Ever feel that reading a product label requires deciphering a secret language? All those symbols, numbers and certifications mean something, right? They absolutely do. Product codes convey key information to beauty store owners and consumers alike. The trick is to learn how to read labels by becoming familiar with what the numbers and symbols represent, positioning yourself as a beauty authority and ultimately boosting sales among increasingly label-conscious consumers.
Consider this: The 2015 Green Beauty Barometer survey, conducted by all-natural beauty brand Kari Gran, found that about 59 percent of 1,000 women 18 and up read beauty product labels prior to purchase. And last fall, market research company Organic Monitor reported that “the number of ethical labels is mushrooming in the cosmetic industry ... Over 20 different types of labels are now present on cosmetic and personal care products, representing ethical, sustainability and/or safety aspects.” This trend toward transparency in labeling is expected to continue.
To help clarify confusing product labels, we’ve compiled a cheat sheet covering the top 20 markings and keywords to know.
EWG Verified: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers certification for beauty products; at press time, 806 products had been approved. Products endorsed by the nonprofit organization must not contain any “ingredients of con- cern” and must list all ingredients and follow quality manufacturing practices, according to EWG’s website, EWG.org. The EWG requires companies to submit detailed information about ingredients listed on the label (including additional information not included on labels), ensuring that products are adequately preserved and free of contaminants and that manufacturing processes meet the EWG’s criteria. Meanwhile, companies commit to submitting all reports of product problems or serious adverse events to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as to the EWG, which may perform random product testing to ensure compliance.
Leaping Bunny: The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) and The European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE) introduced the Leaping Bunny symbol to indicate cruelty-free status. Among other requirements, a company that uses the symbol “does not and shall not conduct, commission, or be a party to animal testing of any cosmetic and/ or household products, including, without limitation, formulations and ingredients of such products,” and “the company does not and shall not purchase any ingredient, formulation or product from any third-party manufacturer or supplier that conducted, commissioned, or had been party to animal testing on said ingredient, formulation, or product,” according to LeapingBunny.org. The product company must recommit annually and is subject to an independent audit, according to criteria set forth in the Leaping Bunny Standard.
Fairtrade Mark: In a globalized economy, the Fairtrade Mark is designed to help the environment, communities, and individual farmers and workers. “Fairtrade America is a global movement to change the way trade has traditionally worked, which has historically disadvantaged the poorest producers,” explains Mary Linnell-Simmons, marketing and communications manager for the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “Our mission is to secure decent working conditions, fair prices and better terms of trade; the Fairtrade Mark is found on products that have been certified and audited for adherence to the Fairtrade Standards.” She adds that anything that can be Fairtrade must be Fairtrade—from cocoa butter and coconut oil to honey, coffee grounds and black pepper. “Choosing products with the Fairtrade Mark means farmers can invest in their communities, from clean water to healthcare,” says Linnell-Simmons. “Farmers and workers take control and build sustainable futures for themselves, their families and their communities.”
COSMEBIO Cosmos Organic/ Cosmos Natural: This organization, established in 2002, represents more than 350 members in France and abroad, including cosmetic laboratories, distributors, contract manufacturers and raw material suppliers, with the goal of promoting excellence in the field of organic cosmetics and raising consumer awareness. COSMEBIO offers two labels (based on the European Cosmos standard) to communicate that cosmetic products are environmentally friendly and organic. The Cosmos Organic label indicates that the product contains at least 95 percent naturally sourced ingredients and that at least 95 percent of plant ingredients are produced by organic farming methods. In addition, ingredients must be biodegradable and organic ingredients must comprise at least 20 percent of a product’s total content (water is not considered organic). The Natural label requires “other ingredients” to make up less than 5 percent of the total product.
USDA Organic: The USDA Organic seal was originally intended for food products, but now beauty products are also carrying the label, notes Craig R. Weiss, president of Consumer Product Testing Company in Fairfield, New Jersey. According to the USDA, “organic products have strict production and labeling requirements,” such as “being produced without excluded methods (e.g., genetic engineering), ionizing radiation or sewage sludge; produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances; and overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.”
“If you see the word ‘organic’ on the label, also take the time to look for the USDA Organic seal, which indicates that the product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients,” explains Sandy Taylor, editor at FoundationFairy.com and makeup artist in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “The word ‘organic’ may signal that the product uses organic ingredients, but the USDA Organic seal provides more confidence.”
Green Dot Symbol: According to Packaging Recovery Organisation Europe (PRO), the issuer of the Green Dot symbol, about 460 billion packaging items yearly are labeled with the Green Dot, a registered trademark in more than 170 countries. Interestingly, the symbol isn’t actually a green dot, but a circle with two intertwined arrows, often pictured on packaging in black and white. PRO Europe reports that companies using the symbol have proven their responsibility to the environment regarding packaging, via a financial contribution paid to a “qualified national recovery organization,” with the ultimate goal of reducing packaging and packaging waste. Specific regulations vary by country; in Germany, for example, manufacturers and distributors are required to accept returns of packaging for recycling outside of the public waste-disposal system.
ECOCERT: Aiming for sustainable development, ECOCERT claims to be the first certification body to develop standards for labeling natural and organic cosmetics when it was established in 2003 and currently works with more than 1,000 companies. The ECOCERT standard requires the use of ingredients derived from renewable resources— sans GMOs, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicon, PEG, synthetic perfumes and dyes, and animal-derived ingredients (unless naturally produced by them, such as milk or honey)—manufactured by environmentally friendly processes, with biodegradable/recyclable packaging, plus a minimum of natural ingredients must be organic. Like COS- MEBIO, the body offers two labels, and both require a minimum of 95 percent of total ingredients derived from natural origin. For the natural and organic label, at least 95 percent of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10 percent of all ingredients by weight must be organic. For the natural cosmetic label, at least 50 percent of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 5 percent of all ingredients by weight must be organically grown.
Cruelty-Free/Cruelty-Free Vegan: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has established two logos for beauty products—cruelty-free and cruelty-free/vegan—featuring a bunny head with heart-shaped ears. The organization also offers an app for consumers to search a product company’s animal testing stance. To use PETA’s seals, companies must complete a questionnaire and sign a statement of assurance verifying that they do not conduct, commission or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations or finished products, and that they pledge not to do so in the future. Only companies that have entirely vegan product lines can use the vegan logo.
Hypoallergenic: With sensitive skin issues and allergy concerns on the rise, many customers seek kinder, gentler products. While “hypoallergenic” does not mean “free of all allergens,” the term gained popularity in the 1980s, Weiss explains. “Hypoallergenic means that there has been a human repeated-insult patch test on 200 subjects with no reaction,” he says. “These products are simply more severely tested to verify they are lower-allergenic.” Hence, while no product is guaranteed not to cause a reaction, customers are less likely to experience adverse effects.
Natural: Experts agree that “natural” is an unverifiable marketing claim. After all, as Weiss notes, “natural” doesn’t indicate “safe”; harmful ingredients like strychnine are technically natural. Even more confusing, there is no accepted standard for the use of the term. “Because the government hasn’t defined the term ‘natural,’ no regulations exist about what products can and cannot contain,” notes Nikki Anschel, technical director of Draga Laboratories, an Atlanta-based haircare and cosmetic manufacturer. “However, the Natural Products Association (NPA) launched a new seal of approval, aimed at identifying those products that meet a strict industry-driven standard.” The NPA Natural Standard, verified by the NPA Natural Seal, evaluates products based on natural ingredients (including appropriate manufacturing processes), safety (ingredients that do not pose a health risk), responsibility (no animal testing) and sustainability (biodegradable ingredients and eco-friendly packaging).
Made With Organic: Unlike products that are labeled 100 percent organic or feature the USDA Organic seal (at least 95 percent organic), some packaging may call out select organic ingredients. According to public health and safety organization NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation), “cosmetics, lotions and other personal hygiene products certified for compliance with NSF/ANSI 305 are permitted to bear the NSF ‘contains organic ingredients’ mark confirming compliance with this standard. The product label must also state the exact percentage of organic content on the label. The National Organic Program requires that all products ... identify each organically produced ingredient in the ingredient statement.”
SPF: Also known as “Sun Protection Factor,” this sunscreen standard is found in everything from eye cream to lip balm. As the Skin Cancer Foundation reports, “SPF represents a sunscreen’s degree of protection mainly against ultraviolet B (UVB), the sun’s shorter wavelength rays, which cause sunburn and can lead to skin cancer. SPF doesn’t represent an amount of sun protection, but rather a length of time. It gauges how long the sun would take to redden your skin when using a particular sunscreen compared with the amount of time without sunscreen.” For example, using an SPF 15 product under ideal circumstances means that sunburn would take 15 times longer than if you weren’t using sunscreen. Weiss, whose company performs 65 percent of testing worldwide for SPF, adds that testing requirements are prescribed by both the FDA and European authorities.
The Skin Cancer Foundation offers a Seal of Recommendation in two categories for sunscreens: SPF 15 or higher protection for the “Daily Use” seal, meant for limited sun exposure, and SPF 30 or higher for the “Active” seal, meant for extended time outside. Other sun-protection keywords include “broad- spectrum” (protects from both UVA and UVB) and “water-resistant.”
Recyclable/Mobius Loop: According to the Recycling Council of British Columbia, the Mobius Loop, a triangle of arrows that’s the universally recognized symbol for recyclable packaging, was created alongside the first Earth Day in 1970. Alternatively, a Mobius Loop pictured inside a circle means that the packaging was made with some percentage of recyclable materials (a number present inside the loop reflects the percentage of recycled materials used).
Dermatologically Tested: A dermatologically tested product has been tested on human skin. “Dermatologist-tested can mean a lot of things, but in today’s marketplace it means that a dermatologist has reviewed the testing performed and has affirmed that the testing has been performed correctly or appropriately,” Weiss explains. “It could be a safety and use study monitored by a dermatologist, or it could be that a dermatologist has signed off on a report that details the results of repeat-insult patch tests.”
NEED TO KNOW
e: The lowercase “e” symbol on a product is also called an “e-mark” or “estimated sign.” It’s a legal requirement in Europe to state the quantity of product, shown in grams or milliliters. Cosmetics Europe, a trade association for the cosmetics and personal care industry, notes “a contents declaration is not required for products whose contents are below 5 g or 5 ml, for single use packs such as sachets or capsules, or for free samples.”
Hourglass: Products that have a shelf life of less than 30 months may feature an hourglass or egg timer symbol. These products must also have a “Best before end of” (BBE) date on the label in the European Union. Consolidated Label Co. in Sanford, Florida, notes that the hourglass symbol can be followed by the date, or “BBE,” “Exp.” or “Best By,” plus the date.
PAO: Products that have a shelf life of 30 months or more can include the “period after opening” (PAO) symbol. “Look for a symbol that looks like an opened jar, with the number of months or years written on or below the container,” Taylor says. “This is the PAO symbol, which tells the user how long she should keep the product after opening it.” For example, 24M translates to 24 months, or two years.
No CFCs: The Consumer Aerosol Products Council notes that aerosol manufacturers voluntarily removed chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from aerosols soon after scientists discovered the relationship between CFCs and the upper ozone—prior to the EPA banning CFCs in 1978. “The ‘No CFCs’ logo was created shortly afterward for product manufacturers to help inform consumers that the chemical had been removed from products,” the council reports. But even today, most consumers believe that aerosols contain CFCs—leading some manufacturers to continue use of the label.
Refer to Insert: See an open book with a finger-pointing hand in front of it? That means more info is provided, apart from wording on the container itself. Cosmetics Europe explains that this symbol “denotes that additional important information is available with the product... The symbol is mandatory if the supplied leaflet/label/tape/tag/card contains compulsory information that does not fit on the package.”
Open Flame: Strangely, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing—and are indicated on products with an open flame symbol. This straightforward symbol highlights a product’s combustible nature. Avoid contact with flame!
For more information on labeling requirements, visit the following websites: