Whether you routinely find yourself standing in front of a shelf of self-care products unable to decide what to buy because you have no idea what the labels are trying to tell you, or you just buy everything and hope you can decode it all in the safety of your bathroom, this one’s for you.
Knowing exactly what your beauty product’s label is trying to tell you (or not tell, in some cases) is extremely important, especially if you’re trying to use green products or have an allergy. But many companies use intentionally confusing language or insider jargon to distract from what’s really going on inside the bottle. Luckily, if you know what to look for and what the terms mean, it’s pretty simple to figure out. Here are some commonly used terms and what you need to know about them.
Simply put, active ingredients are the ones that can biologically affect skin. They’re almost always found at the top of an ingredient list and likely have a percentage next to them. They’re also regulated by the FDA to ensure that they are, in fact, active, and as such, are considered “cosmetics that are also drugs.” The most common active ingredients you find in skincare are acids (glycolic, alpha hydroxy, etc.), retinol and vitamin C. Often, the active ingredient is the reason you buy the product.
Thanks to a lack of regulation on self-care products in the United States, ‘fragrance’ is simply a catchall term for any ingredient (or combination of ingredients) that adds a scent to a product. Manufacturers often hide harmful, hormone-disrupting chemicals under the term without having to list them out on an ingredient deck. These anonymous chemical blends can also cause skin irritation and sensitivity, so use with caution.
In literal terms, hypoallergenic means “less allergenic” or less likely to cause allergic reaction. As far as self-care goes, this is an important delineation if you have sensitive or reactive skin. That said, it’s an extremely broad term and one that isn’t always a guarantee. Allergic reactions are complex. Irritations are complex. Your body is complex. Think about how many different allergens exist in the world; some people are even allergic to water! So just because an ingredient doesn’t cause a reaction in 99 people doesn’t mean the same will happen on your skin, so proceed with caution even if a label denotes something as hypoallergenic. There are no allergy-proof products!
Since “comedo/comedones” is the official term for blackheads, you’re likely to see this phrase on facial skin products, as non-comedogenic is meant to connote that the product won’t clog your pores. Look for it on anything that’s meant to treat acne-prone or oily skin. However, while non-comedogenic products are formulated with ingredients that typically won’t clog pores, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed not to break out as there aren’t any guidelines in place denoting non-comedogenic from comedogenic ingredients.
You’re most likely to see this on a jar of coconut oil, but it means the same thing across self-care products. When something is raw, it has not been heated or chemically treated, meaning that what you’re applying to your body is as close to the natural ingredient in its wild, pure state as possible.
Think of a refined ingredient as the opposite of a raw one: it has been heated or chemically treated, which means that what you’re applying to your body is not 100% pure ingredient.
Again, a lack of regulation makes it incredibly easy to slap the term ‘natural’ on a label without anything to back it up. Many products that claim to be natural are likely just jumping on a marketing trend. They may have a handful of straight-from-nature ingredients in their formulations, but they’re likely buried under a slew of other not-so-good-for-you ingredients. Before assuming something that says it’s natural actually is, take a close look at the list of ingredients: if the plant and herb names you recognize are at the very bottom of the list and they’re preceded by a bunch of stuff you can’t pronounce, assume it’s not as natural as it claims to be.
Three cheers for regulation! To be “organic,” a product needs to pass a test of sorts put forth by the USDA: it has to contain at least 95% organic ingredients that have been grown and processed under a strict code of guidelines, and be free of additives.
Another marketing phrase, but not necessarily a harmful one. When something claims to be “non-toxic,” it simply means that the product doesn’t use or contain ingredients that have been linked to a toxic response, like hormone disruption, in humans. This means the product is likely free of additives like phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde and petroleum, all of which have been linked to toxic response.