Beauty Terms Decoded: What do they even mean?

If you have been confused by all sorts of beauty jargon, you are not alone. I’ve to admit prior to getting into the industry, I too was just as confused as you have been. Sometimes I genuinely feel that the industry throws out these mumble jumble just to intimidate us. I mean don’t get me wrong, there is in fact a scientific explanation behind these terms. As an aesthetician we had to memorise all these terms along with learning in-depth about physiology and human anatomy syllabus. Surprised? I just think at times it is best to explain to consumers with layman terms because beauty should be simple and not complicated.

Here are the Top 10 terms decoded:

1. Hypoallergenic

It means that it will less likely to cause skin irritations or sensitivity. 

Allergies and irritations are a complex response, this could be caused by anything from natural or synthetic ingredients, preservatives, fragrances, and a multitude of other reasons according to our unique biological makeup and lifestyle.

No company can claim that a product will not cause a reaction and there are no allergy-proof products, as they are unable to test the product on every single individual. Sure, they could test the skin’s reactions on different cultures and ethnicity but each individual has a unique genetic make-up and may react differently to the product.

I have sensitive skin, so in the past I would look at products that contain this keyword to avoid any form of contraindication- only to find out this is complete utter crap. There are in fact no such body that governs the “hypoallergenic” term. Therefore, “hypoallergenic” cannot be deemed as a standard as there is no guarantee. In fact, any brand can just slap on this label claiming that it is hypoallergenic.

2. Non-comedogenic 

Comedones means blackheads. Non-comedogenic means it will not block pores.

Non-comedogenic however doesn’t guarantee that the product will not cause breakouts. Similar to “hypoallergenic”, there are actually no guidelines for this product claim.

 3. Natural

Meaning sourced from nature and not synthetically created from a lab.

Natural has been everywhere lately. It is a rather grey area because many of the products out there can simply slap a “natural” term on their packaging as long as it contains 5% of natural ingredients, when in fact 95% the product may even contain questionable chemicals. Generally speaking, if a product claims 100% natural it will not last more than 3 weeks without having some sort of chemical preservatives to maintain its stability.

4. Organic

Meaning little to no pesticides or herbicides was used during the process of cultivation.

USDA Organic 🇺🇸 has 3 different categories of organic:

100% organic which means it is organically produced other than salt and water

95% made with organic ingredients

70% approved organic ingredients (i.e.: made with organic lavender)

The only problem is that all these 3 categories use the same “USDA Organic” label. 

In UK 🇬🇧 however the organic term is slightly different.

Soil Association has 2 different categories:

For a product to be labelled organic e.g ‘Organic facial oil’  95% of ALL ingredients must be organic

Leave on Products: 95% of all physically processed agro-ingredients must be organic and at least 20% of the total ingredients must be organic.

Rinse off products: 95% of all physically processed agro-ingredients must be organic and at least 10% of the total ingredients must be organic.

5. Consumer Trials

As the terms suggests, clinical trials are when a product are being tested on consumers. It allows the business to gauge on how the product is being received prior to committing to a full product launch. Some companies only select 30 participants nationwide which makes it difficult to determine if in fact the product is suitable for all skin conditions.

The main problem I have with statements such as “70% reduce in fine lines”, because we do not know if the participant did in fact use anything prior. I heard from a reliable source that many times when such clinical trials are being done, participants are not allowed to use any products week(s) prior. Therefore, once they start using a product, of course they will be a visible difference.

6. Clinical Trials

Research done on the product to test efficacy and safety under scientific standards.

Be it reduce in fine lines, wrinkles, hyper-pigmentation, boosting hydration etc. This is entirely data focused.

  7. Alcohol-Free

There are  3 alcohol categories in skin care: simple, fatty, or aromatic.

Fatty alcohol: Cetyl alcohol or Caprylic alcohol, works to prevent skin’s moisture loss and acts as a thickening agent

Aromatic alcohol: Benzyl alcohol, is used in very small doses in fragrance as a solvent.

Simple Alcohol: Isopropyl alcohol and denatured alcohol (alcohol denat)this is where the problem lies. If high concentrations of these are used, it may weaken the skin barrier function and increase dryness. For those who suffer from sensitive/ dry skin, you should steer clear away from simple alcohol. 

  8. Active Ingredients

This simply means, the ingredient is able to affect the skin biologically.

These ingredients are normally on the top of the ingredients list. They often will have a percentage labeled on the packaging. i.e.: 1% Retinol, AHAs, BHAs, 10% Lactic Acid, Vitamin C are all active ingredients.

The efficacy of an active ingredient is dependent on the pH levels in the acids, as. The lower the pH, the more ‘active’ a product will be, but that can also mean that it can be more irritating to some skins types.

However, there is a misconception that the higher the concentration (%) the more effective the product. i.e.: The higher the concentration of acids does not necessarily mean higher efficacy simply due to pH levels.

Read: Top 10 Active Ingredients You Need to Transform Your Skin: The Beauty Guru Cheat Sheet

9. Essential Oils

Essential oils are distilled oils derived from a plant that have the ‘essence’ of that plant.

They have been used for healing for thousands of years and are currently being used in many skincare products for their healing ability.

Just because they are derived from plants it does not mean that they are harmless. For those with certain skin types/ conditions, essential oils may not be suitable. It is always wise to do a patch test prior to using such products to prevent from any contra-indications.

Using it with a thicker carrier oil may prevent the essential oil from properly absorbing into the skin.

Read: Essential Oils in Skincare Cheat Sheet: Top 5 Essential Oils for Your Skin

Read: Essential Oils in Skincare: Fad or Fab?

10. Animal Testing

Also known as animal experimentationanimal research and in vivo testing (in a living organism), that seek to control the variables that affect the behavior or biological system under study. Basically to make sure that the product will be safe to be used on humans.

Some brands that may claim “cruelty-free” but if they sell their products in China and therefore would be subjected to animal testing. China is one of the countries that requires animal testing for all the skincare/ beauty products that are sold there.

One indication to look out for are certifications such as The Leaping Bunny (Cruelty-Free International), PETA etc.




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