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Illustration by Irene Lee

The last time I checked, buying a cleanser wasn’t just buying a cleanser but a quest that involves opening 50 tabs on Chrome and comparing not just the ingredient list but also the brand’s mission and product reviews.

I guess this process would be easier if I stuck to the cleanser that did a good job the first time. But where’s the fun in that?

Skin care is fun because of the micro ahhh experiences and joys of experimenting.

The downside of experimenting is that I never feel 100 percent confident in “what works.” Even after I pay, I feel a bit of uncertainty and am afraid of putting a product on my skin. What if it causes me to break out? What if it irritates and dries out my skin?

I might “know” what ingredients to look for, but breaking down five products’ 25-item ingredient lists is so time-consuming. Hence the 50 tabs for one cleanser.

Sometimes, like in the case of the Kylie Skin scrub, the internet has our backs, warning us ahead of time to avoid abrasive ingredients like walnut powder. But without celebrity pull, the average person has to completely trust a brand, either through their marketing, packaging, or customer reviews.

Or they may have to learn how to curate their skin care needs based on ingredient lists. “[Reading and checking ingredient lists] really helps to differentiate between marketing and reality,” Judit Racz, founder of INCIDecoder, an online tool for understanding the ingredient lists (incis) of beauty products, tells me.

I’ve been using INCIDecoder almost every week to research products after someone on reddit recommended it. For me, the draw is that it’s an alternative to sites that had a habit of assigning moral value to ingredients or were ultimately created to hype their own products.

INCIDecoder is my way of filtering through skin care noise

I love this site primarily because it’s the opposite of the ones I avoid or hate. It’s clean, organized, supported by research (they include their sources without asking you to trust them blindly), and free of judgment. For example, when an ingredient is listed as “icky,” that refers to the fact that it has potential to hurt your skin barrier or cause irritation, not because it’s on their “dirty dozen.”

“INCIDecoder is about... combining awesome technology with cosmetic science knowledge to create a tool that enables everyone to understand and analyze ingredient lists at a press of a button. [You can use this site to] understand and analyze the ingredient list of a cosmetic product you are interested in,” Racz explains.

INCIDecoder presents the facts and leaves the decision up to you.

The INCIDecoder rating system:
  • Superstars. A super strict rating, this means the ingredient is well researched, well understood, and does really good things for the skin (think retinol or niacinamide).
  • Goodie. A more permissive rating, this signals that an ingredient generally does something nice for your skin.
  • Icky. This rating is for potentially problematic ingredients, like fragrance allergens or other potential irritants.
  • No rating. Ingredients that don’t get a rating (but do get a description) are functional ingredients, like emulsifiers or thickeners, that are necessary for the product but not there to make your skin nice and healthy.

“Of course, it is never black and white how to rate an ingredient, but we think most dermatologists and other cosmetic chemists would agree with most of our ratings,” Racz says. “And if they do not, or if anyone does not, we have feedback buttons on every page so that anyone can help us with improving our information.”

As Racz tells me how to use the site, I realize INCIDecoder was way more user-friendly than I thought.

If a product you’re interested in isn’t publicly available in their database, you can create an account to upload your own ingredient list or upload a photo of the ingredient list. The website will immediately decode the list and tell you the goodies and potential baddies. (Submitting new products for public approval to the database takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks to get approved, but you can also see the product breakdown right away via a direct link.)

My favorite feature by far is the ability to compare products based on their ingredient lists.

It was through this site I found a possible dupe for my priciest holy grail: Barrier Restore Serum by Marie Veronique and Kristina Holey at $110 a bottle. (Did I tell you how in 2017 I suddenly broke out in hives and got contact dermatitis? Well, a derm actually recommended a $200 steroid cream, so this was way cheaper.)

With INCIDecoder’s newest feature, I found that Stratia’s Liquid Gold ($24) might have just enough of the same goodies to be a stand-in for my favorite restore serum. It’s not an exact copy. Marie and Kristina’s proprietary formula is what makes their product a holy grail. But if I can give my wallet a reprieve without sacrificing my skin, why not?

Of course, you can’t determine everything from an ingredient list alone, either

For example, Kylie Jenner’s skin care line: The largest question the internet has to ask is, is it just an upsell of the internet’s most hated walnut scrub?

While INCIDecoder can’t easily provide that information to you yet, Racz hopes to eventually have a feature that will recognize when different brands share the same ingredient list.

“We already recognize exact duplicate ingredient lists used currently by our admins to know if a product is already on the site or not. We plan to improve this feature to be smarter about slight differences and make it into a feature that recommends similar products or points out duplicates,” Racz says.

However, it’s important to note that a duplicate ingredient list doesn’t mean it’s the exact same product. Formula matters.

Perry Romanowski, blogger and cosmetologist behind The Beauty Brains, notes, “Yes, it is possible to have the same ingredient list and not be the same product. There could certainly be some slight formulation-level differences, which consumers may or may not notice. Most likely, the differences wouldn’t be noticeable to consumers.”

Racz agrees. “There is only so much you can tell from an ingredient list,” she says.

Other features of INCIDecoder:

  • Compare products based on the ingredient list.
  • Read explanations about cosmetic ingredients.
  • Look for products with or without certain ingredients.

“You do not know the exact percentage of the ingredients used,” Racz explains. “There are also lots of ingredients that have multiple types and grades with the exact same inci name and the formulation method. The way the ingredients got combined by the formulating chemist can matter too.”

Romanowski also cautions there’s a risk for missing red flags if you don’t know how to read ingredient lists properly.

“Consumers [can be] tricked into believing misinformation about their products. For example, when someone sees ‘aloe vera’ in the ingredient list, they might come to the mistaken conclusion that the aloe is having any impact on the formula. The reality is that ingredients like petrolatum and mineral oil are having the effect. The aloe is just for marketing appearances.”

In that case, it’s good that INCIDecoder breaks down the purpose of the ingredients. As ingredients are often listed by concentration, seeing aloe vera on the label but noticing it at the bottom of the inci can be a red flag the brand is trying to mislead.

Still, for your wallet’s sake, it doesn’t hurt to double-check the ingredient list.

“They are helpful in helping consumers identify less expensive formulas that will work as well as high-priced products,” Romanowski says. “If the formula ingredient lists are similar, the products may perform very similarly.”

In the end, reading ingredient lists is a hobby — but one that frees and protects me

We shouldn’t expect the internet, even with thousands of likes and reviews, to tell us what’s good for our skin. (Yes, I did hear the paradox in that as I, a beauty editor, typed it out.) Ultimately what product or ingredient for you is a matter of understanding skin as your skin. What works for Kylie isn’t necessarily going to work for you.

Or it might.

After all, even a product the internet despises will still be a fan favorite. St. Ives’ Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub, the aforementioned Kylie dupe, has won Allure’s Reader Choice Award from 2004 to 2018 (except once in 2008).

It can be incredibly hard to divorce the idea that using something bad for your skin isn’t also a commentary on you as a person. I recently had a day of skin care conversations in which I convinced my friends to drop St. Ives, daily Clarisonic, and back-to-back acids from their routine. I can’t help that in my well-intentioned advice, I also made them feel bad, and at fault, for the state of their skin.

At the same time, our social media feeds are more inundated with skin care buzzwords. The “beauty represents who you are as a person” conversation is quickly being turned for profit without consideration for how it affects consumers.

If you didn’t think skin care was a political process in 2017, well, the way brands layer skin goals by advocating for transparency, environmentalism, and inclusivity, undeniably shows that it is now.

Sometimes I fall for the marketing, and sometimes I believe a brand is genuine. But often when I’m tired of the noise, I fall back on reading ingredient lists. As Racz mentions, when it comes to deciphering between marketing and reality, ingredient lists are “often the most honest part of a product’s packaging.”


Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline who writes and edits content revolving around sex, beauty, health, and wellness. She’s constantly looking for ways to help readers forge their own health journey. You can find her on Twitter.