Understanding Labels on Skin Care Products

Health Writer
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Shopping for skin care products can be confusing. Much of the language used on the labels is for marketing purposes. It is there to get you to buy the product. Words like “all-natural,” “hypoallergenic,” and “alcohol-free” can sound good but do they really signal that this product is good for you? To make it more confusing, these types of words aren’t regulated and what one manufacturer considers hypoallergenic might not be the same as a different manufacturer. How are you supposed to know what products to buy and which to leave on the shelf?

Labeling laws

The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has laws regarding labeling, which can help you sort through the information but isn’t going to give you clear answers.

These laws include:

Labels must state the name and place of the manufacturer, the packer or distributor when applicable, the quantity in the package, directions for safe use, and any warning statements.

Ingredients must be listed in order of predominance. The highest volume ingredient must be listed first and then others in descending order based on how much of the ingredient is in the product. Any ingredient that makes up less than 1 percent of the product can be listed at the end, in any order. In addition, companies can request waivers if including specific ingredients will give away a trade secret. If a waiver has been issued, the words, “and other ingredients” will be shown at the bottom of the ingredient list.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues rules for the use of the terms “organic” and “made with organic ingredients.” If a product has the USDA label for organic, it must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. If it is labeled: “made with organic ingredients,” it must contain at least 70 percent or more organic ingredients.

All-natural, hypoallergenic, and other potentially misleading claims

Companies that manufacture skin care products know there are certain key words shoppers are looking for and they tend to place those on their products. But these are marketing strategies that don’t always accurately reflect the product, although they aren’t necessarily considered deceptive either. Different manufactures may use the same terms to mean different things or different products according to a news release from the American Academy of Dermatology. For example, the terms “for sensitive skin” or “hypoallergenic” might not mean the same thing depending on the manufacturer.

Some marketing terms commonly found on skin care products include:

Natural — The product probably contains at least some natural ingredients but these could be mixed with preservatives and other chemicals. All-natural might be a stricter definition but the FDA doesn’t set rules for these labels, even when they are on food products. It is generally thought that all-natural means no artificial or synthetic ingredients have been added, however, that doesn’t include manufacturing processes, the use of pesticides, pasteurization, or genetic engineering, according to the FDA.

Herbal or botanical — This product probably contains at least some herbal or botanical products but these are often mixed with preservatives and other chemicals. For example, Argan Oil Shampoo lists Argan oil and other botanicals toward the end of the ingredient list after a number of additives.

Cruelty-free — This indicates to a consumer that the company did not use animal tests to manufacture the product, however, it can be placed on products where animal testing was used on individual ingredients or the testing was done in a different country, where animal cruelty laws are weaker according to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Hypoallergenic or allergy tested — Because there are currently no federal standards or a standard definition for these terms, interpretation and meaning is based on the manufacturer.

Alcohol-free — This refers to the absence of ethyl alcohol according to the FDA, however, the product might have other types of alcohol in it, such as cetyl, stearyl, or lanolin alcohol.

Fragrance free — Current labeling laws allow for different uses of this term according to a press release from the American Academy of Dermatology. Fragrance-free products can include fragrance chemicals if those chemicals are used for a separate purpose in the product, such as moisturizing. The term 'unscented' can be used if a fragrance is added to mask an odor even if it creates a new scent.

Check the ingredients

The best way to assure you are purchasing the type of product you want is to check the ingredient list. For example, if you are looking for a moisturizing cream made of almond oil, check to see where “almond oil” is in the ingredient list. If it is the first ingredient, the product has a large volume of almond oil. If it is lower on the list, then there could only be trace amounts of almond oil.

Some ingredients are difficult to decipher. You might see things like, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), P-Phenylenediamine, or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. It’s hard to know what these ingredients are and why they are added to the product. The database at Cosmetics.SpecialChem.com can help. For example, if you look up Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in the database, you’ll find out that it is an additive that helps make the product foamy. This database is also available as an app, so you can check out ingredients while you are in the store.

Other apps to help you analyze skin care products include:

Think Dirty — gives products an overall rating (1-10) based on safety measurements.

CertClean — lets you know if the product contains ingredients, including carcinogens, that are deemed unsafe.

See more helpful articles:

10 Skin Care Apps

Applying Skin Care Products in the Right Order

5 Crazy Skin Care Products

Can Caffeine Improve My Skin?

Finding Skin Care Products in Menopause