Active ingredients concentration

Dear beauty brains,
can you please explain how the concentration of active ingredients is measured and claimed on a cosmetic product? For example paulas choice clinical 1% retinol, is it weight/weight, weight/volume or volume/volume concentration of retinol? Are there any regulations about ingredient concentration in cosmetic products and if yes, are they different in USA and Europe?

And how can I as a consumer know, how effective one ingredient ist, without knowing the molar concentration of this ingredient?

Thanks a lot!


  • Cosmetic ingredients are typically measured on a weight/weight basis. There are no regulatory requirements for required concentration of cosmetic ingredients. (Unless that cosmetic is actually an over the counter drug.)

    As a consumer, knowing the concentration doesn't always give you all the information you need. For example, a 0.5% retinol that is encapsulated may be more effective than a 1.0% retinol formula that is not encapsulated. In other words, the formula can impact the delivery of the active.  
  • You know what kills me, a cream that advertises it contains a certain star ingredient, like a fancy plant find it at the bottom of the ingredient list.  A good example is shiseido's ultimune serum.  All the "goodies"they advertise are in lesser concentrations than the fragrance, colour and preservatives.  What's the point?
  • The point is to draw attention to the "hero" ingredient to entice you to buy the product. 
  • i agree but you would think the formulators would want to sell an effective product to remain competetive?
  • First of all, the star ingredient is not always (not often) the ingredient that makes the product effective. You can have a very effective product and still advertise it based on an ingredient that does nothing. 

    Second, the formulators are not the ones who sell the product and they are not the ones making such marketing decisions. 
  • but you would think if estee lauder wants to sell a face cream that is effective and sells really well. they would have their in house chemists give them a really good formula.
  • I'm sorry if I'm not being clear so I'll try to restate my position. Companies DO want effective products and formulators DO create "really good formulas." But formulators don't always need to use star ingredients at high levels in order to create a good formula. Many times, the formulator creates a highly effective product and Marketing asks the formulator to add the star ingredient just give them something to talk about in advertising. Hopefully this makes sense.
  • Does sometimes adding the "star ingredient" actually throw off the formulation and when you have to re-stabilize it the product actually is less effective than it was without it? Or maybe a different feel, or application that could be less desirable just o be able to say "We got organic argan oil!! Wooo!"
  • usually these hero ingredients are at such low concentrations that it would make zero difference if they were included or not...shiseido ultimune is an example
  • Unless something has gone horribly wrong, there's no reason that adding a star ingredient at very low levels would cause any problem with the formula.
  • Be carefull if you buy retinol serums or creams in Europe cause the Scientific commitee had published an opinion (sccs/1576/16) that would prevent companies to sell products with more than 0.3% of retinol. @RandyS what do you think about it?
  • edited September 2017
    It's possible to overdose on Vitamin A (retinol) because too much can affect the liver, cause birth defects, and have other side effects. The SCCS looked at how much Vit A might enter the blood stream through the skin and then calculated the maximum allowable concentration for Vit A for each product type. This seems like a reasonable approach to protect the public. Of course not everyone uses all the vitamin A products that the SCCS evaluated so the risk factor will be lower for many people.
    Here's the link in case anyone wants to read the report:
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