The Dirty Down-Low on Cosmetic Labels

If you're like me, the back of a cosmetic product provides lots of fun reading material. I end up googling ingredients and getting the down-low on what they are, how they work, and what they do, like a creepy little wannabe scientist. There's also familiar lingo used on these products like "no animal cruelty," "not tested on animals," "all natural," and I've learned these are all loaded terms, and not nearly as straight-forward as they seem. I'm certainly NO EXPERT on this stuff but today I just wanted to share some of the interesting things I've learned about the phrases and symbols used on cosmetic products. Dun..dun..dun...

We'll start with something pretty straightforward that you likely already know...but just in case...

This little guy tells you how many months your product is "good" for after it's been OPENED, not since you bought it:


If you're searching for truly "CRUELTY-FREE" products, this is the Holy Grail of symbols. This is the closest you can get to a guarantee that not only was the finished product not tested on animals, it's separate ingredients weren't either.

NOT SO FUN FACTS: Some companies are incredibly misleading about the animal testing and cruelty-free-ness. While it's great that they say "product not tested on animals," that often means that just the finished product wasn't tested on animals, but the separate ingredients were. Boo. AND several companies (I won't name names..but Google will if you seek it out ;)) say they don't test on animals, but what they don't tell you is they pay other companies to do the testing for them. How rude. Aside from the tests done on animals being painful and cruel, the results are more often than not, irrelevant, because they do not apply to humans at all in the same way. So, basically animals are being tested for reactions to products that don't guarantee that humans would react in the same way. The good news is there are more and more alternatives to animal testing, like lab grown cells and such. Another thing you should know is that if a product is sold in China, it HAS been tested on animals. China requires cosmetic products to have been animal tested before it is sold in their markets. So, that sucks. But it's a good way to rule out companies that test on animals. PS. Good ol' Europe banned the sale of animal tested cosmetics in 2013, so products sold in Europe are often a good place to start if you're looking to limit your use of animal-tested products.


These cute little arrows mean that this company pays to be Green Dot certified. The fee they pay to do so goes towards recovering and recycling useful materials and other green efforts. Good for them!


This means the product was made with at least 95% organic ingredients. That's nice! This is the USDA version, but a quick Google search will show you the appropriate symbols for where you live.

This little guy means that a product wasn't tested on animals and it also doesn't contain any animal products that are often found in cosmetics. Click here to see a list of common animal by-products found in cosmetics.


The big "e" symbol beside the product size: I won't include a picture for this one because you all know what an e looks like. This "e" just means that the product weight is estimated, but correct within certain error margins. Boring.

Alcohol-free: When a cosmetic product says it's alcohol-free, it means it's free of ethyl alcohol, not of all alcohols. A product labeled alcohol-free may still have cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, or lanolin alcohol, which are common in skincare they are considered "fatty alcohols" and are actually beneficial to the skin, unlike the very drying ethyl, or SD alcohol.

Hypoallergenic: THERE IS NO STANDARD DEFINITION FOR HYPOALLERGENIC! The FDA tried to impose regulation for the term in 1974 but Almay and Clinique challenged it and it was struck down. What does hypoallergenic mean, then? Well, not much. If a product is labeled hypoallergenic, it means the company considers it hypoallergenic, but in reality, could definitely still contain allergens. It's one of those words that people see and they're like, "Wow, nice! I won't get a face rash from this," which is a nice sentiment, but you need to do your own research on the ingredients to see how you'll react. There are tons of resources online on common skincare allergens if you want to know what to avoid. 

Non-comodegenic: This is another cosmetic label that isn't regulated, but it is intended to classify the product as "non-clogging" for your pores. If a product says "non-occlusive" it means the same thing. 

Organic vs. All-Natural: What's the difference? Well, an easy way to think of it, is things like "ingredients grown without pesticides" are REQUIREMENTS for products that are certified organic (backed by the government!), while that same thing is only a GUIDELINE for products labeled "natural," and not a rule. Also, one would think a product labeled "100% natural" and "all-natural" mean the same thing, but the truth is, 100% natural is a safer bet for better ingredients than an "all-natural" claim. 

Whitening vs. Brightening: In the research I've done on this (you know...just some casual Google searches) I think the easiest way to explain the difference between skin whitening and skin brightening products is this: skin WHITENING literally inhibits the action of the enzyme tyrosinase. That's what's responsible for melanin production which darkens the skin, so without it, skin will be whiter. Skin BRIGHTENING products work primarily through exfoliation, and remove darker patches (like sun/age spots) from the skin giving it an over-all better, more glow-y appearance. 

Anti-Wrinkle vs. Anti-Aging: This one is pretty simple. Anti-wrinkle works on minimizing wrinkles that are already there, while anti-aging products work to prevent them from forming in the first place. 

Studies show that our skin absorbs 60-80% of what is applied to it, that's why it's important to be thoughtful about the cosmetics you're using (especially if you're a cosmetic junkie like myself!). You'll drive yourself crazy trying to avoid ALL "harmful" ingredients, and if you don't live in a bubble, it's downright impossible to do so. BUT, if you are armed with the knowledge about healthy and safe options for cosmetics and skincare products, you're more likely to make "better" choices when you're shopping for those things, only if that's what you want to do, of course! I'm going to do another post soon on common cosmetic ingredients and any research and studies I can find on them.


PS. Please let me know if you have heard contrary evidence to anything I wrote about here! I'm interested to hear all sides. Did any of these really surprise you?