Chances are you’ve seen these phrases on makeup labels — and maybe you’ve been persuaded to buy something because of these claims. Unfortunately, most of them don’t mean a whole lot — and even the ones that are technically accurate can still be misleading.
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That’s partly because the FDA does not regulate what goes into cosmetics. And while there are guidelines for labeling, there’s no review process in place. So it’s our responsibility to see through the label lingo and understand what we’re putting on our faces.
We talked to experts — from dermatologists to manufacturers — to find out what we really need to know when reading a makeup label. Here, we’re decoding what the claims on makeup labels mean to make it easier to understand what you’re really putting on your face.
Nobody really needs ‘oil-free’
Most people who are prone to breakouts are adamant about only wearing oil-free foundation and concealer because they think oil will make their breakouts worse. And now many beauty companies are making oil-free versions of just about everything — even blush and eyeshadow — to appeal to these women. However, most dermatologists agree that having “oil-free” emblazoned on the label is mostly a marketing trick.
In fact, if you turn over your bottle of oil-free makeup, you may very well find oils on the list of ingredients. Companies substitute synthetic oils for natural versions in order to call the product oil-free -— and the irony is many of the synthetic oils are actually more likely to irritate your face.
“The key is looking for the word ‘noncomedogenic’ or ‘nonacnegenic’ on the label,” explains Washington D.C. dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi. These terms indicate that the product will neither clog pores nor cause zits. While acne sufferers tend to avoid all oils, Tanzi stresses there are certain oils that are actually beneficial. Tea tree oil kills bacteria, and lavender oil is an antiseptic with anti-inflammatory properties.
Just because you see SPF doesn’t mean you’re safe
It’s fantastic that so many companies are adding sunscreen to makeup — we can all benefit from more daily SPF. But there are two very different kinds of sunscreen ingredients —chemical and physical — that work in opposite ways. Physical sunblock acts as a barrier on your skin to reflect UV rays. Meanwhile, chemical ingredients absorb UV rays and create skin-damaging free radicals.
“I’m a big advocate of physical sunscreens,” says Tanzi. “My number one choice is zinc oxide, followed by titanium dioxide.” If you’re prone to breakouts, titanium dioxide may make them worse, but zinc oxide is an excellent choice.
Even if your makeup contains zinc oxide, you shouldn’t rely on it as your only form of sun protection. Dermatologists recommend applying a teaspoon of SPF 30 or higher to your face — and no one should be wearing that much foundation. The ultimate regimen is an antioxidant serum, followed by a teaspoon of sunscreen, and then your makeup.
‘Natural’ means nothing
Of all the confusion in the beauty aisle, organic and natural products might be the worst offenders. “FDA requirements say you only have to use 20 percent natural ingredients to say that a product is natural,” says Tyler Hanson, founder of Mineral Hygienics. “So the other 80 percent? Who knows?” If it’s important to you that your makeup is truly organic, make sure the label specifies that the contents are “USDA-certified organic.” And research the products through organizations like the Natural Products Association and The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
You may also want to consider whether or not natural is the best thing for your skin. “Just because something is organic or natural doesn’t mean it won’t irritate your skin,” says Tanzi. “Lemon and orange oil are two of the most common irritants found in beauty products — and that’s true even if they’re organic.” If you have allergies, always do a patch test on the inside of your wrist before slathering an organic cream on your skin.
‘Anti-aging’ ingredients don’t really work
So many makeup products are now calling out skin care benefits — like anti-aging and anti-acne — on their packaging. Unfortunately, smoothing wrinkles isn’t as simple as adding a fine-line-fighting ingredient to a foundation.
“You can get anti-acne benefits from makeup that contains salicylic acid,” says Tanzi. “But anti-aging ingredients? Not so much. And you’re better off saving your anti-aging for nighttime anyway.” (Many anti-aging ingredients are photosensitive and break down in sunlight.) While Tanzi recommends using makeup with built-in SPF to supplement your sunblock, she says that antioxidants in makeup aren’t going to be particularly effective. “They’re better delivered through a serum worn underneath your moisturizer,” she says.
Fragrance-free products may contain fragrances
If you don’t like strong smells, fragrance-free is a great option for you. However, if you’re buying fragrance-free products because you’re allergic or sensitive to fragrances, you may still end up with a reaction. “A lot of companies add masking fragrances to cover the scent of other ingredients — and the FDA doesn’t require that these masking fragrances be included on the ingredient list,” says Laura Verallo de Bertotto, CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics. While the term hypoallergenic means that a product has only a small chance of causing an allergic reaction, if you’re prone to reacting you should always do a patch test when trying something new.
Long-wearing is not the same as waterproof
There’s something so enticing about makeup that makes claims like it lasts for “24 hours.” We’re all busy — who wouldn’t want makeup that could survive every obstacle we might face during the day? However, if you plan to jump in the pool while wearing your long-lasting makeup, know that it will be dripping down your face when you get out. These formulations are not the same as waterproof — but they’re perfect for someone whose eyeliner tends to be smudged by lunchtime.
‘Dermatologist tested’ doesn’t mean dermatologist endorsed
Just because a dermatologist tested a product doesn’t mean he or she liked the product. It’s a semantic trick, and the phrase is basically meaningless.