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A Quick Guide to Common Cosmetic Labels

Posted By May
With all the promises and miraculous claims being thrown around in the beauty industry, how can we know which ones are useful/applicable to us? 

To ease you into the world of cosmetic labels, let's start with these five claims. Explore these easy guides about what each claim is and if it's right for you.


Who is it for? Reef-safe products (usually sunscreens) are for people heading out to the beach to swim or sit/walk on the sandy shores, anywhere proximate to coral reefs. So if you use sunscreen daily and away from the sea, you don't have to go for products with this label 100% of the time.

What is it? Reef-safe products are those that do not contain chemicals that harm corals.  Examples of reef-safe ingredients/properties are:

  • Waterproof substances* 
  • Non-nano ingredients 
  • Mineral-based formulas (i.e. zinc oxide and titanium oxide)
*Waterproof skin care products are less likely to wash off into the sea and interact/affect corals.

On the other hand, the following harmful chemicals can wash up harmful chemicals from the shore, into the sea and affecting our precious coral reefs that are home to marine wildlife and biodiversity. 

View the full list of ingredients considered NOT reef-safe:
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or nano-sized zinc or titanium (if it doesn't explicitly say micro-sized or non-nano and it can rub in, it's probably nano-sized)
  • Any form of microplastic, such as exfoliating beads

         Fragrance-free  vs  Unscented

What are they?

The label fragrance-free means that there are no fragrance materials or masking scents used in the product.  On the other hand, unscented products do not have strongly detectable scents, although they may still contain fragrance ingredients used to mask scents by deodorizing or neutralizing them. 

Who is it for?

These claims are usually addressed to people with allergies or sensitive skin when it comes to scents/fragrant ingredients such as lavender. These cosmetic claims, like ones labelled "unscented," can help people who are sensitive/allergic to fragrant ingredients. 

People with fragrance sensitivities or allergies still need to check the ingredients carefully when it comes to unscented products, as they may still use masking fragrances in them. Fragrance-free products might work better in such cases.


Who is it for? This product claim is for those who are trying to avoid preservatives in their products.

What is it?
 Is it really all that bad?

Paraben-free products are those that do not contain paraben, which is simply preservatives (synthetic or otherwise) that prolong a product's shelf-life and prevent molds, fungi, bacteria and other kinds of unwanted growth/decaying elements on the product/substance. The word "preservatives" may sound alarming at first, but let's take an objective look.

Preservatives extend a product's shelf life. Parabens are also present in some fruit, such as blueberries. According to the US-FDA and the American Chemistry Council, no causal link between parabens and cancer has been established, and the FDA even lists it as a GRAS ingredient (generally recognized as safe).

But if for any reason you would still like to err on the side of caution and avoid parabens/preservatives entirely, this product label would be one to keep an eye out for.


Who is it for?  Sulphate-free products are ideal for people with sulphate allergies, dry/acne-prone and sensitive skin, hair and eyes (i.e. if your eyes sting with some shampoos).  

What is it? A sulphate is a group of mineral salts that can act as surfactants (cleansing) and/or as a lathering ingredient in products like shampoos and other common cleansing products. Sulphates are naturally found almost everywhere (in air, water and soil), and can also be synthetic or man-made as an ingredient in a common household, hygiene and cosmetic products.

If you have sensitive skin/eyes and want to avoid sulphate that can be acne-inducing, drying or irritating to sensitive skin, eyes and hair, then sulphate-free labels are something that you can look out for. Otherwise, science considers it generally safe and non-carcinogenic in low doses.

         Vegan & Cruelty-free

What is it? Although there are no/limited legal definitions to these claims, there are generally accepted and usually PETA-based (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) concepts to these labels.

A product is considered vegan if no animals or animal-derived products were used to make it, from the packaging down to the ingredients.

It's animal cruelty-free if no animals were tested on, harmed/killed or unethically treated in making the product at any point in the supply chain or manufacturing process. 

Who is it for? It is possible for a product to be cruelty-free but not vegan if it has animal-derived ingredients/materials. So if you want your products to be completely animal guilt-free, products that boast of both of these two claims (vegan and cruelty-free) would be your best bet.

These are just a few of the many cosmetic claims and ingredients. Would you like to do your own investigation into cosmetic substances and claims? Go straight to the regulatory source. One way is simply to type an ingredient into the FDA's database of substances that are General Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

PRO TIP: Substances with SCOGS Conclusion Type 1 are considered generally safe (GRAS). 

Happy product and ingredient sleuthing!

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