How to Read Cosmetics Labels and Understand What You Are Buying (Part I)

This is a two part blog on demystifying cosmetic labeling. Trying to understand and decode cosmetics labels is no easy feat. Part of that reason is that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulatory requirements that govern cosmetic products aren’t as strict as they with other products such as drugs and food. In fact because of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C), the FDA regulates cosmetic products and their ingredients after they go to market. That means that they are sold to the public without needing to go through an approval process.

What is a cosmetic and what is a drug?
It’s important to understand the difference between a drug and a cosmetic according to the FDA, although note that an item can be classified as both a cosmetic and a drug.

  • Cosmetic- according to the FDA, a cosmetic product is intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering the appearance. Examples of cosmetic items would include: lotions, perfumes, lipsticks, nail polish, makeup, mouthwash, and skin care creams.
  • Drug- according to the FDA a drug is intended to exert a physical effect on the body and is intended for use to cure, mitigate, treat or prevent a disease.

Cosmetic labeling requirementscosmetic labeling
One of the main rules government cosmetic labeling is that ingredients must be listed in descending order by quantity in the product. That means that the ingredient with the highest quantity will be labeled first, and then so on down the line. So in many ways the ingredients label is a consumer’s best friend. This is your chance to see exactly what’s in a product and in what relative amounts. This is essential for people with allergies who need to avoid certain ingredients, such as nuts or certain fruits.

The only problem with an ingredients list is that consumers may not recognize the names of the ingredients, no because they don’t know what the items are, but because they are listed by their chemical names. One system of naming is called the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) list. So for example instead of seeing an ingredient listed as “Almond Oil”, it would be written by the INCI name which is “Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis Oil”. How many people would know what Simmondsia Chinensis Seed Oil is? What if it was written instead as Jojoba oil? Even vitamins have to be listed by their chemical names, so the innocuous Vitamin E ingredient gets written as Tocopheral. The reason for all of the hoopla is so that there will be a consistent naming convention that everyone must follow. Anyone who doesn’t know what an ingredient means can look it up in the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary.

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