It’s quite evident that nowadays, skincare companies will label their products with ambiguous labels that lack clarity or consensus. Have you leaned towards buying a product simply because it was labelled as “dermatologically tested” or “clinically proven”? Most people assume that cosmeceuticals are regulated and tested as drugs for safety. But in actuality, this isn’t the case. Many claims made by companies aren’t true, and cosmetics companies are generally permitted to use ambiguous language when marketing products that impact the structure and function of our skin (with little regulation).
As consumers, I think it is very important to have awareness of what these terms actually mean (and what they DON’T mean), because lets’ face it, companies will capitalize on our lack of awareness and knowledge.
Below, I break down the following terminology:
Hypoallergenic’ is a term that is frequently used in cosmetic labelling. It implies that a product has a very low likelihood of developing or potentiating allergic skin reactions (Murphy, White & Rastogi, 2004).
However, the problem is that there are neither industry standards nor legal requirements which must be fulfilled by companies in order to make this claim. As such, the term hypoallergenic must be interpreted with caution.
Non-comedogenic means that the product will not clog pores; this label is often found on products marketed for those with oily skin. Comedogenic means that a product will lead to blocked pores and the formation of blackheads (Mahto, 2018).
The problem with the term ‘non-comedogenic’ is that there are no standardized methods to test the comedogenicity of topical products – and this claim is not FDA regulated (Yang, et al. 2018). Furthermore, although a product is labeled as non-comedogenic, it is still has the potential to clog pores (Mahto, 2018).
“Clinically proven” implies that there has been intensive testing of products to “prove” that they work. However, this term is misleading (Mahto, 2018). ‘Clinically proven’ usually means that a product was tested with a small number of people who reported their findings at the end of a time period. ‘Clinically proven’ almost never means that a product was tested with a significant participant size, scientific methodology, or appropriate statistical analysis (Mahto, 2018). Unless you ask the company directly about what procedures they used to determine that their product is ‘clinically proven,’ you can’t be sure that it is clinically proven.
These terms imply that a certified dermatologist has tested for this product and endorses it (Mahto, 2018). However, this label is misleading. Perhaps this ‘test’ had a small number of participants, in which no or very few reported irritation. Without actually knowing the details of the testing, we can’t rely on a label like ‘dermatologically tested’ when selecting skincare products.
Moreover, when considering this type of labeling, I think it is important to remember that many doctors are associated with specific brands and will promote their products, as “spokesdoctors” (Newburger, 2009). So we don’t actually know if this product is actually beneficial for us, or if the company is just really good at marketing.
There is no standard definition of a natural skincare product, nor is there general consensus on what it means in the US. For instance, some individuals believe ‘natural’ means that at least 5% of the ingredients are found in nature. Others believe that man-made (aka synthetic) ingredients must be absent in a product for it to be considered natural. Products may originally be sourced from a plant or fruit and undergo intense chemical processing – do you believe these products would still be considered natural?
Moreover, many companies aren't dedicated to putting enough "natural" ingredients into the product. In fact, formulators often incorporate just enough of an active ingredient to justify its inclusion on a product label (Fuhrmeister, 2012).
Without a standard definition of natural means, it’s important that we understand this term with caution. Plus, natural does NOT always mean better. A good example of this are essential oils which can lead to irritation and allergies (Mahto, 2018). So ‘natural’ does not always equate to meaning the product is better.
This one goes hand in hand with ‘natural’ labeling. Most people perceive organic and natural-labeled products to be better. However, this isn’t necessarily true. There are plenty of examples of plants that are actually not good for you at all. Some individuals just prefer to have ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products – and that is totally okay. But it’s important to remember that these labels do not necessarily make the product better.
In the US, there are legal guidelines for organic labeling on products. For a product to be considered ‘organic,’ 95% of its ingredients must be certified. For a product to be considered organically-derived, products need only contain 70% (Mahto, 2018).
Fragrance ingredients are one of the most frequent causes of contact allergy in eczema patients and in the general population (Johansen, 2003; Furmeister, 2012). It is often difficult to avoid exposure to fragrance, because even products labelled as ‘fragrance free’ sometimes contain fragrance ingredients, as the product uses fragrance either as a preservative or to mask the scent of the product (Johansen, 2003). Fragrance does not have any function in skincare products, other than to make the product smell nice, and appeal to consumers. According to the FDA, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as “Fragrance” or “Flavor” - so we don't even know what exactly "fragrance" means when it is used as a label on products.
In order to determine whether your product contains fragrance, check the ingredient list on the back. Fragrance is often labeled as ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’ (Mahto, 2018).
Free of chemicals / chemical-free
This label is sort of humorous – because very technically, everything is made of chemicals (Mahto, 2018). As such, it is impossible to have a skincare product be 100% chemical free. What is more important for us to consider is whether or not the ingredients are safe.
Since there is no binding definition of what a ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ product is, we are essentially relying on the manufacturer to not be making unsubstantial claims (Mahto, 2018). There are different organizations (such as PETA) that provide the general with a list of ingredients and companies to avoid that are non-vegan, but it can be difficult to determine whether the manufacturer of a company uses animal-derived agents that don’t appear in the final product.
Firstly, let’s discuss why preservatives are added into skincare and cosmetics in the first place. According to Murphy, White & Rastogi (2004), preservatives are added into ingredients that contain water for two reasons, both which can be potentially harmful to consumers:
All in all, I argue that we don’t need to be experts to understand the products that we apply to our face and body. As consumers, it is important to be aware of the types of labeling tricks that companies will use to convince us to purchase their products. We should purchase products because they contain good ingredients – not because they are labelled a certain way, or have attractive packaging.
Fuhrmeister, A. K. (2012). Product Labeling & Consumer Perception in Personal Care & Cosmetic Industries (Doctoral dissertation, Hawaii Pacific University).
Hilton, L. (2015). Ingredient facts and fallacies: What to know to educate patients. Iselin: UBM LLC.
Johansen, J. D. (2003). Fragrance contact allergy. American journal of clinical dermatology, 4(11), 789-798.
Mahto, A (2018). The skincare bible: Your no-nonsense guide to great skin. UK: Penguin Random House
Murphy, L. A., White, I. R., & Rastogi, S. C. (2004). Is hypoallergenic a credible term?. Clinical and Experimental Dermatology: Viewpoints in dermatology, 29(3), 325-327.
Newburger, A. E. (2009). Cosmeceuticals: myths and misconceptions. Clinics in dermatology, 27(5), 446-452.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration (2018). Fragrances in cosmetics. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm388821.htm#how
Yang, E. J., Beck, K. M., Maarouf, M., & Shi, V. Y. (2018). Truths and myths in sunscreen labeling. Journal of cosmetic dermatology.
22 year old blogger & Vancouverite. I aim to make science and research based information accessible and easy to understand. I also hope to share some of my favorite products, tips, reviews & more!