Understanding the symbols, ingredients list and claims on skincare products can be confusing and unclear. Sifting through the marketing jargon and understanding the complexity of ingredient names and functions is time-consuming and frustrating. To help you decipher it all, this is a simple guide to digesting your product labels.
First up is what a product claims to do. According to the UK government, the product labelling in the sale of goods and services requires that it is not misleading in; the quantity or size, the price, what it’s made of, how, where and when it was made, what you say it can do and the people or organisations that endorse it.
Three terms you will often see are; dermatologically tested, hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic. Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation explains exactly what they mean in The Skincare Bible:
Dermatologically Tested – This implies that the product has the endorsement of, or has passed rigorous laboratory tests carried out by a dermatologist. In the UK, there is no legal definition of the term and this testing could be as basic as a dermatologist or other qualified medical doctor giving the product to a handful of people and relaying back that there were no reports that it caused irritation
Hypoallergenic – This is a manufacturer claim that a product will cause fewer allergies than others. It is not, however, a legally binding term and is rather meaningless. Hypoallergenic products can still contain fragrances – a common cause of allergy and irritation.
Non-comedogenic – This literally means ‘will not blog pores’. Yet again, there is no industry standards or regulation. Be aware that despite the label, it can still clog pores.
Next are ten symbols you will have seen on your products and their packaging.
Leaping Bunny – This internationally recognised logo means the product has not been tested animals.
PAO – Meaning, Period After Opening, this tells you the expiration date of a product. It’s commonly found in the image of a jar with a number on it next to the letter ‘M’. For example, if the number says 6M, that mean you have six months to use it after opening, before it will expire.
Mobius – Signifying that the packaging can be recycled, sometimes there may be a number in the middle of the triangle, which represents the percentage of the packaging made using recycled materials.
Ecocert – This arrow-filled circle symbol is an organic certification and was set up in 2003 as one of the first regulatory bodies developing standards for natural and organic cosmetics.
Refer To Insert – When it’s impossible for a brand to fit all the legally required information on a product, the information can be found on the accompanying leaflet inside the packaging.
Flame – An obvious one, but important to note nonetheless, this tells you the product is flammable and should be kept away from an open flame. This is usually found on pressurised cans such as deodorant and hairspray.
Greendot – This symbol means that 95% of your product is made from plant-based ingredients and 10% of all its ingredients are organic.
Hourglass – This represents that the product has a life span of less than 30 months – even if it’s not opened.
E-Mark – The lowercase ‘e’ sometimes found on packaging means the average volume or weight of the product is the same as what’s listed on the label, as per EU law.
UVA – An important one for sun lovers, this means the product contains the minimum recommended level of UVA protection for a sunscreen.
Reading and understanding an ingredients list can be difficult without the help of an expert. Decoding the complicated names and variations in formulas is not something that’s easily done and as a result, is often dismissed. But understanding what’s in your products can help you to accurately find products that are suitable for your skin.
In the EU, cosmetic ingredients are labelled using an INCI list, which stands for the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order from the highest to lowest concentrate. If there is less than 1% of an ingredient in a product, it is not required to be listed. Despite EU legislation dictating how ingredients are labelled, there is still confusion, in particular with fragrance, which can be described through blanket terms such as ‘parfum’ or ‘aroma’. As we know, fragrance is one of the biggest irritants for sensitive skin so if sensitivity is your concern, it’s always best to go fragrance-free.
Dr Mahto details further, “If your skin is sensitive to fragrance, or you otherwise choose to avoid it, these are the additional 26 ingredients to look out for; alpha-isomethyl ionone, amyl cinnamal, amyl cinnamyl alcohol, anise alcohol, benzyl alcohol, benzyl benzoate, benzyl salicylate, butylphenyl methylpropional, cinnamal, cinnamyl alcohol, citral, citronellol, coumarin, eugenol, evernia furfuracea extract, evernia prunastri extract, farnesol, geraniol, hexyl cinnamal, hydroxycitronellal, hydroxyisohexyl-3-cyclohexene-carboxaldehyde, isoeugenol, limonene, linaool, methyl 2-octynoate.
Helpful resources to assist you in understanding the EU regulations behind ingredients, product labelling and changing rules and regulations, Dr Mahto recommends the cosmetics section of the European Commission website. Here you will also find the Cosing Database, which enables you to look up cosmetic ingredients to find out what they are.