Beauty Product Labeling


I sure love my lotions and potions.  Makeup, creams, hair stuff….  I love it all!   What I don’t love however is the confusing nature of cosmetics labeling.  Most of it is all marketing jargon.  There are no really specific guidelines regulating these terms.  They are more likely to regulate the claims of an product (ie. a common example is shampoos can claim to give you “Healthy ‘looking’ hair” but not claim to give you healthy hair). So not only are many commonly used terms confusing, but they are sometimes meaningless as well!  Here I would like to clarify some of the commonly used terms so you can peruse the cosmetics aisles and counters well versed in label-speak.

Terms that describe how an ingredient works

Binding AgentsHold a product’s ingredients together. Prevents water and lipids from separating.

EmollientsIngredients that soften and smoothes the skin.

EmulsifierAn ingredient that causes a formula containing a blend of oil and water, to result in a single, smooth product.

Humectant – Ingredients that attract water, usually out of the air, when placed on the skin. By definition, all humectants are also moisturizers.

Lubricants  Ingredients that reduce friction and make the skin feel smoother to the touch. Silicone and dimethicone are commonly used lubricants.

Preservatives Ingredients that preserve a product by killing damaging bacteria, yeast and/or molds, preventing spoilage. Without them, products will become rancid faster.

Solvents Substances, such as alcohol, oil or water, that dissolve the other ingredients.  Alcohol is often added to astringents to help dissolve oils on the skin.

Surfactants AKA surface active agents. Often used as  ingredients to improve the lathering or foaming ability of skin cleansers, soaps and shampoos. They may also help emulsify or solubilize a product, or cleanse or wet the skin. One example, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is an ingredient that many people are trying to avoid now.

Vehicle The base of a product that carries the active ingredients; the vehicle and solvent are often the same. An aqueous base is composed of water; a lipid base is composed of oil and a gel base is often formulated with an alcohol base.

Terms that describe a product

Brightening – The product contains a temporary brightening ingredient, usually light reflecting pigments such as mica to help even out skin tone.  It does not mean it lightens skin, so won’t do anything for dark spots.

Broad-spectrum – A sunscreen term, this product provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

Clinically Proven The product’s manufacturer has conducted testing of it in a clinical setting.  It doesn’t describe though what has specifically been proven or to what degree.

Collagen Boosting – Since collagen is the main ingredient in your skin, anything that does something to your skin can claim this.  Help firm up or prevent dryness.  These are all “collagen boosting” skin benefits.

Cruelty Free – The final product has not been tested on animals.  This does not mean the active ingredients that are in the product were not tested on animals.

Dermatologist tested – A dermatologist has tested this product.  But it doesn’t tell you who the dermatologist was, what was tested (effectiveness? skin reactions?) or even if the dermatologist approves, endorses and recommends the product!

Firming – Contains ingredients known to plump the skin for a fuller look, so skin looks firmer.  Best for skin that lacks elasticity, but results will usually be temporary and subtle.

Fragrance-free – This product contains no added artificial or chemical fragrances.  This doesn’t mean the product will be void of any smell or that no other added substances, such as botanical extracts, have been added to mask the products true smell.

GMO-free – The product contains no Genetically Modified Organisms.

Hypoallergenic – This product has a lower chance of causing an allergic reaction than some other products.  But since people are allergic to different things and to different degrees, there is no way to determine if a product won’t cause a reaction in some people.

Lifting – The product will help repair droopy, saggy skin and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.  It may contain an ingredient that will temporarily tighten skin for a more youthful look.

Long-wearing – Under normal circumstances, this product lasts longer than similar products.  It doesn’t mean waterproof or necessarily mean smear-proof.  Generally found on makeup such as foundation, lipstick and eyeliner.

Natural – Made exclusively with unprocessed ingredients.  It should mean that there is no man-made product in it.

Noncomedogenic – The product contains no ingredients, or combination of ingredients, known to clog pores or cause “comedones” – the official name of pimples, blackheads and/or whiteheads.  One could still have a reaction to the product though.

Oil-free – The product doesn’t contain plant oils, lanolin or mineral oils, which can irritate skin and/or clog pores.  Best for people with oily skin who want to avoid adding extra oil or people with sensitive skin.

Organic – This should mean that the product is made with living products, no ingredients subjected to radiation or pesticides.  Unfortunately it is not well regulated in the cosmetics world, so even if not all the products are organic, it can be labeled as organic.

Restructuring – Found on hair-care products, this term implies the product will repair damage and restore hair that has lost its natural structure from heat styling and chemical treatments.  You can’t permanently restore hair structure that has been damaged, so this is a temporary fix that will make damaged hair feel and look better.


Last updated: July 21, 2012

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