Skincare 101: Filler Ingredients?

When you buy a skincare product, what do you expect to find in it? If it’s a moisturizer, probably some sort of oil. If it’s a vitamin C serum, then obviously vitamin C somewhere. However, the ingredients list often contains chemicals you may not recognize such as emulsifiers, preservatives or stabilizers. Or even if you do recognize them, you might be thinking “why does my ____ have ___ in it?” When I say filler ingredients, I don’t mean the ingredients of your Botox/wrinkle fillers, but ingredients that seems to serve no real purpose in your skincare. 

Sometimes you may discover that a high-end product is more effective than its drugstore counterpart even though both have similar ingredients list. However, ingredients list do not tell you the concentration and the higher end product might have a higher concentration of beneficial ingredients while the lower end product might have more cheaper “filler” ingredients. Some of the ingredients that almost every skincare has are water, alcohol and silicone. But do they have any purpose?

Water, do you really need it?

Water is great because:

  • Some ingredients are oil-soluble, but many are water-soluble and can’t be used in a water-free formulation. (Also, the water used by cosmetic companies are distilled water, which are more soluble than common tap water).
  • Water is a lightweight hydrator that can penetrate deep into the skin, thus it improves ingredient absorption/penetration.
  • Water makes products easier to use by adjusting the consistency.

So why are people against water?

  • If water is the first ingredient on the list, then most likely over half of the product is water and you are not really getting your money’s worth.
  • Water evaporates quickly, taking your skin’s natural oil with it, so the hydration is short-lived (unless it is mixed/topped by a moisturizing agent like oil that forms a protective layer to seal the moisture in).
  • Formulas that contain water requires preservatives, which may present additional health risks.

Alcohol in my alcohol-free products?!

Have you ever bought a product labeled “alcohol-free”, then when you casually glanced at the ingredients list, you find alcohol listed in it? Well, turns out there are different types of alcohol. The type of alcohol that everyone says to avoid are the BAD alcohol listed below.

Why are they bad?

  • They may damage the surface layer of the skin as it dries/evaporates and thus cause irritation.
  • They are fat solvent, meaning that the natural layer of sebum on the skin gets destroyed. This will leave your skin drier than before.

Then why do companies put those bad alcohol in their products?

  • Because it dissolves surface oil, it allows the product to penetrate deeper/better.
  • It can make products feel better. It can function as a solvent to dissolve/thin out a mixture so it feels weightless on the skin. It is an emulsifier and stabilizer so different substances blend together better with no unwanted reactions.
  • Alcohol is antiseptic/antibacterial so it functions as a preservative.

The use of “bad” alcohol in a cosmetic product is generally not a problem if the alcohol content remains below 5%, as the alcohol mostly evaporates the moment the product is applied.

As for the good alcohol listed above. They are fatty or wax alcohol derived from fatty acids in plants. They are moisturizing since they are occlusive (slows down water loss). They are non-irritating, give products a smooth, velvety feel and help to keep ingredients stable in products. There is no need to avoid them and they may be present in products labeled “alcohol-free”.

Ok fine, what about silicone?

Silicone comes in many forms, in general the ingredients that end in ‘-cone,’ ‘-conol,’ or ‘-siloxane’ are all silicone. Why are they in your beauty products?

  • Silicone helps to stabilize active ingredients such as vitamin C from degradation. They are also hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic.
  • Silicone forms a barrier that prevents moisture from escaping and keeps your skin moisturized in dry environment. It has been shown to be helpful for offsetting dryness and flaking from common anti-acne ingredients. The barrier also protects the skin from environmental pollutants.
  • It is slippery and allows even application of products without pulling or tugging. Not only does it give products a more luxurious, silky and comfortable feel, it also combat that white cast/tint from sunscreens. Since it rest on the surface of the skin, it helps to smooth the looks of wrinkles and acne scars.
  • It makes the products fade resistant and is a great carrier for color pigments, which is why it’s a favorite in high-performance, long-lasting lipstick and foundations.

But wait, then why does silicone make my skin bumpy and breakout?

While silicone keeps the moisture in, it also keeps in any oil, dirt and bacteria that may already be on the skin or are produced by the skin. If you are using products with silicone all day and all night, this can interfere with the skin’s natural processes like sweating and sloughing off old dead skin cells. Thus, it may cause people with sensitive skin to suffer from increased breakouts.


The main argument for water is whether or not it’s really necessary, but there isn’t any reason to avoid it. Small traces of alcohol in products where it’s at the bottom of the ingredients list doesn’t bother me, but there are plenty of great alcohol-free products so it’s not too difficult to avoid. While silicone can keep the active ingredients/moisture in, it can also trap dirt/oil in as well. It’s great in makeup and sunscreen, but make sure to cleanse well and maybe try to avoid them in your night-time skincare.

These filler ingredients all have their purposes, so use your own judgement on where your bottom line is. How do you feel about filler ingredients?


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