe. We do hope that you'll be able to recognise them when you next check the ingredients list of a product you're considering buying.

You will note that some of these may crossover. For example, some preservatives are also in the chemical category, some thickeners can also act as an emulsifying ingredient.

Active Ingredients cover everything from oils, plant extracts, vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, natural or synthetic, and animal or plant-based. This group of ingredients work to target specific skin conditions, examples:

  • hyaluronic acid
  • peptides
  • retinol/retinoids (vitamin A)
  • hydroquinone
  • benzoyl peroxide
  • alpha-hydroxy acids
  • beta hydroxy acids
  • ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
  • DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol)
  • niacinamide
  • ceramides
  • tocopherol (vitamin E)
  • green tea
  • antioxidants – a group of ingredients including vitamins, A, C, E, green tea, lycopene and niacinamide that neutralise and slow down the effect of free radical damage

Preservatives, as the name suggests, prolong the shelf life of a product. These can be based on parabens, essential oils, vitamins or plant extracts.

Parabens are synthetic chemicals used as preservatives in various products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food. The most common types of parabens to stay clear of are: 

  • methylparaben
  • ethylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • butylparaben
  • isopropylparaben 
  • isobutylparaben


Natural alternatives that work for you and the product:

  • potassium sorbate (a salt compound)
  • rosemary oil
  • citric acid
  • vitamin E or honeysuckle

At organicspa, we use highly antioxidant ingredients that double up as preservatives, rather than adding these separately.

 Emulsifiers are ingredients that allow water and oil to mix in a formula. Common emulsifiers include:

  • sodium stearoyl lactylate
  • mono and di-glycerols
  • ammonium phosphatide
  • locust bean gum and xanthan gum
  • beeswax
  • glyceryl stearate 
  • cetearyl alcohol (Please note, this is a fatty alcohol, derived from natural oils and is also moisturising.

Surfactants are cleansing and foaming agents that are used most commonly in cleansers. Their function is to degrease and emulsify oils and fats and suspend oil, allowing them to be washed away.

Here are some examples of ingredients used as surfactants: 

  • sodium lauryl sulfate
  • ammonium laureth sulfate
  • disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate
  • decyl glucoside
  • coco glucoside

Emollients are waxy, lubricating agents that contain a mixture of compounds used to soften, smooth, nourish and hydrate the skin. They also have occlusive properties, meaning they provide a layer of protection which helps prevent water loss. They go by the names:

  • lanolin
  • mineral oil
  • petrolatum
  • paraffin
  • beeswax
  • shea butter
  • cocoa butter
  • jojoba oil 
  • almond oil

Humectants are water-loving ingredients that draw moisture into the stratum corneum (epidermis) to reduce transepidermal water loss in the skin. 

Some examples:

  • propylene glycol
  • butylene glycol
  • pegs
  • silicone
  • urea
  • hyaluronic acid
  • fruit acids
  • sodium PCA
  • glycerine

When combined in one formulation, humectants and emollients work very well together for maximum hydration.

Thickeners are used in skincare to enhance consistency, volume and viscosity, thereby providing more stability and better performance.

Some examples: 

  • carbomer
  • cetyl palmitate
  • pegs
  • guar gum
  • xanthan gum 

Fillers. These can be inactive ingredients blended into a product to add chemical symbiosis or just "beef" up a formula. They may not do anything for you and can actually decrease the potency of the product.

Examples of these space wasters:

  • parabens
  • pegs
  • dyes
  • fragrance
  • water

    Chemicals. Here we're looking at the chemicals that have been shown to have these effects: carcinogenic, drying, irritating or causing skin sensitivity, or an endocrine-disrupting effect.  

    Here's what you really don't want: 

    • Parabens (listed with a prefix of methyl, butyl and propyl)
    • phthalates
    • talc
    • lead acetate
    • mineral oil
    • sodium laureth sulphate
    • sodium lauryl sulfate
    • formaldehyde
    • chemical UV filters
    • triclosan
    • synthetic colours and dyes
    • fragrance
    • pegs
    • alcohol
    • hydroquinone
    • petrolatum

    Alcohol. There are different types of alcohol used in skincare, some having harmful, and some have beneficial effects on the skin.

    Ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, alcohol denatured, and methanol are used to make creams feel lighter, help other ingredients penetrate the skin, and act as a preservative. These alcohols can cause dryness, irritation and breakouts. Also, these alcohols, when used in high concentration, may deteriorate your skin's protective barrier.

    Fatty alcohols are derived from vegetables and look utterly different from the aforementioned alcohols. These good fatty alcohols are usually solid pearly white wax pieces and can be used to emulsify cosmetics. They are not drying or irritating, in fact, they have the opposite effect. They act as emollients which protect the skin and help keep moisture in.

    Examples of fatty alcohols: 

    • cetearyl
    • cetyl
    • stearyl and behenyl alcohol (are the most common types)

     Colours and Dyes are mostly added to cosmetics like lipsticks, blushes, eye shadows and other beauty products to enhance and unify its colour. The toxins that artificial colours leave on your skin significantly increase your risk of sensitivity and irritation and allow these chemicals to be absorbed by your body. They can also block your pores, which leads to a greater risk of acne. Manufacturers are required to list the dyes they use on their product packaging. While they won't list out the individual chemicals they used to create the dye, they will record the dye as a whole.

    Look for vague terminology like: 

    • colourant
    • FDC blue no.1 
    • brilliant blue FCF
    • FD and C yellow no.6 ( sunset yellow )

    Fragrance – Most personal care products will list one ingredient called "fragrance" to identify the sum total of all those chemicals that make up the scent. Synthetic fragrance consisting of alcohol can be very drying and irritating on the skin. Here are some examples to look out for:

    • perfume
    • parfum
    • aroma

      For optimum skin health and to ensure your products provide long-term results, I recommend a clean skincare routine featuring many certified organic products that are high in active ingredients. Try to avoid products that are diluted with water, chemicals, fragrance and fillers.

      Under each category listed above, I've underlined the ingredients that we use here at organicspa. If there is no underlined ingredient in that category, it denotes we have not used them. 

      I hope you found this information helpful. If you're feeling overwhelmed, be sure to consult your favourite beauty therapist who can help you find the perfect skincare regime for your skin concerns. We know our stockists will be happy to help you. In the meantime, look out for these ingredients and try to purchase products with respected certifications. Below, you'll see some simple logos that help consumers identify ethical products.



      Natalie O’ Brien.

      Beauty Expert & Account Manager