A Closer Look at Cosmetic Labels

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I first started using skincare products that were more “natural” when I first got pregnant. I admit that I wasn’t much into the “all natural trend” till then. I have been battling with blemish breakouts like forever and no natural remedies ever worked for me back in those days. But ever since my first pregnancy in my mid 30’s, my skin changed radically several times. Consequently, I also changed my mindset about my skincare products and experimented quite a bit. I was surprised by the number of products that claimed to be natural, allergen free, cruelty free and so much more. So I did my research on cosmetic labels to clear the foggy setting.

Shelves with cosmetic products lined up with a very organic flair to them.
Image by Anna Sullivan

Nowadays, I use quite a few “natural” products. I have finally settled on a few good ones that really work for me and my skin, but only after spending tons of money on overpriced products, with a luxurious marketing appeal and gorgeous packaging… You know the kind that looks so precious with a divine scent, but never lives up to the expected outcome!

Anyway, I have turned to brands that are much more affordable and deliver so much more for my skin. But learning what those cosmetic labels really mean, helped me make better choices in the long run. Therefore, I thought it would be great to share with you a bit of this knowledge after all that digging I did.

Active Ingredients

The list of ingredients found either at the top or bottom (likely marked with a percentage next to them) are the active ones that biologically affect the skin. The active ingredients are usually the very reason we buy the product. The most common ones are acids like glycolic, stearic, alpha hydroxy, hyaluronic, retinol, and vitamic C.

Now, a very important note is that ingredients (except for color additives) are FDA-regulated and not FDA-approved. That basically means that they do not need to a pre-market approval. As such, it is the sole responsibility of the manufacturers to ensure the safety of the product and to comply with the law.


This term usually pertains to a group of chemicals (Phthalates, or DEP) used to mask the inherent scent of particular ingredients. Obviously, it also enhances the consumer’s experience who has possibly bought the product due that alluring scent. (I know that I’ve guilty of this one time too many).

As a matter of fact, fragrance is one of the reasons to prefer one product over another. However, some of the added fragrance chemicals may be toxic. (That goes also for a lot of other household products including scented candles). A word of caution: manufacturers do not have mention these chemicals on the ingredient’s list and so there’s no real way to tell if any skin irritation or sensitivity issues may arise.


Sadly, this is a term favored by a lot, but has no substantiated meaning to it! A real bummer, right?! It is a term that manufacturers use to denote products that may cause fewer allergic reactions. But according to the FDA, this means whatever a company wants it to mean, after all manufacturers do not have prove their claims!

In other words, brands are promoting “gentler” products for people with a hypersensitive skin, but in reality there is no such thing as allergy-proof products. The only safe thing to do is to test a small amount first on a small skin area and wait to see for any possible reactions. Obviously, discontinue use of any product that has caused any irritation.


This term refers to products with ingredients that don’t clog pores and hence, cause blackheads. Such products are usually oil free, although not all oils clog pores. Once again, the lack of any approved standards and regulations means that, brands can make any such claim. That means, that there is no guarantee that you won’t have a break-out even if you use non-comedogenic products. My rule of thumb is real simple: stay clear of thick, creamy consistent texture, the lighter – the better!


I haven’t come across the term too many times. It’s usually found on coconut oil jars for example. It basically means that it hasn’t be treated chemically or heated. Thus, it’s as close as you can get to a natural ingredient. 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.


A refined ingredient is the opposite of a raw one because it has been heated or chemically treated. Hence, it is not a 100% pure  ingredient.


Natural is not the same as organic. Again, a lack of regulation makes it incredibly easy to slap the term ‘natural’ on cosmetic labels 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.


In the US, organic cosmetics are regulated by both the USDA for the “organic” claim and the FDA compliance to the regulations and laws with regards to labeling and safety requirements. Such certified products must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). No additives are permitted. But another word of caution: organic ingredients are not allergen and toxic-proof. Some pesticides are still acceptable for use by organic growers.


The term suggests that cosmetics with this label don’t contain ingredients linked to a toxic response (i.e. additives like formaldehyde and petroleum). In other words, their ingredient list is quite harmless. Since I don’t know how reliable such a label really is, and aside from my very own hair mask I make myself at home (with eggs, honey and yogurt), I did some more digging and found a site called EWG Cosmetics Database. They hold a database with cosmetics’ ingedients that have been put on the test by their team of scientists. So I’d say that that’s a good starting point to check.


This “fabricated” term has no real meaning under the law. There are skincare products that are both a drug and a cosmetic. If a product claims to cure or prevent a disease like a drug, then it will be regulated as such.

Closing thoughts on cosmetic labels

So there you have it. I hope I cleared some of the ambiguities that exist with regards to all these “beauty” products and their cosmetic labels. It’s pretty wild out there, so better get informed. Skin conditions are probably some of the hardest things to treat, speaking from personal experience. Therefore, it’s not worth risking with products that are not labeled properly. It is still however, our responsibility as consumers to go deaf to marketing claims and demand more from brands.

Take care now, xx

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