The beauty industry is an exciting and innovative world — but at the same time, can be a very confusing one. A visit to Sephora is proof: pick up a moisturizer while scouring the aisles, and you’ll see words like “hypoallergenic,” “organic,” or “non-comedogenic” plastered across the bottle. If you’ve ever thought to yourself — “huh, what does that mean?” — you’re definitely not alone. Tons of new terms pop up on the latest beauty launches, and the question becomes: How many of these words truly mean something and how many are really just a marketing ploy?
To arm you with the knowledge you need, we spoke to five industry experts to learn the exact meaning of each term and what to look out for on labels. Below, we break down seven of the most popular beauty buzzwords.
1. Natural: If there’s one term on this list that you’ve seen before, it’s likely this one. According to David Petrusich, Education Manager at Herbivore Botanicals, “natural means that ingredients in the product came from natural origin (i.e. botanicals, minerals, metals, etc.) as opposed to a synthetic ingredient made in a lab.” However, since it isn’t a government-regulated term, many brands will stick it on the label for marketing purposes.
To ensure you’re actually using a formula that is natural, Petrusich says its best to really read the label. “If there are words on the ingredients list you can’t pronounce or a few ‘natural’ ingredients below a lengthy list of synthetics, fillers, or diluters, chances are it’s not a natural product,” he warns.
2. Hypoallergenic: The literal definition is the item in question won’t cause an allergic reaction — but there’s more to it than that. “These products can still cause a reaction in specific people,” says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and director of Chemist's Corner. Brands will conduct a study over an extended period of time on about 100 consumers, and if none of the testers have a reaction, then the brand deems the formula as hypoallergenic.
But this is where things get tricky. What aggravates one person’s complexion may not bother another. That’s why labeling a product as hypoallergenic doesn’t mean that it will not cause a reaction. Additionally, there are no standards in the U.S. that a brand must meet in order to label a product as hypoallergenic. So, if you have especially sensitive skin, proceed with caution: a formula with this label isn’t a guarantee of avoiding a reaction. If you’re still willing to try it out, test a small amount of it on a patch of skin on your inner arm (also known as a “patch test”). This way, you can see if you experience any irritation before committing to full-face use.
3. Fragrance-Free: According to the American Academy of Dermatology, this phrase means that no fragrances were added to alter the formula’s naturally-occurring scent. But this doesn’t ensure that scents aren’t hidden in the formula. “You can have a product that claims it is fragrance-free, but it actually has masking fragrances in them so that when you smell the product you think that there isn’t anything irritating inside,” informs Dr. Mona Gohara, dermatologist and Associate Clinical Professor at Yale University’s Department of Dermatology. Baby shampoo is a classic example of this.
Another misconception is that this phrase implies the formula is gentle, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “Many times, products that have fragrance-free on the label still have irritating ingredients in them if there are essential oils like rosehip in the formula,” she adds. If you’re prone to scent sensitivity, ask your dermatologist for shopping advice.
4. Organic: In terms of beauty products, organic is defined as being made of natural materials grown on an organic farm without the use of GMOs, pesticides, and fertilizers. Luckily, and unlike many terms on this list, organic is actually highly regulated by the U.S. government via the USDA and requires a special certification.
“Within beauty, a few standards have been created to regulate brands and products,” says Abbott Stark, co-founder of luxury organic skincare line OGEE. “However, the NSF is one of the most stringent standards, and requires that every product have at least 70 percent organic content in the final formula,” informs Stark.
But that’s not all. It also requires that all ingredients be natural, free of GMOs, petroleum, silicones, synthetic fragrances and artificial colors. In other words, it requires bans on the ingredients that have come under the most fire for their associated health concerns to individuals and the environment. Just make sure you see the certification on the packaging — or it isn’t actually organic.
5. Non-Toxic: The word non-toxic is essentially a marketing term. Brands will use the phrase to claim its product is free of ingredients that are proven to have a toxic response in humans like hormone disruption, cancer, etc. Stark says, though, that many brands have come under fire for using the term and have been accused of greenwashing. “Greenwashing is the process of making a product seem more natural or safe than it may truly be,” explains Stark.
As with many of the terms on this list, you have to do your own research to decide whether a product meets your standards of non-toxic. Stark suggests reviewing ingredient lists to make sure a formula is truly made without ingredients that are linked to toxicity. Some to be look out for are phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, and petroleum.
6. Non-Comedogenic/Non-Acnegenic: Those with acne-prone or oily skin are no stranger to these two terms. The prefix comedo- is derived from the word comedones — the clinical term for blackheads. “Non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic mean that product was formulated to not clog pores or cause acne,” says Dr. Gohara. Since there are no actual guidelines that brands must follow in order to place these terms on labels, there’s no guarantee that you still won’t get a pimple from using the product. However, Dr. Gohara says that generally speaking, formulas with packaging claims of “non-comedogenic” don’t contain any heavy oils or silicones, which tend to cause breakouts.
7. Cruelty-Free: “Simply put, a beauty product labeled cruelty-free usually refers to products that have not been tested on animals, nor use any raw ingredients that are tested on animals,” says Allies of Skin founder Nicolas Travis. However, marketing something as cruelty-free doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. According to the FDA, even if a formula as a whole was never tested on animals, there's a likelihood that its ingredients were.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many products and/or ingredients were tested on animals many years ago, and no longer are. Basically, an ingredient inside that serum you love so much labeled as “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals,” could have been in the past. While we know this can be disheartening, it’s not all bad news: If you truly want a cruelty-free beauty formula, look for one that is Leaping Bunny approved. This organization has strict guidelines to ensure a brand’s product wasn’t tested on animals — and doesn’t contain any ingredients that are or have been, either.