What do all those reassuring terms on skin care packaging really mean?

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Let’s be frank: without a science degree or skin care qualification it’s hard to understand a beauty product’s ingredients list, so more often than not we rely on the packaging to tell us whether it’s right for our sensitive skin . But as the saying goes, you really mustn’t judge a book (or, er, product) by its cover; meaningless phrases and faux reassurances are rife on the labels of skin care because it’s simply not legislated enough.

To mark Allergy Awareness Week (a campaign set up by Allergy UK), I’ve picked out 10 common phrases that are plastered on skin care labels, no doubt to reassure us that they’re designed to be kind to our skin - and asked the experts what they really mean…

1. ‘Suitable for sensitive skin’

"This is generally considered to mean that a product is free from common allergens,” explains Imelda Burke , founder of organic shop and treatment rooms Content . "However, skin is an organ of the body so we can all have very different sensitivities. While there are known allergens that may affect the majority of sensitive skinned people, it shouldn’t be assumed that it will ‘suit’ everyone. 'Suitable for sensitive skin' may also mean it has ingredients added that are known to be soothing and calming such as chamomile and calendula. It is a good starting place for those who are sensitive but there is no guarantee. People can be sensitive to anything from rose to preservatives."

2. 'Dermatologically tested'

This sounds all very impressive but in fact, it has no legal definition as Imelda explains. “It means it has been tested by a dermatologist, but does not explain which tests have been carried out. One could assume it was tested to be ‘allergen’ free but this is not clear."

3. 'Physiological pH' or 'pH-balancing'

"I am always interested in pH. The acid mantle of the skin is one of our key protectors from the environment - upsetting the delicate balance can actually affect the skin’s ability to function and may end in excessive dryness or even eczema ,” explains Imelda. "If you think this one through logically, for these products to work you would need to know the pH of your own skin and purchase a product that would balance it back to the normal pH ( i.e. more acidic if you were alkaline and more alkaline if you were acidic) so the range would need to cater for skin types with variations in pH levels. I’m more interested in a ‘pH balanced’ product – one that would in fact not disrupt the pH of the skin.  For example, often if a cleanser dries out the skin it may be too alkaline."

4. ‘Hypoallergenic'

Do not be fooled; this is one of the biggest culprits of lulling shoppers into a false sense of sensitive security. Sarah Brown , founder of Pai , explains: "There is no legal or medical definition of the word ‘hypoallergenic’ – in fact, it was originally dreamed up for a cosmetics campaign back in the fifties! All it has come to mean is that a product will cause ‘fewer allergic reactions’ – usually because one common irritant has been left out (a fragrance or detergent like Sodium Lauryl Sulphate for example.). But as anyone with sensitive skin knows, there are heaps of other cosmetic ingredients that can irritate the skin, and this varies wildly from person to person."

5. 'Alcohol-free'

Not all alcohol is created equal in the skin care industry; so what does this mean? "Free from alcohol – the denatured version of which can be drying to the surface of the skin. Products may still contain cetyl alcohol which is a wax, not liquid alcohol,” Imelda tells me. A good phrase to look out for, but you might want to keep an eye on those ingredients lists too.

6. 'Non-comedogenic'

"The hair follicle is where pollution and oil can collect and form blackheads and blockages. Non-comedogenic is generally considered to mean a product doesn’t contain ingredients thought to block pores,” says Imelda. The verdict? All skin types should look for this one; dermatologists recommend it, especially if you suffer from acne .

7. 'Paraben-free'

This is "commonly understood to exclude all synthetic parabens”, Imelda explains. "Some people may have a topical sensitivity to parabens, so this is worth looking for on a label. Others may want to avoid them for lifestyle considerations – they have been found to be stored in tissue and have an oestrogenic effect."

8. ‘Organic' and ‘natural'

"The growth of the organic and natural beauty industry has meant there are many brands trying to cash in on the terms “natural” and “organic” as a marketing ploy - duping customers into paying a premium,” explains Sarah. “Few know this, but there’s actually no legal definition of the terms “natural” and “organic” in the UK beauty industry – meaning that many of the products you’re buying with these words on the label may well contain as little as 1% natural ingredients and the rest synthetics or irritants. In theory, a 100% synthetic product could legally lay claim to being natural."

So what does ‘organic’ really mean? “Organic is not just about being really, really natural. Organic certification, while voluntary for companies, guarantees a manufacturer’s claims are 100% true and requires full traceability of ingredient from seed to shop shelf. The only way you can be sure if a product is the real deal is by checking for a certification logo from an independent body like the Soil Association. They do the due diligence for you, checking the source, sustainability and purity of a product’s ingredients. Their logos are like badges of trust to verify a brand is living up to its claims."

9. 'No artificial ingredients'

"This is a very loose term and may not guarantee that a product is suitable for you if you have allergies,” says Imelda. "In skincare you can have whole food state ingredients in their complete form - examples include spices and honey - or you can have ingredients that have started as natural and been processed to take another form – I refer to these as naturally-derived ingredients. Then there are the purely synthetic ingredients which I would call ‘artificial’."

10. 'No petrochemicals'

“People may be sensitive to ingredients derived from petrochemicals, so this may be good to look for if you know you have a particular sensitivity,” says Imelda. This should mean anything derived from petrochemicals is not included, such as propylene glycol, one of the more common petrochemicals - but still check the ingredients if you’re unsure.

Do you have another label you're wary of? Let me know in the comments!

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