How to Decode Confusing Beauty Product Labels (and Other Common Misconceptions)

Jessica Harrington
·9-min read
Simple conceptual image of a white plastic bottle with a pump dispenser sitting on a white surface, casting a long shadow. Space for copy.
Simple conceptual image of a white plastic bottle with a pump dispenser sitting on a white surface, casting a long shadow. Space for copy.

Public knowledge surrounding ingredients and skin care overall has vastly improved in recent years, and yet many of us still find ourselves standing in the aisles of beauty stores squinting at the label on our products trying to decode all of the information in front of us. Fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, clean, no parabens, vegan vs. cruelty-free - the list of terminology goes on. Even beauty enthusiasts find themselves perplexed by new lingo like "carbon neutral" suddenly popping up on bottles, and understandably so. Cosmetics labels aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, meaning that brands can put marketing phrases and words on their packaging without much recourse to what they really mean.

The beauty industry has always been full of buzzwords but the "clean" beauty phenomenon has certainly made it more prevalent. Now it feels like your need to go shopping for beauty products armed with a dictionary and your dermatologist on speed-dial. In an effort to demystify all of the jargon and common misconceptions with product labels in the beauty industry, we made a guide. Keep reading to learn how to decode your product product labels, according to the pros.

Understanding Ingredients

The Order of Ingredients
If you thought the ingredients list on the back of your cosmetics products was written in order of how much of a certain ingredient is in the formula, we're here sadly to burst that bubble. While most ingredients in beauty products are listed in that order, it's not the case for all. "The rule is that anything under one percent can be listed using any order, after the ingredients presented above one percent," Priscilla Tsai, founder and CEO of Cocokind, told POPSUGAR. "That's just the rule per FDA guidelines, which most brands use."

That means the main (as in the first few) ingredients listed on your product are in order of the amount in the formulation, but once you get farther down in the list to the ingredients that make up under one percent of the formula, they can be listed in any order the brand chooses. So, vitamin C can make up 0.5 percent of the formulation and can be listed ahead of hyaluronic acid, which makes up 0.7 percent.

That doesn't mean you should assume your actives that are listed towards the end of your ingredient list aren't contributing to the product - they are. "Most active ingredients are effective at much smaller levels than consumers think," said Tsai. Actives are often listed farther down on ingredient lists after carriers, emulsifiers, humectants, and other types of ingredients, but that's OK. "You wouldn't want 100 percent of many of these active ingredients in a formula as it would be way too harsh for the skin," said Tsai.

Understanding Different Seals

Leaping Bunny Logo
You've probably spotted an icon of a tiny rabbit on your beauty products before. This signifies that the product is leaping bunny certified, as in cruelty-free. The Leaping Bunny Program has been around since 1996 and is operated by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics in the US and Canada. They verify if a product is in fact cruelty-free, meaning no animals were used, tested on, or harmed in the making of the product.

Organic or the USDA Organic Seal
Most of us know what organic means when it comes to the food we buy at the grocery store but when we're talking about beauty products, the rules vary. "The US Department of Agriculture certifies organic food ingredients found in cosmetics, but not essential oils or plants used for cosmetic purposes," said David Petrillo, cosmetic chemist and CEO and founder of Perfect Image. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, the FDA does not define or regulate the term 'organic,' as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products."

If you see the USA Organic Seal on your products, that simply means at least 70 percent of its ingredients are organic. Without that badge, there's no way to be certain.

Vegan Certifications
When a product claims to be vegan, it's saying that no animal byproducts were used in it. This includes ingredients like beeswax, lanolin (an emollient derived from sheep wool), and shellac (a nail-polish ingredient created from lac bugs). The tricky part here is oftentimes animal-derived ingredients aren't written clearly and you have to rely on your own knowledge to know if it's truly vegan or not. Unless the product or brand is certified by a third party, that is. Certifications from groups like PETA and The Vegan Society exist to help make this information easy to digest and brands will often make note of it on their packaging.

Recycling Symbol
It's commonly believed that anything with a recycling symbol on the bottom of it can be disposed of in a blue bin, but the reality is that's often not true. To determine if a product is truly recyclable in your curbside program, look for the number one, two, or five on the label, signifying the most common type of plastic container. Unfortunately, it's even harder to recycle in beauty than as it is in other industries like food. This is because many different components of products - caps, pumps, droppers, mirrors - can potentially render a product unrecyclable, even if they have the little recycling sign on the bottom.When in doubt, you can also look for a beauty-specific recycling program.

Understanding Buzzwords

Carbon-Neutral
Carbon-neutral is a newer term that's starting to show up on beauty labels. Some brands mention it along side terms like "natural" and "vegan" on the front of the box, while others are putting carbon emission tables on the back of packaging (it looks like those drug facts labels that you find on medicine packs). You probably know what carbon is and understand how your carbon footprint is important as it pertains to the environment and climate change, but what does it mean for beauty products? "It means that the amount of carbon emissions released in order to make the product has been offset or sequestered within the supply chain, so that the net carbon emissions equals zero," said Elsie Rutterford, co-founder of BYBI. "Typically, offsetting is used - it's a relatively easy and affordable process - where brands can invest in carbon offsetting programs around the world."

So, when brands share carbon emissions on product labels, they're trying to be transparent in how much carbon is required to manufacture it. "The amount of carbon emissions usually would refer to the total carbon required to get that product into your hands," said Rutterford.

Clinical Strength
You've probably seen the term "clinical strength" on the labels of deodorants and cosmeceutical skin-care products such as serums and moisturizers. Beauty brands make this claim when talking about the potency or effectiveness of a product, but Petrillo recommended having some healthy skepticism when you see these words. "In many cases, a product claiming clinical-strength could have been tested by the doctors developing the product, and the term can also be relative," he said. "Anything that really is maximum strength or clinical strength is often regulated to a prescription." As in, you'll need to get it from your doctor or dermatologist.

All Natural
"All natural" is a common buzzword in the "clean" beauty space that pops up on the front of beauty products, but it doesn't really mean anything concrete. "Calling a beauty product natural legally means nothing," Dr. Ebru Karpuzoglu, MSc., PhD, and founder of natural skin-care brand AveSeena, previously told POPSUGAR. "It's an unregulated term because the FDA, USDA, or EU do not have any regulations or standards on the term. Since there is no regulation on the 'natural' term, anyone can just use one or two natural ingredients in a product and call it natural."

Petrillo added, "It doesn't mean the product is organic or chemical-free. After all, chemicals are 'natural,' too."

Fragrance-Free
Speaking of sensitive skin, fragrance has often be linked to irritation for those with a temperamental skin type and therefore fragrance-free products are preferred by many people. But fragrance-free doesn't actually mean the product has no scent. "These products may not have a noticeable smell, but can still contain 'masking' scents to cover up ingredients with unpleasant odors," said Petrillo. Instead, if your skin is sensitive to fragrances, look for the words "no fragrance added" on the label.

Patented Technology
The phrase "patented technology" is a marketing term that brands occasionally use when referring to an innovation. You can often find it stamped on the back of the label near the product description. "But patents aren't necessarily a surefire sign that something is groundbreaking," said Petrillo. "Patents are sometimes authorized based on a technical change rather than a scientific breakthrough, meaning new combinations of ingredients or methods of production can be promoted as being 'patented technology.'

Hypoallergenic
Unfortunately, the word "hypoallergenic" written on a product label won't guarantee no allergic reactions if you have sensitive skin like people often think it does. It simples means the brand thinks a reaction is less likely. According to the FDA's website, "Hypoallergenic cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products." But it goes on to state that "no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term" and that it can mean "whatever a particular company wants it to mean."

Petrillo added: "These products can still contain ingredients some people are allergic to, including preservatives and fragrance."

Dermatologist-Tested or Approved
Many brands tout that their products are "dermatologist-tested" or "approved." This typically means that a dermatologist was involved in the formulation process in some way, but there is no regulation or standards in place to define what exactly that has to look like; it varies by brand and product. "The expertise of a dermatologist is used to identify safe and effective products via case reports, clinical trials, and case-control studies," board-certified dermatologist Camille Howard-Verovic, MD, told Skincare.com.

Non-Comedogenic
The words "non-comedogenic" on a label mean a product has been formulated to not clog pores. This usually makes it more appealing to those susceptible to breakouts and with acne-prone skin, but keep in mind: "While non-comedogenic products are usually oil-free and therefore less likely to cause breakouts, there's no guarantee they won't," said Petrillo.