Your Beauty Label Decoder
Wouldn't it be great if the health and beauty products we know and love came with a nutrition facts-like label or even a glossary of ingredients? Since they don't, this guide can help.
While at least one government agency—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—does regulate ingredients in certain products, there are no hard-and-fast rules about claims on non-food labels. So in the absence of that official information, check out our beauty label decoder, designed to help make you a more informed beauty consumer.
Botanicals: Natural ingredients, such as fruits and plants, that are added to personal care products.
Cosmeceutical: A cosmetic product that has drug-like benefits. The American Academy of Dermatology classifies ingredients such as hydroxy acids and retinoids as cosmeceuticals. This is because a product containing these ingredients can be used topically to improve the appearance of your skin in ways similar to a product prescribed by a doctor.
Dermatologist tested: Testing can vary widely. A dermatologist may have given the product to her staff members to try, or she may have conducted a legitimate, controlled trial. The package insert may elaborate on the extent of the testing.
Fragrance free: The claim usually means that no scents were added. Don't be surprised, though, if a fragrance-free product has an aroma. What you smell is the natural odor of the ingredients used to formulate the product, such as lavender (for its antiseptic properties) and grapefruit seed (a natural preservative). Products labeled unscented, on the other hand, do contain low levels—less than 1 percent—of added fragrance, called masking agents, to cover up the sometimes unpleasant natural odor of raw materials.
Hypoallergenic: The term is supposed to mean that a product likely will not cause an allergic reaction. However, since the FDA does not regulate how cosmetic companies use this term, consumers should take this claim on any package with a grain of salt—or an antihistamine, just in case.
Natural: A term manufacturers may use to make it sound as if their product does not contain chemicals. In fact, natural has no official meaning as far as the FDA is concerned (see organic).
Noncomedogenic: Any product labeled with this term is not supposed to clog pores, or cause blackheads or whiteheads. But sometimes the pore-plugging powers of ingredients are evaluated by applying them to a rabbit's ear—a test that's far from foolproof, given that our skin is very different from a rabbit's. More reputable companies always test final products—not just individual ingredients—for comedogenicity in controlled trials. Even with the claim, there's always a chance that a product will cause you to break out; if that happens, switch to another.
Oil free: Oil-free products don't contain ingredients—such as mineral oil or plant oils—classified by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association as oils. But they might still include oil-like emollients—such as silicones, waxes, and vegetable fats—that can trigger outbreaks in susceptible people. It's virtually impossible to formulate cosmetics without oil-like ingredients; they're often used to give products a silky feel or to bind ingredients together. So if your skin is acne-prone, it's wiser to choose a noncomedogenic product over one labeled oil free.
Organic: The USDA allows companies to identify a beauty product as organic—and to say so on its label—as long as it includes an "agricultural" ingredient, such as herbs, and falls under one of these three headings:
- 100 percent organic: product must include only organically produced ingredients
- Organic: 95 percent of the ingredients must qualify as organic
- Contains organic ingredients: at least 70 percent of its ingredients are organic
Now go find the best products for you!
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