Decode beauty label health information: Fragrance free, dermatologist-tested

Marketing jargon busted

Terms like ‘non-comedogenic’ and ‘dermatologist-tested’ should be taken with a hefty grain of salt, says scientist and QR8 founder Dr Michele Squire. “They’re marketing terms and not regulated by any governing body, so they can mean whatever a company wants them to mean,” she says. Here are some big ones to watch out for…


Don’t be fooled by the reference to experts, this term just means it was tested by dermatologists — and no more than that, warns cosmetic chemist Amanda Foxon-Hill. “It’s possible to pay a dermatologist to test a product and give the brand a letter stating that,” she says. “How it was tested — including on what type of skin, for how long and how many people — is not something that is standardised.” A more legitimate accreditation would be a stamp from a respected industry group.


This is a fancy term meaning the product won’t block pores, explains Dr Squire, who adds that the term isn’t 100 per cent reliable, either, as the products are tested on back skin. “Just because test subjects get comedones [blackheads] on their back, doesn’t mean the same will happen on their face; also, the term itself and the rating scale is not regulated by any governing body,” she explains. So if you’re prone to acne or blackheads, rather watch out for known pore-blockers like butyl stearate, cocoa butter and decyl oleate — and steer clear of these.

Fragrance free

“When it comes to cosmetic product causing a skin reaction, fragrance is a top culprit, so marking out products as ‘fragrance free’ does provide a legitimate benefit to people who are sensitive,” says Foxon-Hill. However, there’s still no guarantee that there are no fragrance chemicals in it. “Some also have multiple functions and may be listed as a preservative or moisturising ingredient,” adds Dr Squire. “Individual fragrances are not required to be listed as they’re considered a ‘trade secret’.” There are 12 known irritant chemicals that are listed separately on ingredients lists, including essential oils like citral, geraniol, hydroxycitronellal and limonene, so keep an eye out for these.

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Just like with the ingredient list on a food label, ingredients on a beauty product appear in order of their concentration. The ingredient with the greatest concentration is listed first and the others appear in descending order, until you get to ingredients that are less than 1 per cent concentration — these are listed in any order the manufacturer chooses, with fragrances, allergens and preservatives usually at the end. Here are some key terms to help you out…

Vitamin A Hyaluronic Acid

The core ingredients that deliver the product’s advertised benefit — such as vitamin A or hyaluronic acid — are known as functional ingredients. “These should ideally be listed in the first five to six items,” explains Dr Squire. Ingredients that are included around the 1 per cent range at the bottom are typically preservatives, like phenoxyethanol and ethylhexylglycerin, or ‘fillers’ such as xanthan gum and tocopherol. “If your main functional ingredients are listed near the bottom, put the product back on the shelf,” she advises.

Niacinamide, Tocopherol

Sometimes ingredients are listed by their scientific name, which makes ingredients such as niacinamide (a.k.a. vitamin B3) and tocopherol (vitamin E) sound scary. “Just because it’s unpronounceable doesn’t mean it’s harmful,” assures Dr Squire. She suggests going online to databases like to help you ‘translate’ these names if you want, but says you shouldn’t stress too much about scary-sounding ingredients anyway. “Ingredients with harmful side effects are banned from use in cosmetic formulations and this is very tightly regulated in Australia,” she assures.

Aloe Barbadensis, Butylene

Don’t be put off by ingredients like water, glycerin, butylene and aloe barbadensis, which fall under the ‘filler’ category of ingredients, or ‘aesthetic modifiers’. According to Foxon-Hill, “fillers aren’t just cheap bulking agents or things to make the product look more than it is — they have a purpose in improving the feel, flow, look, viscosity and even contact time”.