How to Read a Cosmetics Label

With so many products on the market, "know before you buy" is your best bet.

Confused about all the competing information on your cosmetic and skin-care products? Don't be. This guide from WebMD will help you navigate the department store counter or drugstore aisle with ease.

Alcohol free. In cosmetic labeling, the term "alcohol" used alone refers to ethyl alcohol. Cosmetic products, including those labeled "alcohol free," may contain other alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol. These are known as fatty alcohols, and their effects on the skin are quite different from those of ethyl alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol, which some consumers may think of as drying the skin, is rarely used in cosmetics.

"Cruelty-free" or "Not Tested on Animals." Although this statement implies the product hasn't been tested on animals, at some point, most ingredients have been tested on animals. Look for the words "no new testing," or "not currently tested." Keep in mind, though, there is no legal definition for these terms.

Hypoallergenic cosmetics. Manufacturers claim that products that bear this claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other products. There are, though, no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term or ensure that these products are less irritating to sensitive skin than others.

Ingredients. The FDA requires that cosmetic manufacturers list all ingredients on the labels of cosmetics sold on a retail basis to consumers -- even if the label states, "For professional use only." Ingredients are listed in order from the greatest to the least amount.

Noncomedogenic. This suggests that products do not contain common pore-clogging ingredients that could result in acne.

Shelf-life (expiration date). This refers to the amount of time a product is considered good under normal conditions of storage and use. Storing cosmetics in damp, warm places like a bathroom can lead to earlier expiration.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on January 27, 2021



FDA: "How FDA Evaluates Regulated Products: Cosmetics."

FDA: "Cosmetic Labeling & Label Claims."

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