If you’ve ever looked closely at skincare product labels, a few terms have probably caught your eye. Some, like “oil-free,” are pretty straightforward, but what about the more generic claims, like “natural”? What do they mean? Are they true? Are they just the latest hot marketing terms to reel you in? Let’s peel away the mystery and define the top skincare label terms, so that next time you choose a skincare product, you’ll know exactly what you’re rubbing into your skin.
Skincare Label: Organic
What it really means: The term “organic” should simply mean that the skincare product you’re holding does not contain any synthetic preservatives, ionizing radiation, dyes, or pesticides at any stage of the manufacturing process. But, the definition of organic and obtaining a “certified organic” label are anything but simple.
The USDA has a national standard for organic labeling that breaks products into three classifications:
100% Certified Organic: Products must contain only organically produced ingredients, the USDA must have pre-approved the formula, and therefore the USDA seal may appear on the package.
Certified Organic: Products must contain 95% organically produced ingredients that haven’t used synthetic preservatives, petrochemicals, ionizing radiation, or any other excluded methods. The USDA seal may appear on the package.
Made with Organic Ingredients: The products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but the USDA seal can’t be used anywhere on the package.
Skincare Label: Quality Assurance International
What it really means: If you see Quality Assurance International (QAI) on a label, you can breathe a sigh of relief that your skincare product is truly organic. That’s because QAI is a USDA-accredited certifying agency that verifies products meet organic standards in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Skincare Label: Natural
What it really means: You, along with most people, probably think “natural” means that a product was made with organic plant and mineral ingredients. But in reality, it’s a classic marketing term that brands use however they wish because the FDA and USDA have no standards for it. Even if a product is made naturally, it still might contain preservatives or artificial colors. If you really want a synthetic-free skincare product, look for the 100% certified organic distinction.
Skincare Label: Cruelty-Free
What it really means: The definition of cruelty-free isn’t as crystal clear as you would expect. You might think it means that no portion of the product has ever been tested on animals, but there’s no official, government-sanctioned label, so cruelty-free can be used to imply a wide range of meanings.
Only the CCIC’s Leaping Bunny Program guarantees products come close to truly cruelty-free. The happy bunny symbol on your skincare product label signifies that neither the individual ingredients nor the products themselves have been tested on animals after a certain date and won’t be tested on animals in the future.
Skincare Label: The Green Dot Symbol
What it really means: A green dot symbol on a label doesn’t describe what’s in your skincare product. It tells you the company who made your product paid a license fee to use the symbol, which is meant to show the brand supports recovering and recycling materials.
Skincare Label: Nonacnegenic, Noncomedogenic, and/or Oil-Free
What they really mean: These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are differences among them. Nonacnegenic means a skin product is unlikely to cause pimples or make them worse. A noncomedogenic product won’t clog your pores, but it still may contain oil. Oil-free means a product doesn’t contain oils, but some ingredients can still make your skin feel greasy and clog pores. Palm oil (which is used in everything from lipstick to soap — it’s in nearly half the packaged products throughout the U.S.) is widely associated with deforestation and the devastation of animals across the world, so many companies have begun to indicate that their products are Palm Oil Free.
Unfortunately, there are no regulatory standards for these terms, so marketing departments can make as many claims as they want. If you’re worried about clogging pores, a standard rule you can use is to avoid products with a thick, creamy consistency and use items with liquid, gel, or serum textures.
Skincare Label: Unscented
What it really means: It may seem obvious that the term “unscented” would mean a product is fragrance-free, but it may only mean it doesn’t have a detectable odor. It still could contain added fragrances that are being used as preservatives or even to mask its natural scent and make it seem unscented. Tricky, we know. If you want to avoid fragrances, scan labels for the most common ingredients that cause allergies: cinnamic alcohol, cinnamic aldehyde, eugenol, hydroxy-citronellal, geraniol, isoeugenol, and oak moss absolute.
Skincare Label: Hypoallergenic
What it really means: Hypoallergenic is another marketing term with no FDA regulation. It’s meant to imply the skincare product won’t cause an allergic reaction, but most companies don’t perform the necessary tests to back up the claim. You’re better off avoiding specific ingredients that cause reactions on your skin. For example, look for formulas free of cetyl alcohol and parabens if you suffer from itchy rashes.
Skincare Label: Raw
Just as a raw food diet is meant to preserve nutrients that can be destroyed during cooking, a raw skincare product isn’t subjected to heat in order to retain its efficacy. For example, pure plant oils can lose valuable properties when they are exposed to heat. Raw products are generally preservative free, so remember to store them in the fridge.