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You are intrigued by claims made by manufacturers of skincare products but reading the product labels can be baffling.

Ms May Cheah, Principal Pharmacist, Pharmacy Department, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group, decodes the ingredients used in skincare products and tells you the allergy side-effects of some chemicals.

List of ingredients

  • Helps you avoid ingredients you’re allergic to, like lanolin or paraben, or those that you might have a personal or religious conviction against, such as animal oils.
  • Ingredients may be listed by their chemical or botanical names. For instance, tocopherol acetate is the chemical name for vitamin E, while chamomilla recuitia matricaria is camomile and pyrus malus refers to apple.
  • Ingredients are listed in descending order of amount in the product. In lotions, for example, water or aqua is listed first, indicating there is more water (by percentage) than other ingredients in the product.
  • Glycerin, jojoba oil, shea butter, propylene glycol and sorbitol are some of the more common oils, waxes and emollients used in skincare products, while zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are used as whiteners or sunblock.
  • Sodium citrate or citric acid is commonly added to adjust the pH (acidity and alkalinity) of the product, and stabilisers such as xanthan gum are used to ensure the product has the desired consistency.
  • The amount of the active ingredient is usually low, like alpha hydroxyl acids (AHA) in anti-ageing products or herbal extract in a herbal preparation. This means that the risk of developing an allergic reaction to such substances is usually low.

Some chemicals, though necessary additions, may cause irritation or allergy

These include:

  • Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), a foaming agent that is found in cleansers, shampoos, bubble baths and toothpaste. It has a drying effect and therefore should be avoided if you have eczema or psoriasis. As an alternative, you can use products containing cocos nucifera (coconut extract).
  • Fragrance and colourings (usually labelled as CI followed by a five digit number) are notorious allergens. Avoid products containing these ingredients if you have allergic contact dermatitis. Acids may dry out the skin. A pH-balanced product is more suitable for sensitive skin.
  • Preservatives, for example, paraben (methylparaben, propylparaben) might cause irritation to those allergic to it.
    Products containing natural ingredients are less irritating to the skin, but tend to be pricier. The choice is ultimately still yours, as cheaper substitutes, for example, mild products (pH-balanced, fragrance-free, colour-free) can work just as well.

The right skincare sequence

Something that is not often found on labels is the sequence in which skincare products should be used. Ms Cheah advises starting your routine with a cleanser. Once a week, This may be followed by a mask or scrub to exfoliate dead skin (once a week). Then, apply toner to restore the pH balance and remove residue from the cleanser.

Prescription creams should be applied at this point, as the skin will be more receptive to absorbing the product. Beauty serums and eye creams can be applied after this, followed by a moisturiser to lock in the active ingredients. Finally, protect your skin from damaging UV light with a sunscreen or sunblock.

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