How to Make Sense of Your Cosmetic Label


What do those little symbols really mean?

They are bound to be hiding on every beauty and hair care product you own.  In fact, you may not have ever noticed them or even cared to stop and look.  But in reality, these little symbols can tell you a whole lot about the product that you are putting on your face and the company that makes it.  

By learning more about what goes into the products we consume and how they affect our environment, you can make smart beauty choices.  

Here's the full overview of 18 cosmetic symbols that you're most likely overlooking.  



1. POA

Starting off with the most common symbol -- period after opening.  The POA symbol depicts how long you have to use the product once it has been opened.  We recently covered the importance of this icon in our Wait, Makeup Expires article.  It usually looks like a small cosmetic jar with a number and M (for months) or Y(for years).  If the symbol indicated 36M, for example, you have 36 months to use the product after breaking the seal.  



2. Hourglass 

Similar to the POA symbol, the hourglass tells you the shelf life of a product.  However, there's a catch.  If you see the hourglass on your label, know that you have only 30 months to use it before tossing it out -- opened or not.  




3. The “e”

The E-mark was started by the EU Commision regarding regulation of products.  The small e denotes that the volume, weight, or quantity of a product is of average value.  It ensures that the printed number on the label is correct and that you aren't being scammed.  Basically, the e is your stamp of approval to make sure you get what you're paying for.  


4. Read More

When certain goods have safety warnings, allergen concerns, or a long list of ingredients, you may see the read more symbol.  This means that there is usually a way to peel back the label to reveal more information.  Sometimes though, it may be as easy as referring to the back of the bottle.  



5. Flammable

You'll most likely find this character on hairsprays, dry shampoo, spray-on deodorants, perfumes, and some setting mists.  Any product that uses a pressurized gas aerosol container can be dangerous.  Make sure to store them below 120°F and to keep them away from fireplaces, space heaters, and hot lights.  



6. UVA

Did you know that not all sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB?  UVA is the longest wave of ultraviolet light that comes in contact with our skin.  While UVB rays tan our skin, UVA rays age our skin.  If you see UVA in a circle, it signifies that the product meets the recommended amount of UVA protection (⅓ of the given SPF coverage).  You may also note a star rating, where 0 stars is a low UVA absorption percentage and 5 stars is a high one.   



7. Cruelty Free Organizations


Cruelty free communicates that the product was in no way, shape, or form tested on animals.  In fact, in relation to the cruelty free icon, you may see the Not Tested On Animals and Leaping Bunny symbols.  These three icons are essentially the same thing, all in an effort to protect our furry little friends.  The image on the left is maintained by PETA, a USA-based organization.  The center logo is run by Choose Cruelty Free, an Australian-based company.  And lastly, the emblem on the right is supported by Leaping Bunny, the only international cruelty free organization.  



8. Certified Vegan

Certified Vegan is a registered trademark that guarantees that absolutely no animal based or animal by-product ingredients are used in a product.  These ingredients may include dairy, eggs, honey, dyes from insects, animal derived GMO’s (we talk about those later), and silk.  This stamp also makes sure that products are not tested on animals or produced using animal commodities.  



9. Green Dot

This is one the most misleading symbols that you will find on your packaging.  While it doesn't mean that the packaging can be or was recycled, it does mean that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recycling and recovery effort.  Confusing, right?



10. Mobius Arrows

The well known “recycling” symbol means that the packing is 100% okay to toss into your recycling bin (and you should!)  Oftentimes there will be a number inside of the arrows indicating the percentage of the packaging that was made from previously recycled products.  



11. FSC

FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council.  When you find this on your label, you will know that your product’s packaging was made from responsibly managed and sourced materials in an effort to preserve forests.  




If a product is classified with an ECOCERT label, that means at least 95% of the product's ingredients must come from organic descent (like an organic farm).  Along with this, the ECOCERT label signifies that the product’s formula is entirely free of GMOs, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicon, PEG, synthetic perfumes or dyes, and animal based ingredients.  And to top it all off, the packaging must be recyclable or biodegradable.     



13. USDA Organic

Much like the ECOCERT label, the USDA Organic seal is earned when a product's ingredients are 100% without dyes, chemicals, and all of the other unpleasant components listed above.  Water and salt are excluded from this list.  




14. Paraben Free

By now you've probably seen “paraben-free” all over the place.  But why are parabens lurking in our cosmetics anyways?  A paraben is a synthetic compound of elements used as a preservative in shampoos, lotions, cleansers, and skincare products.  You can identify them by their -paraben suffix in ingredients such as Ethylparaben or Propylparaben.  While there are no regulations around these elements, they have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, and even breast cancer.  Always check to make sure that your products are paraben-free!



15. Gluten Free

While gluten free makeup may sound silly, it is vital among women with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.  Gluten cannot be absorbed through the skin, but if it comes in contact with the mouth or eyes it can cause a flare-up.  Just in baking, the gluten proteins in wheat, barley, and rye act as a binding ingredient in some cosmetics.   If you aren't gluten sensitive, you can skip this one.  However if you are, keep a look out for the GF symbol on any beauty or skincare products you use. 



16. Non GMO

If you see the non GMO icon on your label, it does not mean that the ingredients were organic grown.  Instead, it indicates that no herbicides with genetically modified organisms were used.  In addition to this, the ingredients were not modified in any way in order to produce them for cheaper than they could be in their original form.  Some ingredients to look out for are lauric acid, canola (this can be disguised in many ways), and soy.  

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