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How can I tell the percentage of ingredients in cosmetics?

Rae really wants to know…Hi, in your blog you talked about the 1% line. I’m not a cosmetic chemist and I kind of always wondered how to guestimate where the 1% line is. So my question is, if you’re not a cosmetic chemist, what’s a good guide to know more or less the ratio of an ingredient to the whole product?

The Beauty Brains respond

This is a really tricky question because there is no single answer that covers all products. But we can give you a very rough, general rule of thumb to follow.

Ingredients in cosmeticsRainbow_of_food_natural_food_colors

The vast majority of cosmetic products are water based. These include emulsion products (oils mixed with water) like skin lotions and hair conditioners as well as surfactant products (detergents mixed with water) like body washes, shampoos and facial washes. In these product water, of course, will almost always be the first ingredient in the list. After that, the next 4 or 5 ingredients are usually the ones responsible for the primary functional properties of the product – in other words they are the cleansers that make it foam or the conditioners that make your hair and skin feel soft. The same principle applies to powder based products (like eyeshadow, foundation, and baby powder) as well as solvent based products (like water-free hairsprays and silicone shine sprays.) So the magic rule of thumb is the first 5 ingredients are the ones that matter the most. After the fifth ingredient everything else is probably below the 1% line. This is where a lot of “snake oil” ingredients hide.

The 1%

Now, before you start an “Occupy Cosmetics” movement to complain about the 1%, let me point out that this doesn’t mean that none of the ingredients below the 1% line matter. For example, certain active ingredients (like retinol for skin) are used at levels below 1%. Pigments are always used at very low levels yet they are critically important to color cosmetics. And preservatives are only used at a few tenths of percent, yet I wouldn’t want to buy a product without them! There are many exceptions to this “First Five” rule.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

This rule of thumb is about the best guideline we can give to help you guestimate the level of ingredients in cosmetics. But that’s just our humble opinion: If there are any other cosmetic scientists reading this post we’d love to hear if you have a different perspective. And if anyone has a question about a specific ingredient in a particular product, we’d be glad to help answer any questions. Just leave a comment on this post or start a thread our Forum.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eileen March 12, 2015, 11:18 am

    The Big 5 (ingredients; not the store 🙂 ) is a great guideline but, as you Brains pointed out, it is not the end all be all since so many ingredients are actually used in very small amounts and yet they are still effective. Thank you for mentioning what some of those tiny wonders are. We’re so conditioned to the idea of more is better that we often overlook the fact that many ingredients are not needed or desired in large quantities.

  • Rae March 13, 2015, 5:30 pm

    Thanks for answering my question 🙂

    • Randy Schueller March 13, 2015, 5:40 pm

      You’re welcome – this was one of the questions that was lost when our server crashed and I was just now able to restore it.

  • Margo December 27, 2017, 8:53 pm

    So one of the more recent hypes in skin care is hyaluronic acid. I, of course, want to jump on this hype train and I noticed that with products that contain hyaluronic acid it is either in the top 5 listed ingredients or one of the last. Does the higher percentage really make a difference, or is having 1% of hyaluronic acid in a product make it sufficient enough to show results?

    • Perry Romanowski January 9, 2018, 11:04 am

      Typically, ingredients are dose dependent so a higher amount will lead to better results (up to a point). But Hyaluronic acid is a simply a humectant so I’m not sure what benefits you’re looking for. You probably won’t notice much.

  • Jen January 13, 2018, 5:33 pm

    Thank you for posting this Q&A, especially the “A”! I’m fanatical but rational about skin care, meaning, I love products but am immune to hype–well, my wallet is, at least. The thing that REALLY gets me is a product that highlights great ingredients… only to include them in teeny amounts (except retinol, etc., as you mentioned), while the top 3 ingredients are all fillers and/or mundane. I realize that water, glycerin, and CC triglyc are good and essential, but they don’t justify the price tag! (Don’t even get me started on packaging…)

  • Lisa February 14, 2018, 1:21 pm

    So where does the ‘first five’ or ‘first ten’ rule come from? Is this an FDA regulation?

    • Perry Romanowski April 3, 2018, 8:41 am

      No. It’s just an educated guess based on our knowledge of cosmetic formulating.

  • Leticia April 11, 2019, 9:57 pm

    So, there’s currently a debate going on in a Beauty forum regarding the MAC Face & Body foundation formula. Most people say it’s water based as MAC themselves used to claim it was water based but this is the ingredient list they have on their web:
    Ingredients: Water\Aqua\Eau , Dimethicone , Hydrogenated Polyisobutene , Butylene Glycol , Pvp/Hexadecene Copolymer , Stearic Acid , Phenyl Trimethicone , Polyglyceryl-3 Diisostearate , Ethylhexyl Hydroxystearate , Vp/Eicosene Copolymer , Talc , Tocopherol , Tocopheryl Acetate , Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) , Fusanus Spicatus Wood Oil , Xanthan Gum , Triethanolamine , Polysorbate 20 , Magnesium Aluminum Silicate , Trimethylsiloxysilicate , Cetyl Alcohol , Disodium Edta , Phenoxyethanol , Chlorphenesin , [+/- Mica , Titanium Dioxide (Ci 77891) , Iron Oxides (Ci 77491, Ci 77492, Ci 77499) , Chromium Oxide Greens (Ci 77288)]

    As per your rule of thumb this would clearly be a silicone based formula emulsified with water right?
    Your clarification would be of great enlightenment.
    Thank you

    • Perry Romanowski April 17, 2019, 4:48 pm

      This is a water based formula with silicones emulsified in it. Since water is the first ingredient, it is the most abundant. Also, other ingredients are water soluble like Xanthan gum, phenoxyethanol, disodium EDTA, etc.