20 Reasons Not to Trust Cosmetic Labels
A Columbia University dermatologist reveals the truth behind the marketing jargon.
Learn How to Read Cosmetic Labels
Ever wonder why you never hear any notices or warnings about cosmetics and beauty products? That’s because there’s no regulatory agency or task force responsible for checking products before they make it to the store or salon shelf.
There are some laws, but they’re minimal; the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act has 17 sections on food, 73 sections on drugs, and a total of three on cosmetics.
Click through this slideshow to learn how to read cosmetic labels.
Labeling Law 101
The law states that any product that enhances the appearance of skin is cosmetic, while anything that changes the actual structure of the skin is a drug. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does pay attention to the latter. But “cosmetic” products are in a kind of no-man’s land and you’re on your own in deciphering the jargon.
Healthline is here to help. We asked dermatologist Dr. Donald Belsito of the Columbia University Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology and ColumbiaDoctors Eastside in NY to reveal the truth behind the marketing jargon.
Where it’s Used: On products that claim to do something that nothing else on the market can.
‘Definition’: The formula used to create this product is one-of-a-kind. A U.S. patent grants exclusive rights to produce and sell a new invention for a limited period of time.
Expert Analysis: “Patented” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s special. What it does mean is that “the company has a patent for a specific use of a given chemical or combination of chemicals in their product.”
Where it’s used: Everywhere. This is perhaps the most common marketing claim on cosmetics.
‘Definition’: This product has received an MD’s stamp of approval and their recommendation.
Expert Analysis: “This means that they have gotten someone who calls themselves a dermatologist (they do not necessarily even have to be board certified) to recommend their product,” says Dr. Belsito. Even worse: “Often, the individual receives some reimbursement for this.”
Where it’s Used: When a product supposedly does something that sounds scientific. For example, many face wash products will say that they are “clinically proven” to reduce blackheads.
‘Definition’: This product is proven to work in either clinical tests or in a clinical environment.
Expert Analysis: Dr. Belsito warns that not all clinical trials are created equal: “Depending upon the study, there might be a considerable amount of bias introduced in favor of the product tested.”
Where it’s Used: On thebeauty products sold in specialty stores and markets where “organic” is appealing.
‘Definition’: This product is made up of only ingredients derived from living matter.
Expert Analysis: A label stating “organic” is actually a legitimate claim, monitored by the USDA. If it says “USDA Organic,” that means it is made with 95 percent or more organic materials. “If there are plant or animal products in the product,” explains Dr. Belsito, “pesticides, antibiotics, etc. were not used on these plants or animals.” Learn more here.
Where it’s Used: To appeal to people who feel that nature knows best.
‘Definition’: This product is made without synthesized or man-made ingredients or chemicals.
Expert Analysis: “This would mean that all the ingredients were plant or animal derived and none were chemically synthesized,” says Dr. Belsito. However, remember that “all plant products and animal products used in cosmetics undergo chemical processing—after all, you wouldn’t put sheep hair (lanolin) or chamomile (a plant) into a cosmetic product without processing.”
Where it’s Used: All over, but particularly on moisturizers and other skin lotions, like sunscreen.
‘Definition’: This product will not cause you to have an allergic reaction.
Expert Analysis: “There are no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic,’” advises Dr. Belsito. “The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean."
Where it’s used: Almost always on products for your face: sunscreens, lotions, face-washes, etc. The term refers to comedones—blackheads (open comedones) and whiteheads (closed comedones).
‘Definition’: This product won’t cause acne flare-ups.
Expert Analysis: Dr. Belsito told us that this term is pretty similar to “hypoallergenic”: No FDA standards, no one watching the manufacturer. “They could make this claim if they tested on patients (not necessarily acne prone) and saw no comedones,” says Dr. Belsito. “However, the number tested could be small and the study unblended with biases.”
Where it’s used: Think of cosmetics that are usually fragranced: perfumes, deodorants, lotions, etc.
‘Definition’: The product has no scent.
Expert Analysis: “Fragrance-free” actually means that “the chemicals the company has put into the product were not intended to be used as a fragrance,” according to Dr. Belsito. “However, many chemicals have a fragrance function as well as other functions. So, for example, benzyl alcohol ([which produces] a fragrance) could be added to a product as a vehicle and the product labeled fragrance-free.” The only way to know for sure that a product is fragrance-free is to smell it yourself, and see if your nose is offended.
Where it’s used: All over—“alcohol” is a red-flag in beauty products, so you’ll see “alcohol-free” a lot, including on both skin and hair products.
‘Definition’: This product does not contain any alcohol.
Expert Analysis: Careful—alcohol-free doesn’t mean what you think. What it does mean: the product contains no ethanol (AKA the alcohol we drink). What it does not mean: Alcohol-free. According to Dr. Belsito, “there are a number of other alcohols used in cosmetics—and these may be present,” even if the label makes it seem otherwise.
Where it’s used: On moisturizers, sunscreens, leave-in conditioners, etc. that would ideally last all day with a single application.
‘Definition’: This product will provide protection, moisture, etc. for a full day without the need to reapply.
Expert Analysis: There are no FDA regulations for these claims, and this is one that is particularly hard to judge. Recently, however, the FDA did pass laws against sunscreen manufacturers using similar marketing claims such as “sweatproof” and “waterproof.”
Where it’s used: This seems to be most commonly used on deodorants and eye-related products (mascara, eye cream, etc.). It is also regularly used to promote soaps of all kind: dish soap, hand soap, and laundry detergent.
‘Definition’: This product will not cause skin irritation.
Expert Analysis: There are “no standards for this claim,” cautions Dr. Belsito. “Upscale companies will sometimes do what’s called repeat insult patch testing. However, they do not need to do such a rigorous study to make this claim.”
Where it’s used: On creams and lotions meant to reduce the appearance of scars, wrinkles, splotches, and other skin imperfections.
‘Definition’: This product will fix damaged and imperfect skin.
Expert Analysis: Dr. Belsito warns that this marketing claim is “getting close to crossing the FDA line regarding cosmetic vs. over-the-counter drugs.” He adds that “typically, these would be products containing anti-oxidants to prevent (or reverse) free radical damage in the skin induced by light, smoking, etc.”
Where it’s Used: On creams and lotions that presumably remove toxins from your skin. Detox is one of the cosmetic industry’s latest buzzwords.
‘Definition’: This product will flush the toxins (harmful chemicals) from your skin.
Expert Analysis: Dr. Belsito told us that “detoxifying” products are, typically, the same as “repairing products”: those containing anti-oxidants to prevent or reverse free radical damage. Unfortunately, as with “repairing” products, there is no one watching which “detoxifying” products actually “detoxify.”
Where it’s used: Typically, this is a label slapped on body lotions, particularly ones that claim to fight the appearance of cellulite.
‘Definition’: This product will smooth out the appearance of your skin so that it looks younger and healthier.
Expert Analysis: Be warned: contouring lotions do not actually rid your body of cellulite. What they actually do is “change the apparent shape and contour of the skin—this usually is achieved by color tone effects,” says Dr. Belsito.
Where it’s used: In similar places as “contouring”—products meant to counteract the effects of aging.
‘Definition’: This product will make your skin appear firm, taught, and younger.
Expert Analysis: “This is a ‘cosmeceutical’ term that the FDA monitors closely,” says Dr. Belsito. “A cosmetic cannot change skin structure or function [or it it is not technically a "cosmetic"]. So, something that claims to be firming would have a chemical that tightens the skin."
Where it’s used: Parabens are the most widely-used preservatives in cosmetics. Paraben-free products are marketed towards consumers who believe that parabens are unsafe.
‘Definition’: This product does not contain any parabens, and is, therefore, a safer product.
Expert Analysis: “Companies make this claim because there has been a persistent consumer scare that parabens are ‘endocrine [or hormone] disruptors,” says Dr. Belsito. Dr. Belsito pointed out numerous Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) studies showing that parabens are safe in low levels.
Where it’s used: Although more commonly found in industrial plastics, phthalates are sometimes found in trace amounts in perfumes, hairsprays, and lotions. “No phthalates” is a marketing claim found on products marketed towards consumers who believed phthalates are toxic.
‘Definition’: This product contains no phthalates, making it a safer cosmetic.
Expert Analysis: “Phthalates represent the same issue regarding endocrine disruption [as parabens],” says Dr. Belsito. “They have also been reviewed by CIR and found to be safe.”
Where it’s used: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a very common ingredient used to enhance the foaming effects in shampoos, toothpastes, mouth rinses, etc.
‘Definition’: This product is free of SLS, and, therefore, safer.
Expert Analysis: “This is a totally unfounded internet scare that SLS is carcinogenic,” says Dr. Belsito. Soon after the Internet rumors started making the rounds, the CIR reviewed the ingredient and found no problems. Have no fear of this one: “There is no merit to the rumor,” states Dr. Belsito.
Where it’s used: To market skin care products that supposedly fix cracked, dry skin. It is also often found on products marketed as treatments for skin conditions like eczema.
‘Definition’: This product will heal your irritated, dry, and itchy skin.
Expert Analysis: This phrase is kind of meaningless. Or rather, it means “whatever the company wants it to mean,” according to Dr. Belsito. “Plain petrolatum has been shown to speed the healing of wounds.”
Keeping Your Skin Healthy & Beautiful
Now that you have an exhaustive list of marketing labels to be wary of, it’s time to go shopping. Check out our in-depth reviews of some of the top face moisturizers on the market and our reviews of the best sunscreens for your skin.