Decoding skincare labels: Claims

If you’ve read our previous posts in the decoding series you’ve got skincare symbology and ingredients lists covered. Now we turn our attention to a dirty, seldom used, six letter word. 

Claims.

Whether subtle, in your face or plain confusing, beauty claims are everywhere. They shout-out benefits and entice us to buy.  Some are easier to understand than others, but are beauty companies playing fair when they use them? And should they be welcomed into our homes like your unlce Joe, with a warm hug and a pat on the back? Or should the be given a wide birth?

In this journal entry we take a look at nine of the most common claims in the beauty industry.

Our task? To decipher what they mean, weigh-up their importance and share our humble opinion on whether they deserve a place in your bathroom cabinet

But first, let's take a look at what counts as fair.

THE NITTY GRITTY RULES

The rules governing cosmetic claims are specific to where you live. As we touched on previously, all beauty and toiletry products sold in Europe have to comply with a single set of cosmetics regulations. On the other side of the Atlantic, the law on selling cosmetics is less restrictive. In this article, we benchmark against the European standards, as they offer greater consumer and animal well-fair protections.

If you find yourself online at 3am and need some shut eye, you might want to take a read of Regulation (EC) N° 1223/2009. Article 20 sets out the law on claims. Extra guidelines were also introduced in COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 655/2013, which came into effect on July 2019. Together these regulations establish a fair playing field for every claim that appears on any beauty product sold in Europe. To spare you the detail, here’s a summary of the rules: 

  1. Legal compliance: all cosmetic products and claims must comply with the  local laws and guidelines. No brainer.
  2. Truthfulness: all the claims made for a product have to be true. More specifically, user reviews shouldn't be used as claims unless supported by further evidence.
  3. Evidential support: every claim made should be supported by proof. 
  4. Honesty: claims shouldn’t be bigger than the evidence available to support it.
  5. Fairness: claims should be objective and never unfairly criticise a competitor’s product or ingredients as unsafe, where those ingredients are deemed safe for use under EU law. 
  6. Informed decision making: claims should be clear and understandable for the everyday people. The marketing of a product shouldn’t set out to confuse people. 

OK, so that sounds fair, right? But how do some of the most common claims in the industry stack up against them? Here we share our humble evaluation of the biggies.

CLAIM: HYPOALLERGENIC

By definition, the term “hypoallergenic” implies that your product is unlikely to cause a reaction with your skin. 

This claim should only be used if a product has been designed to minimise its likelihood to cause an allergic reaction. Products with this on pack shouldn’t use known allergens or any other ingredients known to produce allergens over time. Even where known allergens are left out, and this claim is made, it shouldn’t be mistaken as guarantee of safety, as not everyone is allergic to the same things.  To take this into account, brands making this claim should be able to prove their products haven’t caused an allergic reaction when used in a robust sample of people. But there are no standard checks in place to police the correct use of the claim before it gets to market.

If you suffer from irritation or allergic reactions, it’s a good idea to check the ingredients list for anything you know you might be allergic to, even if the claim is made. Given the legal requirements, you should also feel comfortable asking any product manufacturer to share their stats on testing to make sure they comply with the latest rules.

Verdict: OK where backed up with data. Treat with caution if you have hyper-sensitive skin and always test new products on a small area of skin before using on your face if you're prone to reactions.

DERMATOLOGICALLY TESTED

When we talk about cosmetics there are lots of tests that can be made to ensure it's safe for use on human skin. Patch tests, use tests, something called an ROAT (repeat open application) test, and HET-CAM are all industry norms… but what does dermatologically tested mean?

Well, despite the terminology it's a pretty simple claim in principle. To use it, a product's formula should be applied to skin under the supervision of a dermatologist to evaluate its efficacy and tolerance. It's important the tests are undertaken by independent laboratories to avoid biased results, although companies can be reluctant to share their test methodology.

At SKIN SAPIENS, we’ve use this claim proudly and we're open about how we've done it.

Every product is submitted to patch tests (tests that involve applying patches with the cosmetic to test to a person’s back for 48 hours, and then looking for signs of irritation). To be extra safe, we chose volunteers with sensitive skin for our tests. All testing is undertaken by an independent laboratory and reviewed by a dermatologist.

To go a step further, after testing on adults we also asked an independent laboratory to test our products with mammas (and pappas) and their babies. Patch testing babies isn't ethical,  so instead we asked families to test our formula under normal usage conditions for a number of weeks at home (aka use tests). Those tests were supervised by a paediatrician who gave our formulas a stamp of approval. We find that reassuring, so we add the “paediatrician approved” mark to our baby products.

NON-COMEDOGENIC & OIL FREE

If you’re prone to acne or occasional breakouts, you probably look out for these two. That’s fair. The last thing you want is seeing your pores clogged and transformed into big comedones (technical speak for blackheads or whiteheads).

In fact, the two terms mean very different things. The phrase Non-comedogenic is used when a product has been formulated without ingredients that clog your pores, while oil-free is used when a product doesn’t contain any oil in its formulation. 

The key is that not all oils are bad at clogging pores. In fact, oil cleansers can do a great job of removing oil-based dirt from your skin’s epidermis. More interesting than oil-free is non-comedogenic. To be non-comedogenic, a product should avoid formulation with oils that have a high comedogenic rating (a mark from zero to 5, with 0 being great, and 5 terrible).

There are, however, some doubts about the reliability of comedogenic ratings. The scale was originally developed by tests on rabbit ears, and human versions of the test lack a common standard. But, generally speaking a low comedogenic rating and low fatty acid profile are good news if you’re prone to blemishes, but ultimately trying a product out for yourself is the truest test of how well it will suit your skin.

Verdict: Oil-free is irrelevant. Non-comedogenic is hard to verify and should be supported with lab tests.

FREE FROM

The original idea for this claim was to help people make informed choices when they buy a product. Today it’s common to see “free from” silicones, parabens and sulphates at every turn, but are these claims all they seem?

In truth, the answer partly depends on the word that follows the phrase, AND where you live when you read this journal post.

In the USA “Free From” messages can go some way to helping customers sort the good from the bad. This is because the legislation is less restrictive in terms of what can and can’t go in a product. In Europe, manufacturers are ONLY allowed to use ingredients which the European Commission has pre-approved as safe for use in cosmetics. In fact, the legal view in Europe is that “Free Froms” are often used to vilify ingredients which haven’t actually been proven unsafe.

There are some exceptions; “free from animal based ingredients” would be totally relevant to someone who is vegan, and "free from alcohol" is of interest if you have sensitive skin.

Clearly, there are two sides to the “free from” argument. But rather than sit on the fence, what’s our take on the matter? 

We totally, unequivocally, unreservedly DO believe that we SHOULD take care about what we put on our bodies. We also think far too much attention is given to “free from” claims

A product might be free from one thing which you don’t want on your skin “great!” But what we should be asking is “what’s all the other stuff?”. And “is it good for me and our planet?”

Too often free from’s are used as smokescreens to distract us from what’s actually inside a product. They can make a synthetic product sound greener or cleaner than it really is.

That’s why we’ve taken the decision to skip free from claims entirely on all of our products. Instead we work twice as hard to double down and help you get familiar with what IS inside your skincare.

Verdict: A red herring. Commonly used to greenwash products.

UNPERFUMED

First of all, do I want an unperfumed product? Well, frankly it depends.

Some people like strongly scented creams and gels, others cross the road to avoid them. You won’t find perfumes in SKIN SAPIENS products, and we DO make this claim. Here’s why...

When we talk about perfume in skincare we’re not talking about a single thing.

Whether natural or synthetic, all perfumes used in skincare products are blend of substances. A perfume has an ingredients list of its own; commonly made from plant oils, animal secretions and synthetic substitutes. When you see “parfum” on your INCI, you’re actually looking at a separate ingredients list, within your product’s own ingredients list. The trouble is, people rarely get to see what’s inside it.

Why? Creating a delicate fragrance is an art form. Perfumiers, or “noses” are reluctant to share their recipes with the world for fear of being copied. The law gives the industry special protection.

The recipes that perfumiers create are accepted trade secrets. It's even normal for manufacturers that buy a fragrance from a perfume house to be kept in the dark about what’s inside. That makes copying a trademarked fragrance tricky. It also stops you from making an informed choice about what you do and don’t put on your skin. For that reason alone, we say “no deal” to adding perfumes to our formula. 

Unperfumed products aren’t going to smell like candy floss or rose petals. Nor will they pack any hidden secrets. Surprisingly, they rarely smell like “nothing” either, especially if they’re of natural origin. Instead, you’ll usually find the product has its own gentle, natural odour associated with the ingredients used to make them.

So, if you love strong smelling skincare, you might not rush to buy unperfumed products anytime soon. But if you’re pro-transparency, have sensitive skin, or you’re simply against smelling like a potpourri after you apply two or three products, this claim might be one for you. 

Verdict: A personal thing. A win for transparency.

CHEMICAL-FREE

Let’s face it, even WE are made of chemicals so. A brand can say that an ingredient has a natural origin, but you shouldn't say that it's chemical-free because even the  naturally occurring molecules are made of chemical elements.

This looks like a chemical right? That’s ascorbic acid, a buffer aka pH regulator that can be found in lemons, oranges and corn. It is chemical but has a natural origin.

Verdict: Impossible

TOXIC FREE / FREE FROM NASTIES

You’d hope so, right? I mean who says the opposite “come and buy your toxic skincare here!”. A combination of CHEMICAL FREE and FREE FROM, this is lazy marketing; greenwashing through and through.

Verdict: Yawn

CRUELTY-FREE

If you check your bathroom cabinet you’ll probably see this claim a lot. It’s a definite trend nowadays and rightly so. Animal testing is wholly unacceptable … but does it make sense to put it on pack, and is it always true? 

Testing on animals is outlawed in Europe. It’s also unlawful to claim something as a benefit when it’s a basic legal requirement. So if your product is made in Europe, cruelty-free messages could fall into this category.

But it’s not quite that easy. Certain countries also require animal testing on imported products. At the time of writing this is true for ALL products selling in physical stores in mainland China, unless made by a local manufacturer.

Loopholes can also be used to claim cruelty-free status. A brand might claim cruelty-free because they don’t test on animals today while having tested on animals in the past. Julia Brucculieri at The Huffington Post does a great job of breaking the issue down in her article titled “the complicated reasons cruelty free isn’t always true in cosmetics”.

For the avoidance of doubt, we keep it simple.

SKIN SAPIENS products have never been, and never will be tested on animals.

We don’t:
  • test on animals ourselves, anywhere 
  • pay anyone else to test on animals for us
  • claim cruelty free on pack, as we’re made in a Sustainable lab in Sweden, where animal rights are a basic legal requirement.
We do:
  • test everything we make on happy homo sapiens
  • use vegan ingredients only
  • source them from certified COSMOS Ecocert suppliers to protect our supply chain from animal testing too.

Verdict: How relevant this is depends where you live. Even if a product carries a cruelty free claim, it’s absolutely in your right to ask a brand if they have tested their products on animals in the past, if they still test on animals in other countries, and if not, whether they pay someone else to do it for them.

VEGAN

Our last claim is dedicated to you, whether you’re a full-time vegan, dabble in Veganuary or even like the occasional vegan Tuesday. If you’ve chosen this way of life because you believe it’s more sustainable, kudos to you.

As you’d expect, vegan skincare hasn’t been made with any ingredients derived from animals. That includes things like lanolin, musks or animal waxes. It sounds easy but it’s not always straightforward. There are plenty of synthetic alternatives to animal based ingredients, but designing great quality vegan & natural skincare is an art form. 

It’s a challenge we love at SKIN SAPIENS. That’s why we’re especially proud of our 100% vegan and natural lip balm. Made with plant waxes, our baby and lip balms contain avocado, olive and calendula oils, with just a drop of Vitamin E. Nothing else. We can’t wait for you to try it.

Verdict: Good for the planet.

That's a wrap. Any claims we’ve missed? Drop us your thoughts in the comments section and we’ll update this article with our view.

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