What Those Symbols On Your Beauty Products Actually Mean

Here’s a fun game if you’re bored at your desk: Pick up the beauty product that’s closest to you. (And no judgment if there are a lot to choose from.) Now, tell us what every little symbol on the packaging means. [Silent Face Emoji.] That’s what we thought.

In the good old U.S.A., products are only required to disclose their name, weight, warnings, directions for use, ingredients, and the company’s place of business. “The European Union is a little more strict,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. “Rather than designing different labels, which can be costly, U.S. companies often opt for European standards.” Symbols, like Girl Scout badges, often serve as bragging rights to indicate if a company is particularly well-behaved, even if no governing body requires it. Here, Wilson walks us through the mysterious hieroglyphics of beauty product packaging.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Flame
You can often find this little campfire on aerosol hairsprays, dry shampoos, sunscreens, nail polish, and nail polish remover. No surprise here: this indicates the product is flammable. We know it's obvious — but if there's one symbol you really need to know, this is it.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Open Jar
This cute little hat box represents how long you can use a product safely after opening it. This doesn't necessarily mean that if you smear on the formula after 13 months, you'll be rushed to the emergency room. What it does mean: the concentrations and potency of the product change over time, and it’s less active or stable than it was when you first opened it.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Hourglass
If the product isn’t stable (unopened) for more than 30 months, this symbol indicates the “best before” date. It's a good thing to watch out for before checkout — especially if you're buying sale items. If you use the product after that date, its claims are no long substantiated.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Estimated Symbol
This letter is not required by the FDA or the E.U., but it indicates that the manufacturer complies with E.U. regulations regarding average fill. Whazzat? Because machines aren’t perfect, the weights listed on U.S. products — say, “Net. Wt. 1.7 oz – 50 g” — offer the minimum amount you’ll encounter in the jar or tube. In other words, sometimes you luck out and get more.

But, the E.U. requires that the average weight in a batch of products is no less than what’s listed on the package. If the E.U. were to audit a company that used the Estimated Symbol and found it actually had less than what was printed on the label, the company could face fines and violations.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
USDA Organic
To display this seal, the product must contain only organic produced ingredients. (Water and salt don’t count.) Organic, in this sense, also means the producer adheres to federal guidelines addressing soil quality, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically-based farming methods. It's a tough label to get; Juice Beauty is among the few beauty brands that carry it.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Ecocert
This French-based organic certification organization was founded in 1991, and it’s still one of the largest and most respected in the world. It’s hard to summarize all the parameters an Ecocert product meets— if you’d like, please review this 38-page pdf (!) on its website.

Important to note: this label will either be accompanied by the phrase "Organic Cosmetic" or "Natural Cosmetic." Both require that 95% of the formula be derived from natural ingredients — but "Organic Cosmetic" means that 95% of the plant-based ingredients (and 10% of all ingredients by weight) come from organic farming. "Natural Cosmetic" means that only 50% of its plant-based ingredients (and five% of its total weight) come from organic farming.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Hand With Booklet
There’s a lot to say about this product — more than can fit on an itty-bitty bottle of serum. This handy symbol means you can find an enclosed leaflet outlining product warnings and conditions of use. You'll often locate it inside the box or attached to the bottle with an adhesive.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Chasing Arrows
This ubiquitous symbol can mean a few different things. Seen alone, it means the packaging is recyclable. But seen with a percentage, it indicates how much of the packaging is made from recycled content.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Green Dot
Adopted in 1999, this seal signifies the producer of the packaging has made a financial contribution toward recycling it in the country where it was made. It doesn’t mean the package itself is made from recycled content — however, it indicates the corporation fiscally supports recycling, like how an asterisk denotes big spenders in a list of donors.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Leaping Bunny
This cute little guy means the product has not been tested on animals, and all the ingredients contained in the product haven’t been tested on animals in a certain number of years, also known as the fixed cut off date (FCOD). Companies are not required to disclose their FCOD publicly, but the concept incentivizes ingredient producers to stop animal testing.
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