Decoding skincare labels. Symbology

Being clued up your skincare can feel like hard work, but do we really understand what we are putting in our skin every day?

In this mini-series, we’re going to make things simple, for you and your skin. Here’s part one to our Ultimate Decoder; symbology. If in doubt, this post will shed light on what all those packaging symbols mean on your fave beauty products.

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). Dem's the rules!

This public policy governs 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 restrictive on brands and manufacturers, meaning shoppers are less protected.

In Europe anyway, the role of regulation has been to make sure that brands are safe to use, and play fair with each other, and you. As with all things, different people tend to interpret the rules in their own way. 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. If it's not clear what something is, look for a translation somewhere on pack.


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

Often uninviting and squashed into the 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 in another read. 

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. All pretty basic so far, but essential.

Now then, what are all these symbols about?

You’ve seen these a million times, but why are they 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.

Sand timer - Finding that sand clock doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly landed in an episode of Crystal Maze (we wish!). Instead, it means that the product you're holding will expire within 30 months of the date it's made.

Wherever you find the hour glass, you should also see it accompanied by a “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.  












PAO -  like in super hero cartoons from the 70s, WAM, BAM, and PAO stands for Period After Opening. It shows you how many months your product will remain good to use once you've popped the lid. 6 months, 12 months or even 24 months are common. Natural cosmetics tend to be 6 to 12 months only. Semi-solid products like cream-bars which are prone to drying and crumbling might even be 30 days!

If your product doesn’t contain a sell-by date, or a PAO, it has proven it won’t lose it’s charm over time. This tends to be true for things like like alcohol based synthetic perfumes, and or single-use products like certain sampling sachets.

Someone reading Vogue?

Hand in book - 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.

Recycling codes - 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.

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.

Mobius loop - this last symbol in our series, a three arrowed triangle, is the matrix-esque "mobius loop." Where you don't find the green dot, this one is welcome as the next best thing. "Why?" It's a tiny, symbol sized reminder to recycle the packaging you're looking at. By thinking global and acting local, there's one small daily way you can 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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