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Ingredients explained

Also-called: Water | What-it-does: solvent

Good old water, aka H2O. The most common skincare ingredient of all. You can usually find it right in the very first spot of the ingredient list, meaning it’s the biggest thing out of all the stuff that makes up the product. 

It’s mainly a solvent for ingredients that do not like to dissolve in oils but rather in water. 

Once inside the skin, it hydrates, but not from the outside - putting pure water on the skin (hello long baths!) is drying. 

One more thing: the water used in cosmetics is purified and deionized (it means that almost all of the mineral ions inside it is removed). Like this, the products can stay more stable over time. 

Also-called: Coconut Oil | What-it-does: emollient, perfuming | Irritancy: 0 | Comedogenicity: 4

There is definitely some craze going on for coconut oil both in the healthy eating space (often claimed to be the healthiest oil to cook with but this is a topic for another site) and in the skin and hair care space. 

We will talk here about the latter two and see why we might want to smear it all over ourselves. Chemically speaking, coconut oil has a unique fatty acid profile. Unlike many plant oils that mostly contain unsaturated fatty acids (fatty acids with double bonds and kinky structure such as linoleic or oleic), coconut oil is mostly saturated (fatty acids with single bonds only) and its most important fatty acid is Lauric Acid (about 50%).  Saturated fatty acids have a linear structure that can stack nice and tight and hence they are normally solid at room temperature. Coconut oil melts around 25 °C so it is solid in the tub but melts on contact with the skin. 

The saturated nature of coconut oil also means that it is a heavy-duty-oil ideal for dry skin types. A double-blind research confirmed that extra virgin coconut oil is as effective in treating xerosis (aka very dry skin) as mineral oil. Another study found that coconut oil is more effective than mineral oil in treating mild to moderate atopic dermatitis (aka eczema) in children.

So when it comes to dry skin, coconut oil is a goodie, no question there. The question is if it is good or bad for acne-prone skin. Its main fatty acid, Lauric Acid has some research showing that it is a promising ingredient against evil acne-causing bacteria, P. acnes but at the same time, both Lauric Acid and coconut oil have a very high comedogenic rating (4 out of 5). Though comedogenic ratings are not very reliable, anecdotal evidence (i.e. people commenting in forums) shows that people have mixed experiences. While some claim that it worked wonders on their acne others say that it gave them serious blackheads and zits. Try it at your own risk. 

As for hair care, coconut oil has pretty solid research showing that it can penetrate into the hair very well (better than mineral oil and sunflower oil) and it can prevent hair protein loss as well as combing damage.  If you have problems with damaged hair, split ends, coconut oil is worth trying as a pre- or/and post-wash treatment.  Labmuffin has an awesome blogpost explaining in more detail why coconut oil is good for your hair.

A couple of other things worth mentioning: coconut oil might help with wound healing (promising animal study), it has some antifungal activity (against dermatophytes that cause the thing known as ringworm) and it also works as an insect repellent against black flies. 

Overall, coconut oil is definitely a goodie for the hair and dry skin. If that warrants for the magic oil status it enjoys, we don't know. 

What-it-does: emollient, viscosity controlling, emulsifying, emulsion stabilising, surfactant/cleansing | Irritancy: 1 | Comedogenicity: 2

An extremely common multitasker ingredient that gives your skin a nice soft feel (emollient) and gives body to creams and lotions. It also helps to stabilize oil-water mixes (emulsions), though it does not function as an emulsifier in itself. Its typical use level in most cream type formulas is 2-3%.  

It’s a so-called fatty alcohol, a mix of cetyl and stearyl alcohol, other two emollient fatty alcohols.  Though chemically speaking, it is alcohol (as in, it has an -OH group in its molecule), its properties are totally different from the properties of low molecular weight or drying alcohols such as denat. alcohol. Fatty alcohols have a long oil-soluble (and thus emollient) tail part that makes them absolutely non-drying and non-irritating and are totally ok for the skin.

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

Also-called: Sunflower Oil | What-it-does: emollient | Irritancy: 0 | Comedogenicity: 0

Sunflower does not need a big intro as you probably use it in the kitchen as cooking oil, or you munch on the seeds as a healthy snack or you adore its big, beautiful yellow flower during the summer - or you do all of these and probably even more. And by even more  we mean putting it all over your face as sunflower oil is one of the most commonly used plant oils in skincare.

It’s a real oldie: expressed directly from the seeds, the oil is used not for hundreds but thousands of years. According to The National Sunflower Association, there is evidence that both the plant and its oil were used by American Indians in the area of Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC. Do the math: it's more than 5000 years – definitely an oldie.

Our intro did get pretty big after all (sorry for that), so let's get to the point finally: sunflower oil - similar to other plant oils - is a great emollient that makes the skin smooth and nice and helps to keep it hydrated. It also protects the surface of the skin and enhances the damaged or irritated skin barrier. Leslie Bauman notes in Cosmetic Dermatology that one application of sunflower oil significantly speeds up the recovery of the skin barrier within an hour and sustains the results 5 hours after using it.

It's also loaded with fatty acids (mostly linoleic (50-74%)  and oleic (14-35%)). The unrefined version (be sure to use that on your skin!) is especially high in linoleic acid that is great even for acne-prone skin. Its comedogen index is 0, meaning that it's pretty much an all skin-type oil

Truth be told, there are many great plant oils and sunflower oil is definitely one of them.

Also-called: Marula Seed Oil;Sclerocarya Birrea Seed Oil | What-it-does: emollient

If you have an interest in elephants and Africa, you have probably heard of elephants getting drunk from the fruit of the Marula tree. Though this seems to be only a legend, what is true is that the Marula fruit is really nice (and elephants do love to eat it) and there is a stone in it with several oil-rich kernels inside. 

So the Marula oil - similar to many other plant oils - is a really nice nourishing and moisturizing oil that can improve skin hydration and smoothness and it can even reduce skin redness. It's traditionally used in South Africa to massage babies with and as a body lotion for face, feet, and hands.

As for its composition, it's loaded with skin goodies: it's very rich in fatty acids, including oleic (73%), palmitic (15%), and linoleic (9%) acids. It also contains some natural antioxidants, including Vitamin E and the oil shows an outstanding oxidative stability. 

If you have dry skin that needs some pampering, Marula oil is a good choice. 

Also-called: Camelina Oil, Gold-of-Pleasure Oil;Camelina Sativa Seed Oil | What-it-does: soothing, emollient

The oil coming from the seeds of a flowering plant called Camelina or Gold of pleasure. Similar to lots of other plant oils it's loaded with nourishing and moisturizing fatty acids.

Where it's not so similar to other oils, is that it's a very rich source (30-40%) of fairly rare Alpha-linolenic acid (aka omega-3) and contains only less of the more common linoleic (15-24%) and oleic acids (10-16%).  Alpha-linolenic acid is a very important one with anti-inflammatory properties and the lack of it can cause continuously dry skin. 

Other than fatty acids, Camelina oil also contains antioxidant vitamin E (54-78mp/100g) as well as more than usual amounts of moisturizing cholesterol and a phytosterol called brassicasterol.

All in all, a goodie plant oil that's especially recommended for dry and sensitive skin types.

Also-called: Huile Vegetale, Olus Oil;Vegetable Oil | What-it-does: emollient

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

Tocopherol - goodie
Also-called: Vitamin E | What-it-does: antioxidant | Irritancy: 0-3 | Comedogenicity: 0-3
  • Primary fat-soluble antioxidant in our skin
  • Significant photoprotection against UVB rays
  • Vit C + Vit E work in synergy and provide great photoprotection
  • Has emollient properties
  • Easy to formulate, stable and relatively inexpensive
Read all the geeky details about Tocopherol here >>

What-it-does: preservative, deodorant

If you have spotted ethylhexylglycerin on the ingredient list, most probably you will see there also the current IT-preservative, phenoxyethanol. They are good friends because ethylhexylglycerin can boost the effectiveness of phenoxyethanol (and other preservatives) and as an added bonus it feels nice on the skin too.

Also, it's an effective deodorant and a medium spreading emollient

What-it-does: emollient

A modified dimethicone-type silicone molecule that also contains amino-groups. Having amino-groups means that Amodimethicone also has Nitrogen in its molecule that likes to have a positive charge. Positively charged (or quaternised) molecules are substantive to skin and hair as those are negatively charged surfaces and are excellent film formers. Amodiemthcone is no exception and it is especially recommended for hair-care products for its long-lasting hair conditioning benefits.

Glycerin - superstar
Also-called: Glycerol | What-it-does: skin-identical ingredient, moisturizer/humectant | Irritancy: 0 | Comedogenicity: 0
  • A natural moisturizer that’s also in our skin
  • A super common, safe, effective and cheap molecule used for more than 50 years
  • Not only a simple moisturizer but knows much more: keeps the skin lipids between our skin cells in a healthy (liquid crystal) state, protects against irritation, helps to restore barrier
  • Effective from as low as 3% with even more benefits at higher concentrations up to 20-40% (around 10% is a good usability-effectiveness sweet spot)
  • High-glycerin moisturizers are awesome for treating severely dry skin
Read all the geeky details about Glycerin here >>

What-it-does: emollient

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

What-it-does: preservative

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

What-it-does: preservative

A helper ingredient that helps to make the products stay nice longer, aka preservative. It works mainly against fungi. 

It’s pH dependent and works best at acidic pH levels (3-5). It’s not strong enough to be used in itself so it’s always combined with something else, often with potassium sorbate.

What-it-does: preservative

It's one of those things that help your cosmetics not to go wrong too soon, aka a preservative. It’s not a strong one and doesn’t really work against bacteria, but more against mold and yeast. To do that it has to break down to its active form, sorbic acid. For that to happen, there has to be water in the product and the right pH value (pH 3-4). 

But even if everything is right, it’s not enough on its own. If you see potassium sorbate you should see some other preservative next to it too.

BTW, it’s also a food preservative and even has an E number, E202.

What-it-does: preservative

A mild, natural preservative that usually comes to the formula together with its other mild preservative friends, such as Benzoic Acid and/or Dehydroacetic Acid. Btw, it's also used as a food preservative.

What-it-does: buffering

Citric acid comes from citrus fruits and is an AHA. If these magic three letters don’t tell you anything, click here and read our detailed description on glycolic acid, the most famous AHA. 

So citric acid is an exfoliant, that can - just like other AHAs - gently lift off the dead skin cells of your skin and make it more smooth and fresh. 

There is also some research showing that citric acid with regular use (think three months and 20% concentration) can help sun-damaged skin, increase skin thickness and some nice hydrating things called glycosaminoglycans in the skin. 

But according to a comparative study done in 1995, citric acid has less skin improving magic properties than glycolic or lactic acid. Probably that’s why citric acid is usually not used as an exfoliant but more as a helper ingredient in small amounts to adjust the pH of a formulation. 

A helper ingredient that can solubilize challenging oils and oil-loving actives into cleansing products. It also has emollient, emulsifying, and wetting properties.

A mildly viscous, amber-colored liquid with fatty odor, made from Castor Oil and polyethylene glycol (PEG).

If it were a person, we’d say, it’s agile, diligent & multifunctional. It’s mostly used as an emulsifier and surfactant but most often it is used to solubilize fragrances into water-based formulas.

What-it-does: preservative

It’s pretty much the current IT-preservative. It’s safe and gentle, but even more importantly, it’s not a feared-by-everyone-mostly-without-scientific-reason paraben.

It’s not something new: it was introduced around 1950 and today it can be used up to 1% worldwide. It can be found in nature - in green tea - but the version used in cosmetics is synthetic. 

Other than having a good safety profile and being quite gentle to the skin it has some other advantages too. It can be used in many types of formulations as it has great thermal stability (can be heated up to 85°C) and works on a wide range of pH levels (ph 3-10). 

It’s often used together with ethylhexylglycerin as it nicely improves the preservative activity of phenoxyethanol.

Parfum - icky
Also-called: Fragrance, Parfum;Parfum/Fragrance | What-it-does: perfuming

Exactly what it sounds: nice smelling stuff put into cosmetic products so that the end product also smells nice. Fragrance in the US and parfum in the EU is a generic term on the ingredient list that is made up of 30 to 50 chemicals on average (but it can have as much as 200 components!). 

If you are someone who likes to know what you put on your face then fragrance is not your best friend - there's no way to know what’s really in it.  

Also, if your skin is sensitive, fragrance is again not your best friend. It’s the number one cause of contact allergy to cosmetics. It’s definitely a smart thing to avoid with sensitive skin (and fragrance of any type - natural is just as allergic as synthetic, if not worse!). 

Limonene - icky
What-it-does: perfuming, solvent, deodorant

A super common and cheap fragrance ingredient. It's in many plants, e.g. rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, peppermint and it's the main component (about 50-90%) of the peel oil of citrus fruits.

It does smell nice but the problem is that it oxidizes on air exposure and the resulting stuff is not good for the skin. Oxidized limonene can cause allergic contact dermatitis and counts as a frequent skin sensitizer

Limonene's nr1 function is definitely being a fragrance component, but there are several studies showing that it's also a penetration enhancer, mainly for oil-loving components.

All in all, limonene has some pros and cons, but - especially if your skin is sensitive - the cons probably outweigh the pros.  

What-it-does: perfuming

A common fragrance ingredient that smells like jasmine. It is one of the “EU 26 fragrances” that has to be labelled separately because of allergen potential. Best to avoid if your skin is sensitive.

Citral - icky
What-it-does: perfuming

It’s a common fragrance ingredient that smells like lemon and has a bittersweet taste.  It can be found in many plant oils, e.g. lemon, orange, lime or lemongrass. 

It’s one of the “EU 26 fragrances” that has to be labelled separately (and cannot be simply included in the term “fragrance/perfume” on the label) because of allergen potential. Best to avoid if your skin is sensitive.

You may also want to take a look at...

what‑it‑does solvent
Normal (well kind of - it's purified and deionized) water. Usually the main solvent in cosmetic products. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient | perfuming
irritancy, com. 0, 4
There is definitely some craze going on for coconut oil both in the healthy eating space (often claimed to be the healthiest oil to cook with but this is a topic for another site) and in the skin and hair care space. We will talk here about the latter two and see why we might want to smear it all over ourselves. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient | viscosity controlling | emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing
irritancy, com. 1, 2
A super common multitasker ingredient that gives your skin a nice soft feel (emollient) and gives body to creams. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient
irritancy, com. 0, 0
Sunflower Oil - it's a great emollient that protects & enhances the skin barrier. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient
Marula Oil - a really nice nourishing and moisturizing oil that can improve skin hydration and smoothness and it can even reduce skin redness. It's a rich source of fatty acids (mainly oleic - 73%) and antioxidant vitamin E. [more]
what‑it‑does soothing | emollient
Gold-of-Pleasure Oil - A plant oil with a uniquely high amount (30-40%) of soothing and rebalancing omega-3 fatty acid (aka alpha-linolenic acid). Great for sensitive and dry skin types. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient
what‑it‑does antioxidant
irritancy, com. 0-3, 0-3
Pure Vitamin E. Great antioxidant that gives significant photoprotection against UVB rays. Works in synergy with Vitamin C. [more]
what‑it‑does preservative
It can boost the effectiveness of phenoxyethanol (and other preservatives) and as an added bonus it feels nice on the skin too. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient
A modified dimethicone-type silicone molecule that also contains amino-groups. Having amino-groups means that Amodimethicone also has Nitrogen in its molecule that likes to have a positive charge. [more]
what‑it‑does skin-identical ingredient | moisturizer/humectant
irritancy, com. 0, 0
A real oldie but a goodie. Great natural moisturizer and skin-identical ingredient that plays an important role in skin hydration and general skin health. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient
what‑it‑does emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing
what‑it‑does preservative
what‑it‑does antimicrobial/antibacterial | emulsifying | preservative | surfactant/cleansing
what‑it‑does preservative
A preservative that works mainly against fungi. Has to be combined with other preservatives. [more]
what‑it‑does preservative
A not so strong preservative that doesn’t really work against bacteria, but more against mold and yeast. [more]
what‑it‑does preservative
A mild, natural preservative that usually comes to the formula together with its other mild preservative friends, such as Benzoic Acid and/or Dehydroacetic Acid. [more]
what‑it‑does buffering
An AHA that comes from citrus fruits. It is usually used as a helper ingredient to adjust the pH of the formula. [more]
what‑it‑does emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing | emollient
A helper ingredient that can solubilize challenging oils and oil-loving actives into cleansing products. It also has emollient and emulsifying, and wetting properties.
what‑it‑does emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing
A mildly viscous, amber-colored liquid that works as an emulsifier and surfactant. [more]
what‑it‑does preservative
Pretty much the current IT-preservative. It’s safe and gentle, and can be used up to 1% worldwide. [more]
what‑it‑does perfuming
The generic term for nice smelling stuff put into cosmetic products so that the end product also smells nice. It is made up of 30 to 50 chemicals on average. [more]
what‑it‑does perfuming | solvent
A super common fragrance ingredient found naturally in many plants including citrus peel oils, rosemary or lavender. It autoxidizes on air exposure and counts as a common skin sensitizer. [more]
what‑it‑does perfuming
A common fragrance ingredient that smells like jasmine. It is one of the “EU 26 fragrances” that has to be labelled separately because of allergen potential. [more]
what‑it‑does perfuming
A common fragrance ingredient that smells like lemon. [more]