Learn the Language of Skin Care Labels

reading labels on skin care products

“The language on the label is not always an accurate description of the product inside the bottle or its potential effects on your skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Rajani Katta, MD, FAAD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Manufacturers may use certain language for marketing purposes, and the same terms may mean different things on different products — and that makes it difficult to determine what they mean for our body.”

For example, patients may choose products labeled “for sensitive skin” or “hypoallergenic” because they believe these products will be gentle on their skin and less likely to cause an allergic reaction. Because these terms are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, there is no guarantee that these products won’t irritate the skin or cause a reaction, Dr. Katta says.

She also warns patients to be wary of the term “all-natural,” since products containing natural ingredients are not necessarily good for the skin. “Remember, poison ivy is ‘all-natural,'” she says. “And even if a natural ingredient is good for your skin, some products may combine that ingredient with additives or preservatives that could be harmful.”

Language related to fragrances also may be misleading. Under current labeling laws, Dr. Katta says, manufacturers are permitted to use the term “fragrance-free” on products that include fragrance chemicals if those chemicals are utilized for another purpose (i.e., moisturizing) rather than changing the product’s scent. Further, the term “unscented” may be used on products that utilize fragrances to mask a strong existing odor instead of creating a new scent.

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“Unfortunately, there isn’t any labeling language that guarantees a product is hypoallergenic and suitable for sensitive skin,” Dr. Katta says. “However, there are steps you can take to avoid adverse reactions to new products, and a board-certified dermatologist can help you if you do experience a reaction.”

Dr. Katta suggests that patients with sensitive skin test a small amount of a product on their forearm for a week to see if it causes a reaction, and she advises all individuals to make sure they follow all product directions. She also recommends that patients who are experiencing skin inflammation avoid new products altogether, since their skin’s protective barrier is already compromised, making it susceptible to further irritation.

If a product does cause an adverse reaction, Dr. Katta says, it may not always be easy to identify the culprit. “There’s a common misconception that allergic reactions happen instantaneously,” she says, “but they may take a couple of days to show up, and some people may develop an allergy to a skin care ingredient after using it for months or years. If you’re not sure what’s causing a reaction on your skin, visit a dermatologist, who can help determine the cause.”

“Dermatologists also can help you navigate the confusing world of skin care product labels,” Dr. Katta adds. “If you’re not sure how to select the right products for your skin, visit your dermatologist. We can answer your questions about ingredients, and help you identify the products that will work best for your skin type and address your skin care concerns.”

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Materials provided by American Academy of Dermatology.

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