If it's hypoallergenic, it's safe for sensitive skin, right?

Published: 3/31/2008 12:13 AM

Not necessarily. Here's what cosmetic labels really mean

Are you looking for the best products for your skin? Then you probably rely on label claims like fragrance-free and hypoallergenic to help you in your hunt.

The hitch: Despite widespread use, there are no standard definitions for such terms, and no one regulates how they should be employed -- some companies abide by their own strict interpretations, while others aren't as careful. Still, you don't want to discount them.

"Labels can give you a good starting point for picking the right products," says John Bailey, executive vice president of science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association. So learn precisely what the jargon on your tubes and jars means -- and doesn't mean. If information is power, this guide will make you queen of the beauty aisle.


You think it means: Products labeled this way aren't as likely to cause allergic reactions.

The reality: Cosmetics manufacturers aren't required to substantiate this claim, so it can mean whatever a company wants it to. "Some marketers use it in a meaningless fashion, while others test their products on panels of people with allergic potential," says Mort Westman, a cosmetic chemist and industry consultant in Oak Brook.

When it's done right: "No reputable company would ever release an allergenic product, which is why it's best to purchase brands that you know and trust," says Dr. Leslie Baumann, a professor of dermatology at the University of Miami. Certain ones, such as Clinique and Dove, have built reputations on avoiding allergenic ingredients and testing for sensitivity. Clinique uses the term allergy tested in its tagline -- and every Clinique product is, in fact, tested multiple times on 600 people. If even one person has a reaction, the product isn't released.

Dermatologist tested

You think it means: A skin specialist found the product to be effective and nonirritating.

The reality: Testing can vary widely.

"A dermatologist may have given the product to staffers to try or she may have conducted a legitimate, controlled trial," says Dr. Ranella Hirsch, president-elect of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery.

When it's done right: A large-scale study on carefully selected, randomized volunteers will have been carried out. Such meaningful testing is the norm for big brands such as Olay, Neutrogena, L'Oreal and Vichy, which tested its Nutrilogie 2 Intensive Nourishing Moisturizer Cream on 114 women in four countries. Other tip-offs that the derm-tested claim is valid: The package insert may elaborate on the role the doctor played in testing, says Dr. Jeannette Graf, an assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.


You think it means: The product is unscented and won't irritate skin.

The reality: Fragrance-free usually means that no scents were added, and this does reduce the likelihood that women with sensitive skin will have a reaction. Don't be surprised, though, if a fragrance-free product has an aroma. What you smell is the natural odor of the ingredients used to formulate the product, such as lavender (for its antiseptic properties) and grapefruit seed (a natural preservative). Products labeled unscented, on the other hand, do contain low levels -- less than 1 percent -- of fragrance, explains Yohini Appa, executive director of scientific affairs at Neutrogena.

When it's done right: Companies are aware that it's usually women prone to fragrance sensitivities who shop for these products, so those containing any form of fragrance will have undergone a battery of safety checks to ensure they don't irritate or cause allergic reactions. One company that goes above and beyond this standard is Almay, which doesn't use fragrances or masking agents in its skin care or makeup lines.


You think it means: It won't clog pores, which can lead to blackheads and whiteheads -- comedones, in medical speak -- and acne.

The reality: The pore-plugging powers of ingredients are often evaluated by applying them to a rabbit's ear -- a test that's far from foolproof, given that our skin is different from rabbits' skin.

When it's done right: Reputable companies always test final products -- not just individual ingredients -- for comedogenicity in controlled trials, says Ni'kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist in Fairfield, N.J. A trained technician will examine panelists' skin and count their existing blemishes. After testers use the product as specified, their skin is re-examined. "If there's a dramatic increase in pimples, the company either won't release the product or won't make the noncomedogenic claim," says Wilson.

Oil free

You think it means: There's no oil in the product to make skin greasy or clog pores.

The reality: "Oil-free products don't contain ingredients such as mineral oil or plant oils classified by the CTFA as oils," says Wilson. But they might still include oil-like emollients, such as silicones, waxes and vegetable fats, that can trigger outbreaks in susceptible people.

When it's done right: It's virtually impossible to formulate cosmetics without oil-like ingredients -- they're often used to give products a silky feel or to bind ingredients together. So if your skin is acne-prone, it's wiser to choose a noncomedogenic product over one labeled oil free.