Thursday, June 10, 2010

Read Your Labels! And Eat Your Vegetables!

Everyone has that moment when they realize they made the right decision. I agonized for months trying to figure out if I really should go back to school to get my Esthetician license. The idea of leaving a cushy (albeit annoyingly political) corporate job for the uncertainty of being my own business owner was terrifying. I kept looking for signs that my choice to become an esthetician was the right one. I was looking for signs everywhere, in encouraging comments from co-workers ("you'll make more money then all of us someday!") or friends ("what a perfect fit!") even from the internet (articles about people following their dreams during a recession).

But the clearest sign and the moment when I knew I had made the right choice was when my teacher Ms. Angela picked up a skin care product on one of the very first days of Esthetician school and said, "To be successful in this industry, you need to be a label reader." She proceeded to lecture on the science and chemical compounds behind many popular ingredients in skin care products. Now it may seem strange to many people that my ah-ha moment came courtesy of an admonition similar to "Eat Your Vegetables". But I'm a label reader at heart. I can go into CVS and spend an hour or two browsing the hair and skin care aisles scanning the products for their ingredients. I knew what cyclomethicone was years before I worked in the hair care industry (thanks Dale!). I've been obsessed with active ingridients in skin care products ever since 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide saved my life in a way that 10% Benzoyl Peroxide never did. So I knew as soon as Ms. Angela told us to start reading labels that I had found the right industry. 

How do you develop your own label reading skills? First things first, you have to have a healthy dose of skepticism to all the marketing BS on the front of the packaging. I worked for 10 years in marketing so I can call it BS. Mostly what they are calling out on the front is "New," "improved" and some made-up, focus-grouped word like "illuminactiv" that's supposed to make you think it's a new technology. But really it's just some made-up, focus-grouped word. Then you need to start looking at the top three ingridients of your favorite products. Nine times out of ten, the first ingredient is water, which I know is disheartening. But water is essential to life, so why wouldn't it be essential to your hair and skin care products? Ingredients are listed in descending order from most abundant to least abundant, so the ones that you care about, the ones that companies are spending the majority of their cost of goods on, are at the top. 

Why does this matter? I know some skin creams that advertise a magical ingredient and then when you read the ingredients on the back of the package, that magical ingredient is near the bottom of the list. It pays to be a label reader and to start to learn the key ingredients that work with your skin and hair. For example, I like cyclomethicone in small doses on my hair, but I have to be careful if it is listed near the top of the ingredient list. Or if a product has salicylic acid, it's more than likely going to break me out. The more you know about ingredients, the smarter consumer you'll be. 

Which brings me to the article that inspired this post. From the New York Times, a story about gold in skin care products.
This type of stuff makes me so annoyed. It's about combining the latest trend (luxury! anti-recession!) with some scientific mumbo-jumbo to create the new must-have product. Only if you talk to dermatologists, they'll say there's no real proof that gold does anything for your skin. I'm sure the companies that market these products can dig up some dermatologists that say how amazing gold is for your skin. But the truth is probably something closer to the quote at the end of the article, "At best, they do nothing, and at worst, they can give you irritation of the skin." So before you rush out to buy the latest and the greatest product that is marketed to change your life, make sure you read the label and do your research.

Here's a pic of a label from my favorite sunblock, Blue Lizard.

The resolution's not that great, but trust me, the first ingredient is water. The other thing I want to point out is the active ingredients at the top. The best definition that I found on active ingredients is:
"Components of a chemical product which (irrespective of their relative quantity) help directly in achieving its performance objectives."* In plain english, active ingredients give a product the ability to do what it says it's going to do. So when you are looking at skin care products, pay close attention to the active ingredients. This is especially important in Sunblocks, where they list whether the active ingredients are physical (e.g. titanium dioxide) or chemical. If you have problem skin, like acne, or sensitive skin, these active ingredients are where you are going to get the most bang for your buck. But don't always assume that the higher the active ingredients the better the product. I learned that lesson from 10% Benzoyl Peroxide which is too harsh for my skin. Look for the active ingredients and do your own testing to determine what is the right mix for your skin! 

What if your product doesn't have any active ingredients? It doesn't mean that it's not going to do anything for your hair or skin. But what it probably means is that if you looked at your favorite moisturizer, for example, found the ingredients at the top of the ingredients list and then looked for something similar, you'd probably get the same effect on your skin. This doesn't take into account other factors, like smell or texture that you might like in particular about your favorite product. I'm just talking about boiling down products to the key element, ingredients. It's a different way of looking at your products. For example, my moisturizers that I like are all pretty much water and glycerin. And my dry shampoos that I love so much? Butane and starch.

So what are your favorite active ingredients? What key ingredients do your favorite products have? It's a fun exercise if you are like me and dream of being a beauty scientist!


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