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What Do Those Skincare Buzzwords Actually Mean?
by Emily Linehan on April 9, 2022
I often hear that skincare is confusing, or complicated, but in reality, skincare marketing is what is truly confusing. Between the spread of misinformation on social media and the lack of industry regulation regarding certain terminology, it’s not surprising that people are left wondering what’s actually happening. Before getting tricked into buying a product marketed with those trendy buzzwords, let’s dive into what these terms actually mean.
If you’re acne prone, you’ve likely already been checking labels for “Non-Comedogenic” when shopping for makeup or skincare products.
“Non-comedogenic” is a marketing term used in the beauty industry to indicate that a product doesn’t contain pore-clogging ingredients. So, if you’re looking for acne-safe skincare or makeup, you just need to buy makeup that is labeled "non-comedogenic", right? Actually, that’s not the case.
Unfortunately for acne sufferers, the non-comedogenic claim isn’t regulated. That means companies can claim to have products that are safe for acne-prone skin…even when it contains pore-clogging ingredients! Most skincare products and makeup (foundation, powders, concealers, finishing powders, bronzers, blushes) have pore-clogging ingredients in them. Sometimes they’re even hidden under other names or proprietary names for their ingredients.
Also, skincare and makeup companies are also notorious for changing the formulation of a product without announcing the change. You might be using a skincare product or makeup that is acne-safe one day, and the next time you buy it, you breakout! But don’t panic - all of our products by Emme Diane are truly acne safe (and this is something that will never change!) Also, I did the detective work for you and have created a few helpful resources to ensure you’re using products that are truly non-comedogenic. Check out my Acne Safe Makeup List and Pore Clogging Ingredients List before you shop next!
You’ve likely heard the term “clean beauty” already as the term has taken the beauty industry by storm in recent years. It seems like the term has been filling our newsfeed and gracing the labels of thousands of products, but with no legal definition or regulation, what does it actually mean?
In a nutshell, brands use the term “clean” as a marketing tactic to promote products that they feel don’t contain any “dirty” ingredients. Now you might be wondering, what’s a “dirty” ingredient? Again, this is up for interpretation, but it’s anything a brand may consider to be unsafe or harmful. You may have seen the trend of people referencing apps like “Think Dirty”, which provides a list of “dirty ingredients” then cross checks the ingredients found in products. According to the clean beauty movement, if a product contains any of the “dirty” ingredients on the list, it’s therefore a “dirty” product.
Although the idea seems straightforward, unfortunately that’s not the case. Ingredients are much more complex than simply good or bad, dirty or clean, etc. Several factors play into ingredients and their effects, one of which is how the ingredient is used. For example, studies show that essential oils, a “clean” ingredient for many brands, are effective in aromatherapies, completely safe for topical applications and more. However, if you take the same oil and ingest it, it could become toxic.
Another common misconception is that clean beauty products are not only better for your skin, but more sustainable as well. Unfortunately this is far from the truth. According to cosmetic scientist Sam Farmer, “Clean beauty” products are actually worse for the environment due to overharvesting of the raw ingredients required to produce them.
The term “natural” tends to fall under the “clean beauty” umbrella, and with that comes the lack of regulation and understanding. The name implies that a product is made with all natural, unmodified ingredients. Eating raw honey is simple and easy to accomplish, however formulating a beauty product using all natural, unmodified ingredients sourced directly from nature is seemingly impossible.
Similar to “clean beauty”, labeling something as “natural” has become synonymous with being better than synthetic ingredients throughout mainstream media. Unfortunately this simply is not the case. There are several synthetic ingredients that have been proven to be gentle and completely safe. In addition, they tend to be easier to work with and provide a higher level of purity and efficacy when compared to natural ingredients. Along those same lines, there are plenty of things found in nature that are extremely toxic, like ricin (which is the seed which castor oil is made from). So, just because something is “natural” doesn’t necessarily equate to it being good for you.
There are several natural ingredients that offer incredible benefits. For example, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice is rich in vitamins and antioxidants, boosts moisture, and encourages healthy cell regeneration, which is why it’s such an important part of our Skin Quencher gel. This ingredient is natural and incredibly effective, however if we didn’t include a safe and effective perservator, which is a synthetic ingredient, the product wouldn’t have a long shelf life. This means it would begin to grow mold and bacteria pretty quickly.
Don’t be fooled by “all-natural” or “natural” marketing tactics. Instead, look for products that are proven to be effective, clinically tested, and from brands you trust. If you’re surprised by what you’ve learned regarding “natural beauty”, I highly suggest you check out my blog, 3 Common Misconceptions of “Natural Beauty” Products to learn more.
“Medical-Grade” has taken on a misinformed definition of being “better”, when it comes to skincare. But is it actually more effective than over-the-counter (“OTC”) products? Well, the truth is, “medical-grade” skincare products essentially don’t actually exist as there is no substantial difference outside of marketing tactics.
The term “over-the-counter” means that a product can be purchased without a prescription for a doctor. So, “medical-grade” would mean that it is a higher strength and therefore requires a prescription, right? Wrong. Medical-grade products are different from prescription grade and don’t require a prescription from a medical professional. So what makes a product medical-grade? Well, since this is another term that is completely unregulated by the beauty industry (are you noticing a trend here?), the definition is up for debate.
A common misconception is that “medical-grade” products are more effective or undergo a more rigorous testing and research process. However, since most skincare products, including those labeled as “medical-grade”, are classified as “cosmetics”, they are not subject to the same regulatory and efficacy requirements as prescription products. For example, a product containing benzoyl peroxide can be labeled as “medical-grade”, however it does not need to meet any specific requirements to label itself as such, aside from the regulations all other OTC skincare products are held to, which includes ensuring the proper percentage is added, the product is labeled correctly, and the ingredients are approved for use.
Additionally, many people tend to relate “medical-grade” to higher quality ingredients, however, the ingredients available for “medical-grade” use are the same as those available for OTC products. The ingredients available are the same, and the allowed concentration of active ingredients are also the same. Whether a brand labels itself as “medical-grade” or not, both are still held to the same regulations of how much of an ingredient can be used. For example, a “medical-grade” product can sell a retinol formula with the maximum concentration allowed, or with just enough to include it in the ingredient list.
So essentially, “medical-grade” products = over the counter products with a different marketing and branding strategy. To avoid falling victim to the hype, be sure to always check the ingredients and the brand reputation. Proven results are a much better indicator of a high quality product than a made up “medical-grade” standard being advertised on the label.
As the name implies, the term means that a product doesn’t contain any toxic ingredients. Sounds great, right? While this term isn’t up for as much interpretation as other terms, it gets a bit confusing when companies label their products as “non-toxic” because it implies that other products may be toxic.
The “non-toxic” marketing strategy plays off our tendency to believe the worst. For example, the statement that 60% of skincare products we use make it into our bloodstream somehow circulated the internet and drove a “non-toxic” movement. But, that’s not really true. Michelle Wong, a chemistry PhD and blogger for Lab Muffin Beauty Science, explains why this is far from the truth. A key takeaway is that our skin acts as a barrier, and skincare ingredients that are generally designed for topical application leave little possibility of allowing ingredients to reach the bloodstream, let alone 60% of them.
While there are definitely harmful chemicals in our world, you can rest assured that they are not in your products (or your bloodstream), even if the label doesn’t include “non-toxic”. This is because it’s actually against the law in the US for skin care products to contain any ingredient that is harmful to the consumer. In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that any ingredient can be harmful in large quantities (even water can be deadly when too much is consumed), so this term is a bit too wide-ranging to really make sense when choosing skin care products.
“Oil-free” is one that has been around for years in terms of skincare marketing. It gained a lot of traction as it implies that if an ingredient does not contain oils, it is therefore safer for acne prone skin. Unfortunately this is a long held beauty myth and what's even more surprising is that most acne causing ingredients are not even oils. Regardless, at some point over time we became conditioned to believe that any products we use must be oil-free, but there are actually a handful of oils that are acne safe, including:
- Cold pressed safflower oil
- Cold pressed sunflower oil
- Squalane (not to be confused with Squalene)
- Jojoba Oil (This oil very closely resembles your skin’s natural sebum!)
- Mineral Oil
Over recent years we have been conditioned to believe that chemicals are toxic, man made substances that will cause severe damage. But what if I told you every ingredient, whether natural or synthetic, has chemicals in it? No really, everything. A simple but solid example is water. Water is the chemical structure of two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom. We all know that water is perfectly safe, however if we begin to refer to it as Dihydrogen Monoxide (H20), it starts to sound a bit scary, right?
In comes the “chemical-free” buzzword. This term plays off of a similar fear mongering strategy as the clean beauty movement that implies chemicals are “bad”, but unfortunately this is a poor oversimplification. As I mentioned before, every ingredient has chemicals, so to claim that something is “chemical-free” simply doesn’t make sense.
Blueberries are a well known superfood, however as you can see below, even a natural blueberry has its own chemical composition.
When you read terms like “Methylparaben”, which is considered hazardous by many clean beauty websites, something as healthy as blueberries begins to seem a bit scary.
Unfortunately terms like “chemical-free” have caused a lot of misinformation. Be sure to check the label prior to purchasing any products to ensure it doesn’t contain harsh chemicals that you’re trying to avoid, even if the label says “chemical-free”.
As the term implies, products that proudly wear ‘Paraben-Free’ on their label are in fact Paraben-Free. The term is pretty straightforward to understand, however I wanted to touch on this term as it is one of the trendy buzzwords that have demonized a safe and effective ingredient.
Parabens are actually found naturally in a variety of foods (like the blueberries we discussed earlier) and are often used as a preservative. They’ve been successfully used for almost 100 years, however they’ve gained a pretty bad reputation since a 2004 study found parabens in human breast tumors. This and following studies have stirred up quite a bit of controversy, however the studies present a lot of flaws.
If Parabens were truly as dangerous as they have been made out to be, wouldn’t they have been banned long ago? Most professionals in the scientific community actually believe that parabens are quite safe. In fact there are several studies proving that they are perfectly safe and effective, but something else to consider is that most products only contain very small amounts of parabens.
You know what’s even scarier than the misinformation regarding Parabens? The alternatives. The consequences to forgoing parabens and using alternatives often include poorly preserved products and increase irritation. In addition, there is also a lack of knowledge regarding the long term effects of paraben alternatives as we don’t have almost 100 years of scientific evidence to support the safety as we do with Parabens.
When a product claims an instant result, especially for anti-aging, fine lines and wrinkles, it is generally because the product creates a small amount of inflammation in the skin, causing it to become slightly swollen. This swelling creates an optical illusion where fine lines and wrinkles magically disappear. Moreover, it reduces the contrast between pigmentation irregularities on the skin which, from a before and after picture, we think of as an instantaneous miracle cream! Cellular change takes time and patience.
If you have any questions regarding any of the terms discussed above, or any other terms, feel free to reach out!