I wish I could point you to one superlative site for researching the ingredients in beauty products, but there’s no simple answer here. The experts I consulted — including dermatologists, aestheticians, formulators, and chemists — use a variety of resources: some to assess an ingredient’s allergen potential, others to research health and safety issues, and still others to determine the topical benefits of particular actives, like bakuchiol or vitamin C. I’ll share a few of these resources below, but remember that everything you learn from them has to be taken in context. “I always caution non-chemists and nonphysicians about doing their own research because the formulation of a product matters arguably more than the ingredients themselves,” says dermatologist Caroline Robinson, M.D.
Multiple experts I spoke with mentioned that INCIDecoder is an easy site for consumers to use. It’s compiled using INCI names, which are the standardized terms used on ingredient lists. “You just type in an ingredient and the database will provide a simple definition,” says cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline, the founder of product-development firm KKT Consultants. Licensed aesthetician and product formulator Mary Schook also likes this site because it provides a list of products that include the ingredients you’re searching for.
There is also CosIng, the resource mentioned most frequently by the experts I polled. CosIng includes information on more than 15,000 ingredients and was created in 2008 by the European Commission as a way for companies and the government to standardize ingredient labeling (again, using INCI names) and compile data on potential health and safety risks. The database is updated regularly and links to safety opinions issued by the E.U.’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety. “They offer extensive safety explanations that are determined by multidisciplinary teams, including medical doctors, toxicologists, chemists, and other experts,” says dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, M.D.
The U.S. government does not maintain a similar site; the closest thing we have is probably the Cosmetic Ingredient Review database. Although it was developed with the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America, it’s funded by the Personal Care Products Council, a beauty-industry trade association that lobbies on behalf of cosmetics companies. However, the CIR steering committee is designed to operate independently from the PCPC, and it does involve “representatives from various organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology,” says dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, M.D.
A bunch of other ingredient glossaries and databases are more consumer friendly, but experts say you should approach most of these with caution. “You have to consider who is behind the website and their motivation to have it,” says Koestline. Some online ingredient glossaries maintained by brands may cherry-pick data to make the ingredients they use in their formulations seem more effective or healthier than similar ingredients used in competitors’ products. Even databases maintained by nonprofit organizations such as the Environmental Working Group can be biased, according to Waldorf, Robinson, Schook, and cosmetic chemist Ginger King, president of the product-development firm Grace Kingdom Beauty. These types of organizations may use research findings out of context to vilify ingredients that don’t align with their agendas or to exclude negative information about ingredients used by brands that donate to their causes or pay to have their products verified.
If you’re interested in learning about the beauty benefits of a particular active ingredient, several of the dermatologists I spoke with said they start with PubMed, which compiles citations from biomedical literature. Formulators and chemists also use that site and get additional information “directly from ingredient suppliers,” says King. Unfortunately, raw-material suppliers don’t typically share their research publicly, but chemists Gloria Lu and Victoria Fu, the co-founders of Chemist Confessions, suggest you check out the studies linked on INCIDecoder’s pages or the Beautypedia Ingredient Checker, which cites independent research but is maintained by the cosmetics company Paula’s Choice. “These two sites are relatively low on bias and are great starting places for those who want to learn more about ingredients,” say Lu and Fu.
If it feels like I just gave you a bunch of homework, I’m sorry! But beauty products are complicated, and I’d be wary of any site (or person, for that matter) that speaks in absolutes, claims to know the truth, or glorifies or disparages particular ingredients or types of ingredients. Real experts will tell you there are no absolute truths in the science of beauty or in any science. Our knowledge of ingredients, what they do, and how they work is always evolving — these resources are just a starting point.
Jennifer Sullivan answers all your beauty-related questions with practical advice and zero judgment. Send your questions to AskABeautyEditor@nymag.com. (By emailing, you agree to the terms here.)
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