By Margaret W. Crane
Published On: Sep 21, 2018
Last Updated On: Jul 13, 2021
Even if you’re an educated consumer, and even if you routinely shop for products that are all-natural, organic and fragrance-free, a product’s claims may not be all they’re cracked up to be. Even if you’re an educated consumer, and even if you routinely shop for products that are all-natural, organic and fragrance-free, a product’s claims may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
What’s more, finding out what’s really inside the tubes, bottles and boxes we buy can be surprisingly challenging.
Learn to decode “label-ese”
Labels aren’t as transparent as we’d like them to be, mainly because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wields limited authority over cosmetics and personal care products. The FDA requires ingredients to be listed on package labels, but very few labels list the specific ingredients within general categories, such as “fragrance,” “flavor” and “inactive ingredients.”
Let’s consider “fragrance,” a common ingredient that appears on many personal product labels. People with eczema are often allergic to fragrance, yet it’s almost impossible to find out which fragrance-related chemical is the culprit. By listing this seemingly simple category on a label, the manufacturer can mask hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals.
Descriptive language on product labels can also be deceptive. Watch out for questionable terms, such as:
- Hypoallergenic – According to the FDA, this term means anything a manufacturer wants it to mean. Consumers may be led to believe that hypoallergenic products will be gentler to their skin than non-hypoallergenic ones, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.
- Fragrance-free – A product advertising this claim may legally contain fragrance chemicals as long as they are used for a purpose other than fragrance itself.
- Unscented – This one doesn’t mean that a product is truly fragrance-free. The term can be listed on products that use fragrance chemicals to mask strong smells. A product may have no discernable scent, but it isn’t necessarily free from chemical irritants.
- Green – There is no set definition or standards for this term. It is frequently used as code for sustainable, environmentally friendly, and possibly manufactured with recycled materials.
- Organic – This popular term implies that a product is made from plants grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But unless you see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “USDA Organic” logo on the product label, the word can be inaccurate or even meaningless. However, small farms and businesses that sell less than $5,000 in organic products per year don’t require USDA certification, and you should always read the label completely.
- All-natural – This term typically refers to a product that is made of minimally processed ingredients and does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives. This is not an official label with set standards however, and even a product that contains one or more natural ingredients—aloe or lavender, for example—may contain potentially harmful preservatives or other additives.
Household product labels can be even harder to decode than those on personal products. As with cosmetics and skincare products, the household products we use all the time typically contain dozens of unregulated chemicals.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates labeling for a wide range of household products, including cleaning products, car wax, battery acid and drain openers, among others. All such products are required to list their main ingredients, including those known to be hazardous.
They also need to list instructions on how to use a product, and how not to use it, along with first-aid information. But household product manufacturers suffer no legal or regulatory consequences when they fail to provide a complete list of ingredients.
If all this sounds grim, don’t despair. There may be no foolproof way to see “what’s in there” in every case, but there’s a lot you can do to become label-literate and protect your skin and your health in the process.
Helpful resources and guidelines
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database is a good place to start exploring the world of cosmetics and personal care products, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review and Cosmetics Info websites are highly informative as well. Use these resources to look up a product or ingredient and see if it has known toxic effects.
And in the real world, there’s a lot you can do to make sure you’re buying the gentlest, most skin-friendly personal care products on the market to keep allergic reactions at bay. Just pay attention to the following guidelines:
- Keep it simple! Buy products with fewer ingredients.
- When reading a product label, look for your known triggers, and if you see any of them, cross that product off your list.
- Test a small amount of a new product on a clear patch of skin. The inside of your wrist or the crook of your elbow are often good spots.
- Read and follow the directions on the product’s label.
- Avoid trying new products when your skin is irritated or inflamed.
And you can also become a label-savvy consumer when it comes to household products:
- Get to know the National Library of Medicine’s Household Products Database, where you can look up products and ingredients to check for toxicity.
- When shopping for “green” cleaners, read product labels carefully to make sure the ingredients are truly environmentally friendly.
- Choose products that advertise themselves as “non-toxic,” “biodegradable” and “petroleum-free,” and for products that list all their ingredients.
- Beware of catch-all categories such as “inactive ingredients” or “fragrance.” Try to find out what’s really in there.
Finally, check out NEA’s Product Directory at nationaleczema.org/eczema-products. Our directory includes an extensive list of personal and household products that have earned the NEA Seal of Acceptance™.
NEA’s Seal of Acceptance Review Panel awards the seal to products created for people with eczema and other skin sensitivities that meet the Seal of Acceptance criteria. The panel has also flagged ingredients that should be avoided.
Note that NEA’s acceptance of a specific product isn’t an outright endorsement of that product. Everyone reacts differently to personal care and household products, so trial and error remains your best strategy for identifying and eliminating triggers, wherever they may lurk.