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Beauty buzzwords: Understanding product labels

You've seen - and probably bought - products that say "cruelty free," "hypoallergenic" and "unscented." But do those terms mean what you think they do? Find out the meaning behind the beauty buzzwords here.

Cruelty Free?

In recent years, some cosmetic companies have promoted their products as "CRUELTY-FREE", "NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS" or similar phraseology in their labeling or advertising. The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms.

Beauty buzzwords: Understanding product labelsSome companies may apply such claims solely to their finished cosmetic products. However, these companies may rely on raw material suppliers or contract laboratories to perform any animal testing necessary to substantiate product or ingredient safety. Other cosmetic companies may rely on combinations of literature, non-animal testing, raw material safety test, or controlled human use testing to substantiate their product safety.

Many raw materials, used in cosmetics, were tested on animals years ago when they were first introduced. A cosmetic manufacturer might only use those raw materials and base their "cruelty-free" claims on the fact that the materials or products are not "currently" tested on animals.

Hypoallergenic

Hypoallergenic cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergenic reactions than other cosmetic products. Consumers with hypersensitive skin, and even those with "normal" skin, are told that these products will be gentler to their skin than non-hypoallergenic cosmetics.

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term "hypoallergenic." The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of hypoallergenic cosmetics are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenic claims to FDA.

The term "hypoallergenic" may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.

"Fragrance Free" vs Unscented

The terms "fragrance free" and "unscented" are presently used by the cosmetic industry virtually without restriction, since the expressions have no legal definitions. The majority of consumers consider these terms to be equivalent and interchangeable and understand these terms to mean that a cosmetic product so labeled has no perceptible odor.

Many raw materials used in the manufacture of cosmetics have characteristic odors that may be considered offensive to consumers. Because of this undesirable odor, cosmetic manufacturers add ingredients to their products to both cover any offensive odor originating from ingredients and to impart a fragrance for marketing purposes. In the case of products labeled as "fragrance free" or "unscented," manufacturers generally add fragrance ingredients to cover the offensive odor, but less than what is needed to impart a noticeable scent.

According to the law, all cosmetics offered for sale must include on the label a list of ingredients in descending order of predominance. While most ingredients must be listed by their chemical names, fragrances or flavors may be listed simply as "fragrance" or "flavor". Although the cosmetic regulations do not require the listing of fragrance ingredients present at low levels to cover the off-odor of other ingredients, most manufacturers choose to list them on the label. In most cases, consumers may be able to purchase "unscented" or "fragrance free" cosmetic products by examining the label to confirm the absence of the word "fragrance" in the list of ingredients. By reading the ingredient listing, consumers may be able to avoid cosmetic products which contain ingredients to which they are sensitive or otherwise wish to avoid.

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