Product Labels: What They Say & What They Mean

A product label showing calories and serving size( — As consumers we are becoming wiser and more selective. We are reading the labels on our cosmetics and beauty supplies and deciding what we do and don’t want in them. But, the smarter we become, the savvier companies become.

Knowing that people tend  to take words in their most common and reasonable context, beauty and cosmetic companies are masters of playing with language to create images that in many cases are false. As a consumer, you need to learn the difference between what a company is telling you and what they want you to believe they are saying.

Natural products

More people are placing faith in benefits from the gifts of nature and are recognizing the dangers of chemical formulations. As this happens the number of so-called natural products is readily multiplying and both old and new companies are steadily cashing in.

But, have you ever wondered what criteria a product must meet to be deemed natural?

You may be shocked to know the answer is none. Natural is essentially whatever any company decides it is. The FDA has no definition for the word nor does it police the market to determine whether such claims are substantiated. Technically, a product that’s 95 percent petroleum and 5 percent oatmeal and honey may be deemed natural if that is the way a company wants to play consumers.

Organic products

You may get the notion that you will do better if you purchase organic products. You might, but it’s surely not a given. The FDA does not have a definition for organic either. The USDA, however, has a National Organic Program (NOP) that sets definitions and outlines standards, but it’s not a one size fits all affair.

According to NOP, products can be labeled “100% organic” if all of the ingredients, except water and salts, are produced organically. Once certified, these products can carry the USDA Organic Seal.

If a product is “organic,” the USDA requires that 95 percent of the ingredients be organically produced and the remaining 5 percent be substances from the National List, except the water and salts. These products may also carry the USDA Organic Seal.

“Made with organic ingredients” means that 70 percent of the product is organically produced. Labels that use this wording are often very misleading because they are allowed to list three of the organic ingredients or groups of ingredients for marketing purposes.

A shampoo of this sort could very well say “made with organic lavender, peppermint and nettle. Since all of these ingredients are herbs, the shampoo could simply say “made with organic herbs.” For most people such labeling suggests that the product is made of all organic ingredients and that is what companies want them to think. However, as a savvy consumer you will notice that products in this category do not bear a seal.

Before you get too comfortable, you should also know that these standards and definitions only apply to products that wish to participate in the USDA’s certification program. Those that do not wish to participate are free to use private or foreign organic standards and the the USDA has no authority over them.


People with sensitive skin often rely heavily on the term “hypoallergenic.” If you are one of them and you believe that  companies are actually required to run tests or to support such claims, you are sadly mistaken. If you believe there is a legal definition or standard for such products, you are in for more disappointment.  Hypoallergenic is another word that companies are at their liberty to define.

Dermatologist Tested/Approved

If you can’t count on the government and you don’t feel comfortable placing faith in the cosmetic companies, you may consider turning to the professionals. But, you have to be very careful in that regard too.

When a product is dermatologist tested, all you know is that some sort of test was performed. Which type of test is generally an outstanding question. Even worse, since there are no standards to be met, if a test is conducted and the product fails, it can still be sold.

Likewise, when there are claims that an item is dermatologist approved, you are often not told which dermatologist gave the product the thumbs up. Was it an independent doctor or one employed by the cosmetic company? And what exactly did the approval entail? A dermatologist may have deemed a facial cleanser safe but what about those claims that it will fade dark spots in weeks?