How To REALLY Read Beauty Labels

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The process of shopping for skin care and makeup might seem fun and simple at first, but what can start as an innocent trip to Duane Reade can easily snowball into an overwhelming experience pretty quickly. Besides the sheer number of beauty products on the market today, it seems like each and every one is stamped with a laundry list of adjectives, from seemingly simple words like smoothing and brightening to more hot-button phrases like cruelty-free and organic.
It's language that's come about because buying beauty is not just about moisturizing dry skin anymore. Now, it’s about moisturizing dry skin and zapping wrinkles and fading dark spots and boosting collagen production. And, even while you’re doing all of those things, you might want to think about where the ingredients actually came from and if said ingredients were tested on animals. So, when you're juggling all those aforementioned terms, deciding what's right for you gets way too confusing. Cue the anxiety.
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Luckily, there are some super-helpful beauty marketers and formulators out there happy to spell out even some of the most perplexing terms for us. Read on to learn the terms brands and marketers use on their products, which words are regulated, and what it all actually means. Yes, you can take a deep breath now.
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More and more, what we’re putting on our bodies is becoming as important as what we’re putting inside of them. We want to be using the best and healthiest ingredients, and that concept often goes hand in hand with two seemingly similar terms — natural and organic — but the difference between the two is significant.

“A natural ingredient is derived from nature, be it a plant, animal, or mineral, as opposed to being produced synthetically,” says Brook Harvey-Taylor, president and founder of Pacifica . However, the term can be applied to an ingredient regardless of how it was grown or treated (which can often involve not-so-natural chemicals).

Certified-organic ingredients, however, go through a vetting process and must meet specific requirements regarding how the ingredient is farmed and processed. "The term organic refers exclusively to plant ingredients that have been certified organic by a reputable agency such as the USDA,” says Krysia Boinis, cofounder and CEO of Vapour Beauty. Laura Luciani, education and technical marketing manager at Davines hair care, explains the stipulations: “An ingredient can only be defined as organic if the origin, the production area, and the farming method are strictly controlled according to specific rules that will promote the ecological equilibrium and the biodiversity." For instance, a lemon can be described as either all natural or organic according to where and how it was farmed and collected from the plant.

If your head is still spinning, take heed. The fastest — and easiest — way to determine whether a product is certified organic is to simply check the label, says Harvey-Taylor. “If a product has a USDA Organic seal or another certifying seal on the front of the label, then it contains over 95% organic ingredients.”
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Whitening and lightening products were big in Japan long before they made their way West, but when these complexion-clarifying lines started popping up in the U.S. over the last decade or so, the American consumer didn’t quite know what to make of the concept.

“The terms whitening and lightening refer to products that aim to reduce pigmentation in the skin, whether the product is targeting age spots or the complexion as a whole,” says Ada Polla, CEO of skin-care brand Alchimie Forever. Polla adds that whitening is more commonly used in Asia, whereas the term lightening is more of a North America-friendly term, although they basically mean the exact same thing.

Years later, however, this category has morphed and broadened to include the less-specific term brightening, which can be especially confusing considering we’ve just gotten a foothold on what it means to cosmetically whiten or lighten the skin. So, is there any difference between them?

“The term brightening refers more to a product that gives a glow to the skin,” says Polla. “A brightening product will fight against lackluster, sallow, or grayish complexions and often include various acids, such as those found in peels, as well as vitamin C.”

Therefore, the goal of a brightening product is more about creating the appearance of radiance (think of the way your skin looks after a great facial or a long hike) as opposed to actually altering the tone of the skin. “Lightening ingredients are a more targeted class of actives that lighten unwanted discoloration including post-acne scarring, pregnancy mask, and dark spots from sun damage,” says April Zangl, CEO and co-formulator of HydroPeptide skin care, a line with the patented ingredient Beta White peptide, developed specifically as a non-irritating alternative to the harsher whitening ingredient hydroquinone.

All of this boiled down into simple terms: Dark spots or blotchy discoloration? Lightening. In need of a little, quick pick-me-up? Brightening.
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As a society, we’re not exactly fans of the aging process. (Side note: Can we work on that please?) Over the last several decades, the beauty industry has responded overwhelmingly to the demand for products that will turn back the hands of time with a host of mainly skin-care tools developed to target sagging skin and furrowed brow. The go-to term used to describe these multitasking products? Anti-aging.

As if the jarring negative connotation weren’t enough, the term is so broad it’s seemingly impossible to define, although beauty companies are happy to take a stab at getting specific. “As you age, the skin barrier will weaken, the blood flow declines, and collagen and hyaluronic acid degrades and causes chronic inflammation,” says Lars Fredriksson, president and founder of Verso skin care. “This process results in more wrinkles, dryer skin, sagging skin, increased pigmentation, and dull skin.” (Well, that sucks.)

Luckily, Fredriksson and a host of other skin-care innovators work around the clock to provide us with the latest and greatest tools to combat these effects. As a result, another term — anti-wrinkle — has popped up on labels that can also make for a bit of confusion at the beauty counter.

Fortunately, says Polla, the difference between the two is fairly simple. “Anti-wrinkle is more specific than anti-aging,” she says. “Anti-wrinkle products will typically focus on collagen-boosting ingredients or filling ingredients to specifically target the wrinkle, while an anti-aging product will address one or many signs of skin aging, including fine lines and wrinkles of course, but also brown spots, broken capillaries, sagging, and lackluster skin.”

Long story short, if you’ve got perfect skin save for a few fine lines around the eyes, choose anti-wrinkle. If you woke up one morning and barely recognized your reflection, anti-aging might be the more appropriate route.
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Testing cosmetics on animals is an incredibly controversial topic. The fact of the matter is, most of us care deeply about our furry friends and don’t want to see them encounter any unnecessary harm. That said, when you’re popping into Sephora to pick up your favorite mascara, whether a product was tested on animals may not always be at the forefront of your mind.

Terms such as cruelty-free and animal-friendly have popped up in recent years to help call attention to companies that do not use animal testing or animal ingredients (that is, vegan products), but differentiating between the two can be a challenge.

Boinis defines them in relatively black and white terms: “Cruelty-free means that the individual ingredients and the finished products have not been tested on animals, whereas animal-friendly is more of a euphemism for vegan products, i.e., no animal by-products are used,” she says, but also points out that many beauty products considered to be “vegan” have had to replace natural ingredients such as beeswax with chemical ingredients. “At Vapour, we actually support the use of beeswax in cosmetics because organic beekeeping helps maintain healthy bees."

Polla, on the other hand, notes that these words still come with their own set of questions. “Neither of these terms are regulated, so much is left to interpretation,” she says. “It’s highly unlikely that neither the product nor its ingredients have ever been tested on animals, as most ingredients used in cosmetics have at one time been tested on animals.” Polla suggests looking for products certified by agencies like PETA or Leaping Bunny, which ask that companies comply to a certain list of restrictions, such as not currently using animal testing for new ingredients or only using ingredients that were formerly tested on animals (i.e. years ago) and have been approved for some time.

No matter how you define the terms, there's certainly some gray area regarding cruelty-free and animal-friendly products, especially in the U.S., where animal testing is still legal. The Humane Cosmetics Act, which calls to put an end to this type of cosmetics testing in the States, is currently before Congress, but we’re certainly behind our friends across the pond. The EU banned all animal testing on final cosmetic products in 2004 and, as of 2013, has broadened the scope of the law to include raw materials as well.
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Those looking for an alternative to invasive surgical treatments often seek out products that promise to “lift” or “firm” the skin, and there are a host of these wares on the market, including lifting eye creams and even at-home treatments that are billed as instant facelifts.

While you’ll save a significant amount of time, money, and pain by opting for a topical skin-care product over an appointment with a top plastic surgeon, it’s important to understand the difference between the smoke-and-mirrors element of the term “lifting” when it’s associated with a cream or serum and the more accurate “firming” description.

“No cosmetic product will be able to lift the skin, but some ingredients will be able to firm by contraction when they dry on skin,” explains Fredriksson. Polla agrees: “Typically with topical skin-care products, any reference to firm or lift will be temporary,” she says. “While brands often use the words interchangeably, the term firm is more accurate.”

Ingredients like emollients, which trap moisture in the skin, and humectants, which take water from the skin’s surface and draw it in deeper, can create the appearance of a firmer complexion. In addition, alpha-hydroxy acids work to stimulate the production of elastin and collagen in the skin, ultimately creating a firming effect. Polla also suggests looking for gel-like formulas, which are more easily absorbed into the skin.
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Further down the rabbit hole of anti-aging marketing lie a host of words that are also connected to the process of getting older. Seeking out a more plump or smoother complexion is closely connected to the idea that, as we get older, the skin on our faces loses its buoyancy.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of topical treatments promising to restore that youthful perkiness to the face without forcing us to resort to more invasive procedures like injections. The terms smoothing and plumping are closely linked, but there is a difference, both in ingredients used and the ultimate effect achieved.

“Plumping will provide a fuller appearance, while smoothing should have a soft-focus effect, minimizing pores and evening out the skin tone,” says Sasha Plavsic, founder of Ilia Beauty. As Fredriksson explains, plumping products (think those popular lip serums) tend to be slightly more cosmetic and therefore more temporary than smoothing products. “Plumping skin can be achieved by boosting the blood flow, leading to mild swelling and redness, which will last for a few hours,” he says. “Products that smooth the skin work by reducing irregularities and roughness.” Fredriksson suggests looking for ingredients like cinnamon, ginger, mint, and capsicum for plumping effects and products that feature vitamin A to achieve a smoothing effect.
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Pretty much every gal knows it’s important to exfoliate, especially when the seasons are changing (so, now) and our complexions are looking and feeling a bit lackluster. Luckily, cosmetics companies have provided us with many ways to slough off the dead skin and make way for tomorrow’s glowing visage, whether it's through more traditional exfoliators and scrubs or the more recent addition of the chemical peel. So, what’s the difference between the two? And, is one better than the other?

“Mechanical exfoliation refers to the process of physically abrading the skin to remove dead skin cells, such as with microdermabrasion products,” says Polla. “Chemical exfoliation refers to the process of chemically dissolving dead skin cells, such as with a peel, an enzyme, or other chemical formulations.” So, basically, your peel is an exfoliator.

Making the choice between a mechanical exfoliator or a chemical peel really comes down to the needs of your skin and personal preference. “Gentle chemical exfoliation with alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids can be more effective because there is no scrubbing or abrasive action,” says Carrie Gross, CEO and president of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare. “Using a peel with multiple acids has been proven to score lower on irritation tests.”

That said, there’s no need to be hasty — if you absolutely swear by your scrub, feel free to take that route. “Scrubs are best for those without sensitive skin or for the body, as the skin is thicker and less delicate than facial skin,” says Gross.
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By now, we all know it’s important to wear our sunscreen on the regular (right?), but the entire category can be confusing, to say the least. One of the more gray areas involves the question of when — and how often — to reapply.

In the past, terms like waterproof and sweatproof provided a false sense of security for sun worshippers, who might go an entire day at the beach without taking a moment to apply a fresh layer of SPF (only to feel the burn come nightfall). Thankfully, the FDA recently passed legislation preventing manufacturers from using those misleading terms in favor of the more transparent descriptions water-resistant and sweat-resistant. While the difference between the two might feel insignificant, it’s an important distinction to make.

“Sunscreens only protect you from the sun for a limited amount of time,” says Jean Fufidio, chief marketing officer at Kiss My Face. “By saying something is ‘waterproof’ it implies that it’s 100%, but no sunscreen lasts forever.” In addition, companies are now required to place a warning label on sunscreen products that feature an SPF lower than 15. “The label will state that the product can help prevent sunburn but fails to protect your skin against cancer or premature aging,” says Fufidio.

And, while every person’s skin has different sun-protection needs, the fact remains that applying — and reapplying — should be a priority. “People just have to be aware of the dangers of laying out in the sun without putting on the proper sunscreen,” says Fufidio. Amen to that!
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