Decoding skincare labels. Symbology

Being clued up your skincare can feel like hard work. Long ingredient lists with weird names, generic symbols on the back. You could be forgiven for glazing over at the mere sniff of it. But… do we really understand what we are putting in our skin every day? And how can we make sense of the labels used to help us?

In this mini-series, we’re going to make things simple, for you and your skin. Here’s part one to our Ultimate Decoder, to help you cut through blurb, and get to what’s inside.

The Rules.

Any cosmetics product which sells in Europe has to reply with cosmetics regulations (Regulation (EC) N° 1223/2009 if you want the long read). Them's the rules!

These rules govern not only what the European Commission considers safe for use in 28 European countries, but also sets the benchmark for labelling laws. In the USA the FDA rules the roost on cosmetics, but the legislation is generally considered less comprehensive.

In Europe anyway, the role of regulation has been to make sure that brands are safe to use, and play fair. As with all things, the rules tend to be interpreted differently, by different people. Especially when we’re talking about the blurb squeezed into the marketing material used to sell products.

To get you started, here are some of the basics you should be seeing on every pack of cosmetics sold in Europe.

What it is, what it does?

You're in a store shopping for skincare. Something catches your eye, it looks expensive, feels expensive, but and might just leave you looking flawless, yet... you have no idea what it is. Been there?


A product might be called Unicorn Tears, but if it's not clear what Unicorn tears are and what they do, then European law says it has to be described in your local language. 


Thank goodness! As well as all the claims, names and glam, every product includes an ingredient list. Just like your food, it deserves careful attention.

Often uninviting and squashed into small print, your product’s ingredients list actually holds the secret to it's sauce. Tackling how to break down an ingredients lists is enough for a separate post, so we’ll come back to this another day. 

Who made it?

We’ve seen the front, let’s move to the back of your product's packaging. Ever noticed the tiny letters with the name of the brand, or manufacturer, as well as an address, telephone or website? They might not always be expecting a call from you but… If you ever have any questions about the product, it’s content or the way it's interacting with your skin, you’ll find a way of getting in touch with the people who make it on every pack. Basic, but essential.

What are all the symbols about?

You’ve seen these a million times, but know why they’re there?

Cosmetics have a life span. Nothing good lasts forever, that goes for your skincare too. These first two symbols will tell you just how long your product will last.

Reading that sand clock doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly landed on an episode of Crystal Maze (we wish!). Instead, it means that the product you're holding will expire sooner than 30 months after the date it’s made.

Wherever you find the hour glass, you should also find “Best before” and a date. If you’ve gone past this date, there’s no guarantee it’s fresh enough for use. Wash out the ingredients and recycle the pack.

Shelf life is tests are the norm for all products which want to sell in Europe. If a product is found to last more than 30 months without going bad, you’ll find our next symbol on pack… the familiar jar with an open lid.  


This one is named PAO, like in super hero cartoons, and stands for Period After Opening. It shows you how many months your product will remain good enough to use after opening it. 6 months, 12 months or even 24 months are possible. Natural cosmetics tend to be 6 to 12 months only.

If your product doesn’t contain a sell-by date, or a PAO, it’s either made from something which has proven it won’t lose it’s charm over time. This tends to go for things like like an alcohol based synthetics, and single-use products.

Someone reading Vogue?

Sure. If you want! If you find yourself looking at an impossibly long thumb and pointy finger, this symbol means there’s more info on the product to be read elsewhere. Normally the pointy finger can be found on mini-sized products where there isn’t room to squeeze all the legal stuff onto the main label. You’ll find it on your product’s carton or a printout label inside.

Let’s get circular!

If you’re part of the skin-wise tribe this term may sound familiar to you if not… Well, then you should know that at SKIN SAPIENS we’re big fans of the mantra Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. So... how do we know if our cosmetics are part of the recycling club? Look for these symbols.

The first thing anyone recycling a product needs to know is it's made from. If your packaging is made from plastic, it can often still be recycled. The triangle with a number in it, ranging from 1 to 7, tells you just what kind of plastic your packaging is made of. Things like LDPE (often in tubes), LDPE (milk bottles, feels slightly rough to touch), and PET (drinks bottles) are all recyclable. Be sure to rinse your product, put the cap on and recycle it after use if you see them.

If you want to know more about our circular economy check out this this blog post where we talk about why we went for making our packaging from recycled, and recyclable plastic.

The green dot with two twisting arrows is another common symbol, but what does it mean? The green dot is actually a trademark that shows that the brand has a membership of a national recycling and recovery scheme. Effectively, it means they help pay into the cost of recycling of packaging, but doesn't alone mean that a product can be recycled, nor that it comes from recycled material.

The green dot is only found in Europe, or on packaging that originated in it. Elsewhere you might find the trash can or "tidyman" symbol. This one is asking us to not throw our packaging on the floor, and instead dispose of it responsibly.

This last symbol, a three arrowed triangle, is the matrix sounding "mobius loop." Where you don't find the green dot, this one might be welcomed by you, the savvy consumer. "Why?" you may ask. Because it's a gentle reminder to recycle the packaging. One small action you can take everyday to change our planet for the better.

There you have it. Symbology. Done. Keep an eye out for these on anything you’re using. If they’re not there, ask yourself why.

While we’re at it, have we missed something? Maybe you’ve found a sneaky something on your skincare packaging and want to know what it means? Email us at the tribe. Even if we don’t make it, we’re here to help.





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