Skincare and makeup products are a big business, and manufacturers are looking for an ever-expanding share of the pie by touting the benefits of their products to women who are more conscious than ever of their own health and the health of the environment.

But what do the labels on those jars and bottles really mean? Before you shell out for that seemingly-ideal moisturizer, read on:

Hypoallergenic. If you've got sensitive skin or suffer from any kind of allergy, a product that advertises itself as hypoallergenic must be safe for you to use, right? Perhaps, but there's no guarantee. "The true definition means 'less allergenic than usual," but there is no set of rules governing what ingredients are avoided, or how much of a reduction in allergy potential there is," says Jessica Krant, MD, MPH, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York and founder of Art of Dermatology LLC. She adds that people can become allergic to all kinds of ingredients, so even something billed as hypoallergenic can cause significant allergies in certain people.

Organic/natural. Organics have exploded in the past few years, with more and more shoppers looking for produce, meat, dairy, and nonfood products that are untainted by pesticides. Unfortunately, the terms "organic" and "natural" are not officially regulated by the government, so the claims can be misleading. According to Krant, "organic" can mean the product was made from something that was grown without pesticides but had chemicals added to it later, or it can mean there is a single organic ingredient along with other nonorganic compounds. Your protection when shopping for the purest, safest products? Look for something marked "certified organic" and make sure you understand the rules of that particular certifying organization before buying.

strong>Noncomedogenic. Products labeled as noncomedogenic ideally will not contribute to the development of blackheads or whiteheads in your skin. Krant, however, says that there is a long list of common skincare-product ingredients that are known to cause clogged pores, and some of them may be in anti-acne and moisturizing products. While there's no guarantee that a particular product won't aggravate acne-prone skin, you're still better off looking for items labeled as noncomedogenic instead of those that make no such claim.

Fragrance free/unscented. Again, these terms have no official definition by the government. Products labeled "fragrance free" actually may emit a fragrance because the product itself has a natural scent-it's just that nothing artificial has been added.

Products labeled "unscented" may have been infused with an ingredient known as a masking fragrance that's designed to cancel out any natural scent. Not only can any of these fragrances aggravate allergies, they may be downright unsafe. "Some of the most common chemicals used for smell masking are phthalates, now known to have potential disruptive effects on our endocrine (hormonal) systems," says Krant.

Jessica Krant, MD, MPH, reviewed this article.


Jessica Krant, MD, MPH,