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What are you really putting on your face?


Organic, all natural, hypoallergenic — these and more beauty buzzwords appear on packages, in advertisements and on the pages of magazines. Dr. Channing Barnett, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan, educates consumers about what they’re putting on their skin. Here, she decodes some of the most common beauty terms.

Woman reading lotion label

Skin care buzzwords demystified

Buzzwords are tricky because they suggest concrete benefits that don’t have to be backed up by science, Barnett explains. As long as a product doesn’t claim to change the body’s structure or function, companies don’t need FDA approval to market their wares to the public. Bottom line: Your moisturizer or foundation doesn’t necessarily do what its label claims. Here are some terms to know:


Clinical formula

This term has no real meaning, says Barnett. It may sound fancy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product was produced in a medical clinic. “‘Clinically tested’ could very well indicate that the product was tested, but what was it tested for? What were the results? Essentially, this marketing claim is meaningless,” she says.

2Patented or patent pending

Patents can be granted to companies that manufacture or combine materials in new ways, Barnett explains. Seeing this on a label can make you feel like you’re getting a quality product, but she cautions that a patent doesn’t mean the product works.

3All natural

We see this term on everything, it seems — from shampoo and conditioner to facial cleanser and shower gel. And it doesn’t mean much of anything, says Barnett. An “all-natural” product isn’t necessarily organic or chemical free. Look beyond those vague label claims to the ingredient list. If something really is all natural, you should recognize most of the ingredients.


Many people see the term “organic” on a label as a beauty bonus, but the term doesn’t mean the same for cosmetics as it does for foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies organic food ingredients in cosmetics, but not essential oils or plants used for cosmetic purposes. To carry the USDA Organic seal, a product must contain at least 95 percent organic food ingredients.


If you think “hypoallergenic” on a label guarantees you won’t have a reaction, think again. Barnett says even products so labeled can contain allergens such as preservatives and fragrances, so test some on a small patch of skin before buying.

6Fragrance free

That product might have no noticeable smell, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to use on your sensitive skin. Some products listed as fragrance free still contain “masking” scents to cover up ingredients with unpleasant odors. Look for the words “no fragrance added” instead.

7Prevents premature aging

Here’s another false promise. A product truly able to prevent premature aging by affecting the structure of the skin would be classified as a drug and, therefore, would require FDA approval, explains Barnett. If a product contains sunscreen, which does prevent premature aging by decreasing the damaging effects of ultraviolet light, manufacturers often put “prevents premature aging” on the label. Otherwise, though, you’re just getting suckered by marketing-speak.

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