Any savvy beauty editor worth their weight in retinoids and hyaluronic acid is going to raise an eyebrow when it comes to the seemingly endless list of marketing buzzwords slapped on skin care products. Sure, it’s easy for experts to spot certain fallacies in these claims: anything that promises instant results is certainly suspect, for one. And while some claims are certainly valid, other skin care marketing terms are far more nebulous.
For the average beauty buyer, who might not have the same understanding of the industry as insiders, these weighty terms are doubly concerning. Alongside farfetched claims and misguided advice from so-called experts on social media, they add yet another layer of misinformation to the consumer experience. To sum it up: It can make shopping for skin care frustrating and downright confusing.
Fear not: TZR decodes and demystifies the linguistic gymnastics on your favorite products’ packaging, breaking down scientific jargon and beauty product claims by digging deep into the research. Read on to find out what these buzzy beauty marketing terms really mean, including whether they hold any weight or they’re simply a way for brands to stand out in a saturated market.
“‘Dermatologist-tested’ means the product was tested by at least one dermatologist for at least one parameter — safety, sensitivity, or a specific skin concern, ” says cosmetic chemist and CEO of BeautyStat, Ron Robinson. It’s important to note, however, that “dermatologist-tested” doesn’t make any implications about what kind of testing occurred or the results of those tests, simply that there was some sort of testing and that it was supervised by a qualified dermatologist. It also doesn’t mean that the product is any safer than those that aren’t dermatologist tested — per cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions, Victoria Fu, the outcome of results and measurements of tests are the same, regardless of who runs the testing.
And, as board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., points out, because there is no legal definition, dermatologist tested could mean a dermatologist ran a clinical trial, but it could also simply mean a dermatologist took the product home and used it.
Clinically tested tends to imply a product has been through thorough testing — if you were choosing between a clinically tested product and one without any testing, you’d probably pick the former. But beyond the fact that the product was tested under clinical conditions (a controlled environment), the phrase doesn’t mean much. And it’s not totally clear what exactly constitutes “clinical conditions” — “No, you’re not crazy,” Hirsch jokes. “It means nothing to me either.”
That being said, it’s worth looking at the two types of cosmetic testing, even if only as a refresher. As Fu explains, there’s consumer perception testing, in which subjects test a product for a period of time and fill out a self assessment of their experience, and expert-graded (or instrumental) clinical testing, in which measurements are taken periodically to evaluate marked improvement within a given parameter. In terms of product efficacy, the latter is generally considered more objective. But the term “clinically tested” itself doesn’t specify which type of testing was done.
A notch above “dermatologist-tested,” you’ll find “dermatologist-approved,” in which at least one dermatologist either oversaw or reviewed clinical testing, or approved of the product itself, meaning they’d recommend it to patients or consumers at large. According to cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions, Gloria Lu, this is certainly helpful sometimes, other times not so much.
“Whether or not a dermatologist approves of the results of a clinical test, the outcome when using a product would still be the same,” she explains. “However, for any claim around safety regarding eye area uses and compromised skin, this can be helpful since dermatologists are the experts regarding the assessment of skin conditions.”
Approval can also be sponsored, meaning, yes, a company could theoretically pay a dermatologist to give their approval.
In this case, “noncomedogenic” implies that a product won’t clog pores and, therefore, won’t cause breakouts. It’s great in theory, but here’s the issue: The claim is completely unregulated, meaning there are no rules around which brands and which products can or cannot use the term. There are no standards that have to be met in order to be deemed “noncomedogenic.”
Typically (or perhaps ideally), products are tested in clinical studies for a minimum of one month. During that month, subjects are evaluated for any signs of comedones and acne. According to Fu, even if we assume a brand is well-intentioned with the claim and truly saw no signs of pore clogging during that testing period — and to be clear, this is an assumption, not a given — it still doesn’t mean all that much. After all, everyone’s skin is unique. Seeing this claim on a product doesn’t mean there’s zero chance of it causing breakouts — not to mention some brands might not even do the typical one-month test.
To be fair, this isn’t a bad thing to see on a label. It’s likely the brand believes their product won’t clog pores, but it just doesn’t guarantee it.
Bad news for all our sensitive-skin, hive-prone friends. And this time, it comes from the FDA itself: “There are no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.”
It isn’t all doom and gloom here. Brands do often try to substantiate this claim — usually by running a large-scale patch test to ensure the product is unlikely to cause irritation, Lu explains. But if you’re particularly prone to sensitization, she still recommends proceeding with caution and patch testing on your own skin. Realistically, there is no product with zero risk of reaction, adds Dr. Hirsch.
The buzzy portmanteau (cosmetics + pharmaceutical) is often thought to signal increased research and development, resulting in higher efficacy. As Dr. Hirsch puts it, the term is meant to suggest cosmetics, which do not require drug-standard testing, have certain medicine-like benefits.
All four experts agree: Cosmeceutical is a marketing term with little to no true meaning behind it. Sure, a cosmeceutical product could use higher levels of actives (which could equate to better results), but that’s a whole lot of assumptions to make based on a single term slapped on a label. Instead of taking “cosmeceutical” at face value, Fu suggests looking into the ingredient list and any sort of clinical testing available to get a better idea of potential effects.
Ah, the great clean beauty debate. Both “clean” and “all natural” imply that the products with these labels are safer than others.
Formulas made with good-for-you and eco-friendly ingredients sure sound nice, but that’s not what clean means. Because, to be incredibly clear and blunt, clean means nothing. There are no federal regulations or rules around the term, so anyone can describe their products as “clean,” no matter what’s inside them. The same goes for “all natural,” though it does tend to suggest all ingredients in a given product are plant based.
Dr. Hirsch points out that everyone who invokes “clean” or “all-natural” rhetoric in their marketing defines it differently. For example, a company might self identify as clean, but a retailer selling that company’s product might not agree — this can be true for the same product.
“There’s no regulated list of ‘clean’ ingredients,” Lu explains. “The ingredients typically blacklisted by brands for the most part are very misunderstood, with no substantial evidence that justifies these ingredients being deemed unsafe for use.” For example, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are on most “clean” brand’s no-no lists. But even if you use an entire jug of shampoo (which often contain those formaldehyde-releasing preservatives), Lu says it’d likely release less formaldehyde than an apple. That’s far from danger levels.
“Meanwhile, natural ingredients are often seen as more gentle,” Fu adds. “However, plants are incredibly complex and can include a lot more allergens than their synthetic ingredient counterparts.”
“Organic” beauty claims seem to piggy-back off of food marketing, implying that a product is formulated without any additives like GMOs and pesticides. And the term is actually regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but only as it applies to agriculture products — though beauty products can potentially be eligible for organic certification “if a cosmetic, body care product, or personal care product contains or is made up of agricultural ingredients, and can meet the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing, and labeling standards,” according to the USDA. They really do look at your formula and production to ensure the formulation does not include or come into contact with any materials deemed “inorganic.”
But — and there’s almost always a but — this isn’t a particularly helpful claim. According to Lu, an “organic” certification doesn’t have any indication about (and isn’t related to) the safety or efficacy of a topical product.
“Some brands use this as a marketing term to imply that their product does not contain synthetic ingredients; only natural ones,” Robinson explains. But this is the biggest lie of them all. Let’s make it plain and simple: Everything is a chemical — hyaluronic acid, shea butter, water; all of it.
If you were truly using a “chemical-free” product…Well, you couldn’t; there’d simply be no product. The truth is there is nothing wrong with chemicals.
Finally, some (sort of) good news! According to Robinson, vegan beauty products do not contain any animal-sourced ingredients or animal byproducts. And while Dr. Hirsch points out that the term itself isn’t regulated, it is the one with likely the best track record. After all, it’s pretty easy to check if an ingredient list includes any animal-sourced ingredients or animal byproducts.
In the simplest sense, “cruelty-free” speaks to animal testing, more specifically a lack thereof. The claim is sort of accurate — the challenge here is nuanced. “Nearly every skin care ingredient has been safety tested on animals at some point in their evolution,” Dr. Hirsch shares. “So technically speaking, there is really no such thing as a fully ‘cruelty-free’ product.”
As Fu points out, at this point, there’s less animal testing done in the beauty industry than you might think. And products without “cruelty-free” claims might not be tested on animals either.
This is especially important to consider when it comes to certain “cruelty-free” certifications offered by reputable companies like Leaping Bunny and PETA. While the certifications verify a company does not test its products or ingredients on animals, we can’t ignore the fact that the use of these logos includes certain licensing fees. Some brands, especially smaller indie brands, may simply not have the funds to dedicate to obtaining these certifications.
These terms are similar to cosmeceutical in that they imply greater efficacy. Interestingly enough, they actually began as a way to delineate where certain products were sold. Indeed, in a time not so long ago, “medical-grade,” “professional-grade,” and “clinical-grade” products were only available for purchase at doctor’s offices and certain medical spas. And if you think about it that way, it makes total sense why people might think the terms imply that products are more effective and powerful — after all, they’re only sold by professionals.
Despite their well-meaning beginnings, the terms are ultimately marketing jargon. With the advent and normalization of the internet, you can buy most anything, anywhere, rendering the claims virtually useless.
That’s not to say the terms are totally false. There are some, actually many, “clinical-grade,” “medical-grade,” and “professional-grade” products and brands that are more efficacious, that are heavily invested in research and development, and that do follow rigorous clinical testing standards. Dr. Hirsch, Lu, and Fu all agree there. The issue is that the use of one of these terms doesn’t automatically mean the product and brand reach those standards; it’s simply not a given.
“Oil-free” used to be a buzzword for breakout prone. But we’re past the days of demonizing oil when it comes to oily and acne-prone skin types — as Dr. Hirsch puts it, there are plenty of formulas with oils in them that are just fine for acne-prone and oily skin. Like most things in skin care, the reality is nuanced.
But it’s worth pointing out that the term itself is unregulated and left up to brand interpretation. “The typical definition can range from ‘the ingredient list can’t have the word oil in it,’ to ‘the formula won’t use traditional lipids or oils, but silicone oils are okay,’” Lu says. And if a brand chooses to use the latter definition, that’s not particularly helpful for those looking to avoid oils. Again, nuance.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you’re feeling disheartened by the rampant mass misinformation and twisting of facts — and you’re not alone. But, as is the case with most things in life, the choice to use these skin care marketing terms is complex and fraught with shades of gray. Misleading claims might just be the result of a well-intentioned attempt at simplifying the shopping experience. And sometimes they really are helpful.
This isn’t to say that any and all claims should be ignored or considered deal breakers — quite the contrary. Rather, pay attention to the claims your products make with the understanding that they might not necessarily hold the weight they seem to imply. When in doubt, look for proof. After all, the difference between a good brand and a great brand is the desire to inform and educate consumers in a meaningful way. And if a claim can’t be substantiated, perhaps that in itself is something worth considering.