Natural, Organic, Sulfate-Free - Oh My! How to Read a Skincare Label

Trying to read a skincare product label can be confusing and overwhelming. Many of the ingredients are in Latin and are difficult to understand. It is important to educate yourself to understand if the products are safe for your skin and to ensure you are getting your money’s worth.

Key takeaways:
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    It is vital to know what the ingredients are in your cosmetic products to know if the product is safe for your skin.
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    By reading the product labels, you will know what the product is and what it will do for your skin.
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    Symbols on the product label will show you the expiration date and whether the product is vegan, cruelty-free, or organic.
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    The actual ingredient list will tell you the ingredients and identify those with the highest concentrations and whether they are active or inactive.
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    There are several key phrases to look for, such as natural, clean, hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic, fragrance-free, unscented, natural fragrances, broad-spectrum, and sulfate/phthalate/paraben-free.

Why do I need to read skincare product labels?

Everyone should read and understand their skincare product labels to know what they are putting on their skin – do not blindly trust the marketing claims of the manufacturer. Skincare products and manufacturers are not regulated by the FDA or any other government organization.

Here are some basic questions to ask yourself when reading a label:

How safe is the product? – Some products could contain potential carcinogens, irritants, or allergens. If you have sensitive skin, look for hypo-allergenic products. If you have known allergies, read the label to ensure the product will not cause an allergic reaction.

Will it work on my skin? – Some products should not be used on certain skin types. You must know your skin type and what ingredients you should avoid. For example, if you have acne-prone skin, you want to use only non-comedogenic products.

Will it solve my skin problems? – If you have a specific concern, you need to know if the ingredients will help your skin or hurt it. For example, if you have dry skin, make sure the product contains emollients.

Skincare labeling and laws

The FDA does not control what the manufacturers claim on their labels, nor do they force testing of the products like they do with medications and devices. The only laws that pertain to the cosmetic industry are Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FP&L Act).

FD&C and FP&L Acts only require cosmetic products to contain this information on their label:

  • Identify what the product is
  • How much is in the packaging (weight)
  • What ingredients are in the product
  • Warning labels

How do I decipher skincare product labels?

The best way to get good at reading a skincare product label is practice. It will be time-consuming at first, but you will get better with time. Here is some information you can obtain from the product label.

What is the product

The front of the label should tell you the product's name and what kind it is. The name usually indicates whether it is a face wash, anti-aging serum, or moisturizer.

What does the product do for your skin

The front of the label usually tells you what the product is intended to address, such as acne or dry skin. Know your skin type before you buy products to ensure you are selecting the right product for your skin.

Expiration date

It is important to check the expiration date. You do not want to use an expired product or buy one that is about to expire. This is expressed in two different ways. It may have the open jar symbol with a number and letter, such as 24M. This is the period after opening (PAO), which means after opening it, you have 24 months to use it. There may also be a best-before-end (BBE) date, which looks like an hourglass. This means it expires on that date, whether it is open or not.

Symbols

There are several symbols or logos you need to know. Familiarize yourself with the actual logos, because some manufacturers try to use variations of the official logos to trick the consumer. Many organizations have not spent the money to do extensive testing on their products and earn official designations and logos.

  • Cruelty-free products will have the PETA, Cruelty-Free International, or Leaping Bunny logo.
  • To be certified organic, products must have the USDA organic symbol.
  • Vegan products must have a Certified Vegan logo.
  • There is also a recyclable logo which denotes if you can recycle the packaging.

The ingredient list (INCI list)

The INCI list (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) contains the ingredients based on their scientific or Latin names, with their common name in parentheses. In most cases, the order in which the ingredients are listed mirrors the percentage or concentration of the ingredient used, so the first 3–5 ingredients are the most powerful. If you do not recognize the names, you can look them up on the Environmental Work Group or the Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients websites to find more information.

The number of ingredients

The number of ingredients in the product does not matter. More is not necessarily better.

Active vs. inactive ingredients

The FDA approves an active ingredient that performs a specific function, such as salicylic acid for acne treatment. A percentage of the active ingredient is listed as well. Inactive ingredients only help the active ingredients work. Sometimes, the inactive ingredients are listed alphabetically and not by order of concentration. Even inactive ingredients can cause skin issues, so it is important to read the entire ingredient list.

Key phrases

Many key phrases may appear on a product label:

Natural products do not necessarily mean all the ingredients are natural. Only a few have to be natural for it to claim that designation. If it says 100% natural, then all the ingredients are natural.

Clean means that the product does not contain ingredients that are potentially harmful or irritating. Clean ingredients can be natural or synthetic.

Hypoallergenic products contain ingredients that are less likely to cause an allergic reaction. However, if you have sensitive skin, you should always do a test spot to be sure because the hypoallergenic designation is not a guarantee.

Non-comedogenic products are products that should not cause acne breakouts.

Unscented products contain chemical fragrances to mask scents, whereas fragrance-free products contain no fragrance. This is an important distinction. If you have sensitive skin, choose fragrance-free products but still do a test spot.

Natural fragrances are the same as essential oils. They are derived from botanicals and can still cause allergic reactions or irritation.

Sulfate, phthalate, and paraben-free products lack these potentially problematic ingredients. Sulfates can irritate the skin, especially for those with sensitive skin. Phthalates have been linked with liver, kidney, and reproductive problems. Parabens are estrogen disruptors that have been linked to female and reproductive issues.

Broad-spectrum refers to sunscreens that contain both UVA and UVB blockers. The best sunscreens have both.

Reading a skincare label is a daunting task. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. Do your research and know what you are putting on your skin. If you have particular skin issues and use a product with the wrong ingredients, it could have disastrous consequences. If you are having trouble, always consult with your dermatologist.

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