How to Read Beauty Product Labels


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If you've ever bought a personal care product because you thought it was natural, hypoallergenic, or wouldn't cause your toddler to cry in the bath, you've probably wasted your money.

I use Garnier Fructis Body Boost Fortifying Shampoo. The bottle says that it’s for “fine or flat hair” and “weightlessly boosts for all-day volume.”

Cosmetics expert Paula Begoun says that’s a load of crap: “Body Boost Fortifying Shampoo has lots of window-dressing wording that looks good on the label but does nothing for your hair.”

Oh, and my hair isn’t fine or flat. It’s thick and full. Despite the product’s claims, I use it because I love its citrus scent and, as Begoun puts it, “the shampoo does a great job of cleansing all hair and scalp types with minimal risk of buildup.”

So why does Garnier market it otherwise? In short, because they can – which is exactly why you should never buy a personal care product based on a promise on its packaging.

Unlike medications, these products are not approved by the FDA. It’s shocking, I know – we apply them to a vital organ (our skin) on a daily basis – but it’s true.

As the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics puts it…

The FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors has regulatory jurisdiction over cosmetics and personal care products. Most people assume the FDA regulates these products in the same way it does food and drugs to assure safety. In fact, cosmetics are one of the least regulated consumer products on the market today.

In other words, the FDA does not police cosmetic products or their ingredients. The only thing it really has any say in is certain parts of cosmetic products’ labels.

So what’s a beauty deal-seeker to do?

If you don’t want to waste your money on products that make empty promises, learn which parts of product labels are regulated by the FDA. There’s no other way to know which words on personal care product labels are credible and which could be nonsense.

FDA regulations only address…

1. Ingredients:

The Code of Federal Regulations (Section 701.3) requires cosmetics packaging to “bear a declaration of the name of each ingredient in descending order of predominance.” As seemingly useless as ingredients with unpronounceable names may seem, this is about as trustworthy as a cosmetics product’s label gets. “The ingredient list is the only part of the product’s copy that you can and should rely on,” says Paula Begoun. “It’s true that knowing how to decipher an ingredient list is difficult, but … it is a far more reliable source of information than the product’s description and claims.”

To learn more about what’s in your cosmetics, check out:

2. Identity:

The Code of Federal Regulations (Section 701.11) also requires packaging to “bear as one of its principal features a statement of the identity of the commodity.” In other words, packaging must communicate the intended use of the product it contains, either by a common name (for example, “shampoo”), a “descriptive” or “fanciful” name (for example, “Body Boost Fortifying Shampoo”), or an illustration.

3. Quantity:

Section 701.13 requires packaging to “bear a declaration of the net quantity of contents.” My shampoo, for example, contains 25.4 fluid ounces, indicated on the bottle as “25.4 FL OZ (750ml).”

4. Manufacturer:

Section 701.12 requires packaging to “specify conspicuously the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor.” Garnier, LLC, of New York City makes my shampoo.

Can anything else be done?

Technically, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act says manufacturers shouldn’t sell misbranded cosmetics. This means they can’t omit required information from product labels or use labeling that is “false or misleading.” The thing is, false or misleading labeling is hard to prove. For example, Garnier Fructis Body Boost Fortifying Shampoo doesn’t add volume to my hair, but the FDA has no definition of the word “volume” that would allow it to prove otherwise. So words like “volumizing” are marketing jargon, not scientific claims.

As Dr. Linda Katz, director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, told the New York Times in 2007, the FDA has never imposed standard definitions for marketing terms used on cosmetic products, which leaves manufacturers free to apply them to products as they choose.

The shocking example of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo is another illustration of this problem. In 2009, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported that…

The well-known claim that it is “as gentle to the eyes as pure water” just doesn’t measure up. Unfortunately, there are no legal standards that require products with such marketing claims to contain the safest ingredients available. … Our test results for Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, conducted by an independent lab for our “No More Toxic Tub” report, found levels of formaldehyde (200 and 210 ppm) that may be enough to trigger skin reactions in especially sensitive people. The formaldehyde in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo is likely a byproduct from the preservative Quaternium-15, which is used in many bath products, yet is known to sensitize skin.

So, a shopper’s best and only defense against this problem is herself – or himself:

Educate yourself: Learn what’s in your favorite products (see “Ingredients” above), read reviews online, ask friends and family about the products they use (and no longer use), and check out my 6 Tips to Save on Beauty Products.

Watch out for the worst offenders: Three claims commonly seen on cosmetics deserve special attention. Due to the FDA’s loose oversight, they’re no less bogus than any other product claim, but more women fall for them – and therefore waste money on them.

Natural: First, understand that the word “natural” can legitimately be applied to any cosmetics ingredient and therefore doesn’t make a product unique. Even gasoline byproducts like petrolatum and mineral oil can be considered natural because gasoline starts out as crude oil that’s naturally produced by Mother Nature. “Synthetic ingredients are derived from many sources, but they all start as natural because everything comes from our environment,” says cosmetics expert Paula Begoun. “Nothing is created via alchemy.”

Second, understand that natural isn’t always better. “Consumers should not necessarily assume that an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ ingredient or product would possess greater inherent safety than another chemically identical version of the same ingredient,” Dr. Katz said. “In fact, ‘natural’ ingredients may be harder to preserve against microbial contamination and growth than synthetic raw materials.” The best conditioners on the market contain silicone, which leaves your hair smooth and silky but is completely unnatural.

Hypoallergenic: Even if you have sensitive skin, products labeled “hypoallergenic” are a waste of money. “‘Hypoallergenic’ is little more than a nonsense word,” warns Begoun. “Given that there are no regulations governing this supposed category that was made up by the cosmetics industry, there are plenty of products labeled ‘hypoallergenic’ that contain problematic ingredients and that could indeed trigger allergic reactions. The word ‘hypoallergenic’ gives you no better understanding of what you are or aren’t putting on your skin.”

Studies: The back of the bottle of my shampoo promises “up to 70% more volume” and that it’s “proven to perform” based on “a consumer test.”  “There are lots of ways to use pseudoscience to create proof for a claim that, in reality, has very little to do with science and everything to do with marketing,” explains Begoun. “During the more than 25 years I’ve been doing this, I have asked every cosmetics company whose product or products we’ve reviewed to show us their ‘study,’ and in all those 25 years, I have received only five of these studies and NONE, and I mean NONE, of those five studies proved the claims the companies were making.”

Stacy Johnson

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