Label Savvy: How to Decode the Product Fine-Print

With alluring claims and mystery ingredients, product labels can be baffling. We asked cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller, co-founder of The Beauty Brains website, to decipher the lingo

Photography: iStockphoto

Photography: iStockphoto

Recently some cosmetic companies have gotten into trouble with the FDA for their marketing claims. Why? First of all, cosmetic companies can only get in trouble with the FDA if there’s a safety issue or they’re making drug claims. The FDA doesn’t regulate specific cosmetic claims. For instance, when an anti-aging product says it “reduces the appearance of wrinkles,” that’s different than saying it “gets rid of wrinkles.” The latter is making a drug claim—and this is where the FDA may step in and take action. So what should people be skeptical of? Everything. I don’t mean that cosmetic companies are lying about their claims—that’s rarely the case, especially with reputable companies. Reputable companies do testing to make sure what they’re claiming is true. For consumers, what they need to think about is whether the claim means anything to them specifically, in terms of the benefit they’re buying the product for.

What do the words “clinically tested” tell us about a product? “Clinically tested” or “clinically proven” has no legal definition. Companies can interpret either term however they want. It’s generally understood to mean something has been tested by an independent third party such as an outside lab. What can it tell us about product efficacy? It depends on the wording. For example, if a lotion says it’s “clinically proven to moisturize skin,” that could mean it was compared against using water as a moisturizer, or not using moisturizer at all. Even if a claim has a number, like “clinically proven to make skin feel 33 percent better,” we can’t tell what the comparison is. The key point is that people should think critically about a claim to decide if it has value to them.

Are there specific methods a product must follow to claim it’s “clinically tested”? No, [because] we’re talking about cosmetic claims, not drug claims. For some tests, like skin moisturization tests, there is some degree of standardization across the industry, but companies are free to design whatever testing method they want. For cosmetic claims on products like anti-aging creams, there are no requirements for using “clinically tested.”

What can we glean from the order of ingredients listed on products? In the US and Canada, ingredients must be listed in order of descending concentration—until you get to ingredients that make up less than one percent of the formula. For those, such as colourants and preservatives, they can be listed in any order. If you had two lotions listing sesame seed oil as the most prominent ingredient, one could have 10 percent sesame seed oil and the other could have five percent, but the labels would both start the same way.

When educating consumers on reading labels, what do you advise them to pay attention to? They should try to understand what the labels are trying to say and if that’s important to them. Also, look at the label to see who makes the product, because many brands are made by the same parent company. Bigger companies generally have the largest R&D budgets, which means they do the most testing. People can feel more secure if they know they’re buying something made by one of the larger companies rather than something random they find on the Internet (which can be sketchy). Finally, look at the price per ounce; some stores list this on the shelf tag. That’s a great indication of the product’s value.

A cosmetic chemist with experience in hair and skincare R&D, Randy Schueller demystifies beauty science at


This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Cosmetics magazine. For more, download our iPad edition.