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How to Read Beauty Labels & Product Boxes
Makeup, Skincare, Education

How to Read Beauty Labels & Product Boxes

The information found on product labels and cosmetic packaging can be a lot to decode, but ultimately symbols and wording are designed to keep consumers better informed. Staying up to date on domestic labeling requirements and iconography is the best way to get to know the products you use on a daily basis. Grab your favorite products and see if you can spot the following.

Wind Energy

The wind energy logo, found on product boxes, certifies that the facility where the box was produced is powered by wind energy.


A product or product box displaying this symbol is recyclable. You may see recycle symbols with a number 1 through 7 inside. According to the American Chemistry Council, this number corresponds with a different type of material.

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE or PE-HD)
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or V)
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE or PE-LD)
  5. Polypropylene (PP)
  6. Polystyrene (PS)
  7. Other (acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, etc)

Period After Opening (PAO)

The PAO open jar symbol refers to the product’s fit for use period after it is opened. The number followed by an M indicates the number of months the product can be open. If a product has been open for longer than the PAO symbol recommends, you may notice a change in smell, texture or performance, all signs that it’s time to throw away your beauty products.

Estimated Sign

The e-mark is a symbol for products sold in Europe to ensure that the product fill weight claims are accurate. It is limited to items containing 5 grams to 10 kilograms of product to indicate that the product fill is in compliance with the European Union Directive 76/211/EEC.

Cruelty Free Logo

Companies partnered with PETA's Beauty Without Bunnies Program can display this bunny logo to show that their products are cruelty-free. There are other cruelty free logos for programs such as Leaping Bunny and Choose Cruelty Free (CCF). Learn more about Glo’s commitment to be cruelty-free.


If a cosmetic product is marketed to consumers online, in stores or through direct sales, ingredients are listed in descending order starting with the ingredient that makes up the highest percentage of the product. Active drug ingredients (like Salicylic Acid in an acne cleanser) are an exception and will be listed first in a drug facts panel under “Active Ingredients,” and ingredients with less than 1% concentration will be listed at the end of the ingredient listing, but may not be in exact order.

Anyone with sensitive skin or allergies should be wary of the words “Fragrance” or “Flavor.” The FDA does not require companies to disclose trade secret ingredients, so if you’re concerned about unknowns, it’s best to go fragrance-free. Color additives will not be listed in order but rather in a “May Contain” or “(+/-)” section at the end. Why would a brand say a color may or may not be in your product? The section is used when a color cosmetic item is available in multiple shades, like Pressed Base or Eye Shadow.

The base formula is the same, but the color additives vary by shade. It’s hard not to notice the inconsistencies in ingredient naming from brand to brand. Sometimes you see Water, then Purified Water and maybe Aqua. For this reason, the Personal Care Product Council established the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) naming system. With more than 16,000 INCI name in the system, many countries such as the United States, European Union and Japan look to this list to keep ingredient labeling consistent. Some companies choose to list the common names in parenthesis. Examples of standardized INCI names include:

  • Butyrospermum Parkii = Shea Butter
  • Morus Alba Root/Bark Extract = Mulberry
  • Oenothera Biennis Oil = Evening Primrose
  • Vitis Vinifera Seed Extract = Grape
  • Punica Granatum Extract = Pomegranate

Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

Over-the-counter (OTC) products containing SPF are subject to specific labeling requirements from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA OTC sunscreen products containing specified active ingredients and marketed without approved applications must state that they help prevent sunburn along with a list of uses, warnings and directions to promote effective use and consumer safety.

Depending on the SPF level and other factors, uses, warnings and directions will vary slightly. For example, under “Uses” sunscreen must state that it "helps prevent sunburn" but sunscreens with broad spectrum SPF 15 or higher can include additional statements about decreasing the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun.

Did you know ingredients like Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide found in mineral makeup provide physical sun protection? Use your makeup along with a sunscreen to keep your skin properly protected. Apply sunscreen after moisturizer but before makeup.

Expiration Date

Expiration dates and a drug fact panel are required by the FDA for OTC items like sunscreen and acne products.Products undergo stability testing to see how the formula and packaging quality varies over time under a variety of factors including temperatures, humidity and light. The expiration date placed on the container designates when the product should no longer be used.

May 5, 2016
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