How often do you walk down the skincare aisle and see products labeled as ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘dermatologically tested’ or ‘clinically proven’ to do X, Y or Z? There is much beauty language and very few of us actually know what the fancy terms on product packaging mean.
There is absolutely no doubt that the skincare industry takes complete advantage of this and, sadly, much of what we see is clever marketing. It is there to impress, baffle and mislead in equal measures as you hand over your money. So let’s take a look at some common product labeling and what it really means.
This is a manufacturer claim that a product will cause fewer allergies than others. It is not, however, a legally binding term: there is no minimum industry standard to prove the product causes fewer allergic reactions. It is there simply to imply to the consumer that the product will not cause irritation.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of this and the term is rather meaningless. Hypoallergenic products can still contain fragrances – a common cause of allergy and irritation. If you suspect you have an allergy to one of your personal care products, I’d advise you to see a dermatologist for formal allergy testing.
This literally means ‘will not block pores’ and is often found on the label of skincare for those with acne or oily skin. If an ingredient is comedogenic, it will encourage blocked pores and the formation of blackheads.
Traditional gold-standard testing for comedogenicity was carried out on rabbit ears. Chemical ingredients were simply applied to the rabbit ears and scientists would look to see if comedones or blackheads developed. Although this method was commonly used, many cosmetic scientists and dermatologists felt it was inaccurate and misleading and many influential dermatologists later discredited its use.
The main problem with skin care product labeled as ‘non-comedogenic’ is that, yet again, there are no industry standards or regulation. Generally speaking, those prone to breaking out are still better off looking for a light-textured non-comedogenic product BUT be aware that, despite the label, it can still clog pores.
Another term deliberately meant to lead you astray. It implies that the product has the endorsement of, or has passed rigorous laboratory tests carried out by, a dermatologist. In Pakistan, there is no legal definition of the term.
According to EU guidelines, the implication is that a dermatologist has supervised the testing on humans. However, there are no standard tests for the safety or efficacy of cosmetic products. This test could be as basic as a dermatologist or other qualified medical doctor giving the product to a handful of people to try and relaying back that there were no reports it caused irritation.
Natural skincare is another total minefield. Some have suggested that ‘natural’ should mean that at least 5 percent or more of the ingredients are found in nature. Its definition, however, is not regulated in the US, Pakistan or UK, which again means there is no minimum standard for a product to qualify.
The biggest difficulty is the lack of a standard definition: ‘natural’ can mean different things to different people. To me it might mean sourced from plants; to you, it may mean that synthetic (i.e. man-made) ingredients are absent; to someone else, natural skincare is that which is preservative free. You can see where the problems are going to arise with such a subjective term.
To complicate things further, the original ingredient may be ‘natural’ (e.g. sourced from a flower or fruit), but chemical processing changes it from its original form to something quite different – is it then still ‘natural’? Things to think about when you next reach for your natural skincare.
The biggest mistake I see is that people equate natural skincare with somehow being safer than products lacking the label. Botanicals, herbs and essential oils can still cause irritation and allergies and these are commonly documented in scientific literature. People usually do not want to hear this but ‘natural’, in skincare, genuinely means very little.
Often seen on products, usually in the anti-aging sector, to make them sound like they have undergone rigorous scientific testing to prove they work. In truth, it is more deceptive marketing. ‘Clinically proven’ usually just means that a product was tried on a small number of people, with them subsequently reporting back their findings at the end of a set period of time.
It is almost never a robust clinical trial with sound scientific methodology, adequate sample size or appropriate statistical analysis. Unfortunately, short of contacting the manufacturer to request the original clinical data and then critically and scientifically appraising it, there is no way to be certain.
The organic label in skincare is also not legally regulated in Pakistan so the same issues around minimum standards and the exact definition still apply. It loosely means a product with ingredients that are grown without the use of artificial chemicals.
The majority of these types of products that are certified organic often have non-organic ingredients also. As there is no legal definition and the various certification bodies have different criteria to meet for product labeling, there is no beauty industry standard. For example, depending on the organization, certain synthetic preservatives, hydrogenated oils, and foaming agents may be permitted.
However, things are a bit better in the US, where the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) provides guidelines for organic labeling in cosmetics. For a product to be labeled ‘organic’, 95 percent of its ingredients must be certified; organic-derived products need only contain 70 percent.
There is a growing notion that natural and organic products are somehow better for you and safer for your skin. This is not true, and is simply the product of marketing and scaremongering. Just because a product comes from a plant does not make it safe.
Organic and natural skincare products are a choice. Some will still prefer to use these as they feel like a healthier lifestyle option, and that’s okay. But remain mindful that they may not be any better for your skin. The label itself may not be the halo you first took it for.
Fragrance-free should mean exactly what it says on the tin but this is not always the case. The only way to be entirely certain that a product is really fragrance-free is to check the ingredients list. Fragrance can cause allergies in susceptible individuals and irritation in those with sensitive skin. It is often marked as ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’ and is usually a blend of many agents.
If your skin is sensitive to fragrance, or you otherwise choose to avoid it, these are the additional twenty-six ingredients to look out for:
Free from Chemicals
Now, this one is definitely a label to ignore. Technically speaking, everything is made from chemicals be they natural or man-made. It is simply impossible to have a product that is 100 percent chemical free. What is actually more important is whether a product and its ingredients are safe.
An ingredient is not, by virtue of being ‘natural’, automatically more likely to be safer than a synthetic i.e. man-made one. The key is the amount, dose or concentration of the ingredients that are used. The EU regulates the maximum safe amount or concentration of what is safe in skincare.
In Pakistan, there is no legally binding definition of a vegetarian or vegan product and you are very much relying on the manufacturer to not be making unsubstantiated claims.
It can be difficult to be entirely certain whether the manufacturing process uses animal-derived agents that do not appear in the final product.
There are few cosmetic products that are truly and completely preservative free, but do we really want them to be? Preservatives are an important component of skincare and are added to beauty products to enhance their shelf-life by preventing the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mold.
If a product contains water (aqua), it is very likely it also has a preservative, without which it would go off in a matter of days. Common preservatives include:
Formaldehyde preservatives – Formaldehyde preservatives are popularly used in personal care products as they are effective and relatively cheap, showing activity against bacteria and some viruses.
Methylisothiazolinone – These preservatives have activity against a range of microbes. These chemicals can cause skin allergy, therefore, it is not allowed in EU for leave-on skincare products such as face creams and facial masks. On the other hand they are approved for rinse-off products such as shampoos and shower gels.
Parabens – They have been used as preservatives since the 1950s. There are strict guidelines regarding paraben type, dose and concentrations used in skincare products to ensure a minimum safety standard is met and evidence shows they are safe.
Are natural preservatives better than synthetic preservatives?
As the demand for natural skin care grows, so does the demand for natural preservatives. Some difficulties with natural preservatives are that they often do not have the same anti-microbial activity as their synthetic counterparts.
There is no scientific evidence that natural preservatives are safer than synthetic ones. At the risk of seeking controversy, I think the natural beauty industry capitalizes on people’s fear of unknown ingredients coupled with the growing wellness trend. Cosmetic science should be evidence-based and not simply encourage the idea that because an ingredient comes from Mother Earth, it is safe.
Final thoughts on skincare products labels
The best habit to get into when purchasing skincare products is to become more familiar with their ingredients and what they do. This is more important than the label put together for you by the branding and marketing team. This article hopefully provides a starting point for you to become more aware of what the small print on the labels means, and also silences some of the bafflement that the vague terms and long and impenetrable chemical names may induce!
What I would encourage you to ask yourself next time you’re in the cosmetics store is whether spending 20,000PKR/$200/£200 on a serum simply because it’s dermatologically tested is really worth it – or are the ingredients very similar to something that can be purchased for one-tenth that price? The expensive product may look attractive in your bathroom cabinet, but is it really any better for your skin than the cheaper alternative? Not necessarily. And if you still have any doubt, see a cosmetic dermatologist who is able to guide you.