Confused by “Too Good To Be True” Beauty Product Labels? Here’s What They ACTUALLY Mean


As with everything in life, the first thing that catches most people’s eyes when browsing through beauty product aisles is aesthetic labeling. Hello, clutter-free, ultra-minimal rose quartz-embossed label!

As tempting as luxury packaging and crafty buzzwords are, they don’t make that bottle of hyaluronic acid safe. And, to make matters worse, beauty products are exactly transparent with their formulations. Want a dash of hydroxymethyl glycinate in your sudsy anti-dandruff shampoo? No, thanks.

If you’re like us, with all the product canceling that has been going on on social media, you know it takes more than catchy slogans and a pop of color to warrant a purchase. However, reading and googling every bulky word on your product can be exhausting, right?

Well, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Below, we break down every label, top word, and phrase on your beauty products.

How Are Beauty Products Regulated?

If you’re keen on product regulation, you’ve probably heard rumors that beauty products aren’t regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), but this isn’t entirely true. Two congressional FDA laws govern cosmetic labeling. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging Labeling Act (FPLA).

Even with these laws, the FDA leaves it up to beauty brands to test out and ensure their products are safe. It doesn’t also demand them to share any of that information and permits brands to use pretty much any ingredient they want, provided ‘the ingredient and finished product is considered safe under labeled or customary conditions of use.’

The last part is what triggers a cause of alarm.

According to research, the US currently only prohibits using 11 ingredients suspected of triggering adverse side effects from use in beauty products. In contrast, the European Union prohibits more than 2,400 potentially toxic components from being used in cosmetics.

That means that when it comes to your perky-pastel hair colors, nifty-nude lipsticks, and sweet-smelling perfumes, manufacturers in the US have a lot of freedom. They can incorporate ingredients that have been shown to potentially trigger alarming health concerns, and they wouldn’t be in much trouble.

Therefore, it’s up to you to decipher the meaning of the sci-fi-like labels and alien-like ingredients.

Ready to cut to the chaff and make well-informed decisions with a quick skim? Keep reading as we decipher every beauty label.

International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI)

The first step towards becoming a beauty product guru is learning about the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients list.

If you don’t have a clue what the INCI list is, don’t fret. You’re not alone.

The INCI list is a labeling system formed by a US-based trade group known as the Personal Care Products Council. It’s acknowledged in numerous countries, including the United States, the European Union, and China. Firms aren’t required by law to use the INCI list on their products, but most beauty brands do.

The list features more than 16,000 ingredients, making it an ideal resource for those looking to learn more about the elements used in their products. It’s usually located on the back of your skincare product, and it shows the ingredients in descending order by concentration.

At first glance, it might look like a list of ingredients from Dexter’s lab, but as you sift through, you’ll learn most are harmless. For instance, Tocopherol, Benzoyl Peroxide, Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7, and Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate might sound scary, but they’re actually good for you.

Others are run-of-the-mill culprits you’ll encounter in multiple products (more on that below).

Open-Jar or PAO Symbol

PAO symbolizes ‘period after opening. It indicates the amount of time your tube of foundation will last once it’s opened. It’s usually a small image of an open jar with a number on it – 6m, 12m, 24m, and so on.

The ‘m’ represents the months your products will last once opened. Therefore, when the time has elapsed, you’ll need to replace your product. If it’s expired, for instance, liquid foundation, continued use might trigger acne breakouts and, worse, skin infections.

Additionally, if your product requires using fingers to get the product out, bacteria can transfer easily and run the risk of more skin infections. So be sure to follow on expiration dates – they can literally make or break your skincare and makeup routine.


When it comes to products labeled ‘natural,’ not all ingredients have to be natural. Provided there are a few all-natural ingredients included, the product can be labeled ‘natural.’
Therefore, that bottle of aloe vera-infused shampoo can be labeled as natural and still contain up to 30% synthetic elements.

If you’re looking for completely natural products, ensure they’re labeled 100% natural – meaning there’s no synthetic included.

Moreover, 100% natural products might have a certified logo like one from the Natural Product Association (NPA).


With global warming wrecking havoc, many firms and brands are looking to manufacture cleaner products. So, what does clean mean?

Clean is used to describe beauty products that are formulated without potentially harmful or irritating ingredients. As a bonus, the term also includes products not tested on animals.
That said, though, you’ll want to dig further before purchasing clean products. It’s because there are no regulations on clean skincare products like the food industry.

In the beauty universe, the Environment Working Group (EWG) is the closest thing to USDA. The firm has a process that firms go through to have their merchandise certified.


Look at the back of your bottle of conditioner. Does it have the term paraben-free inscribed?

Well, if you don’t know what this means, parabens are preservatives used in cosmetics. They primarily work to prevent the growth of bacteria, but recent studies show that they are estrogen disruptors and have been linked to numerous reproductive concerns and breast cancer.


Sulfates are aggressive cleansers made of sulfur-containing mineral salts (it’s mainly found in shampoos). They are not ideal because they’re harsh and cause irritation to the scalp.


Another phrase to look out for? Phthalate-free.

Phthalates are groups of chemicals used in thousands of beauty products like shampoo, lotion, and perfume. They are different types of phthalates, but the most common is DEP.

DEP is used to boost product absorption, hydrate, and soften the skin, but it has also been shown to cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system.


If you’re sensitive to scents, you need to look out for products with a fragrance-free certification. According to the EPA, fragrance-free products are scentless. They also don’t include the chemicals used to mask a fragrance.


Look at your perfume collection. Does it have the term ‘parfum’ on the label?

Well, parfum is the French term for perfume or fragrance. However, some excerpts suggest parfum refers to fragrances with the highest oil concentration, meaning they last you hours compared to colognes. But that’s a story for another day.

In the cosmetic industry, since the FDA doesn’t require brands to disclose every fragrance, parfum or fragrance can represent a variety of fragrant ingredients – natural or synthetic.


If you have acne-prone or oily skin, products labeled non-comedogenic are your gem.
The term means the product doesn’t contain ingredients that can clog up your pores or boost the chances of getting acne. Therefore, next time to go hunting for sunscreen, facial cleansers, and foundation, be sure to check if it’s non-comedogenic.


Hypoallergenic is the magic word for people with sensitive skin. The term means that the product is not likely to trigger any allergic reactions.

That said, though, if you’re prone to allergies, be sure to patch test the product before including it in your routine. The term hypoallergenic isn’t regulated by the FDA and doesn’t guarantee that you won’t experience adverse reactions.


When shopping for sunscreen, be sure to go for products that are formulated with broad-spectrum SPF.

Broad-spectrum sunscreen products safeguard you from both UVA and UVB rays.
UVA rays prematurely age your skin, causing hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles, while UVB rays can burn your skin, causing inflammation and worse skin cancer.


Beauty product labels for the body shop

If you subscribe to cruelty-free products, you need to check if that pot of concealer is labeled with a leaping bunny logo issued by Cruelty-Free International. The leaping bunny means that the concealer hasn’t been tested on animals.

It also means that the product is globally recognized as cruelty-free and has been through rigorous testing, including independent audits by Cruelty-Free International.


Just because that tube of lipstick has a certified cruelty-free logo inscribed on its label doesn’t mean it’s vegan. If you’re looking for vegan skincare products, check if they have the Vegan Action or Vegan Awareness Foundation logo.

These logos indicate that the product is manufactured with vegan ingredients, doesn’t contain animal products, and hasn’t been tested on animals.

USDA Organic

Another certification you need to look out for? USDA Organics.

Like cruelty-free and vegan products, organic products also require legitimization by a specific certification – the certified organic or USDA organic symbol.

That said, make sure you don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. If you see the term ‘organic’ and there’s no certification on the label, that product might be entirely organic.

For a skincare or makeup product to be considered ‘certified organic,’ it must be 95 or 100% free of synthetic additives like dyes, pesticides, and fertilizers.

What other beauty labels should you look out for? Share with us in the comments section below.




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