The Truth About Cosmetic Labels
You may be surprised to learn that statements made on cosmetic labels are not reviewed and approved by Health Canada before they are permitted to be used on product labels or in advertisements.
For example, Health Canada requires that cosmetic companies self-assess the claims that they intend to use in their labelling and marketing to ensure that claims are truthful and not misleading. This means that the company must have evidence on file to support their label claims if they are ever questioned by a consumer (like you!), a competitor or a Health Canada Product Safety Officer.
First things first – any claim on a cosmetic must only refer to modification of your appearance (like make-up), and includes products for cleansing, moisturizing, and deodorizing products. So if you see a cosmetic product claiming to treat a disease or disorder, like psoriasis or offer a therapeutic effect like weight loss, or act on a cellular level (e.g. remove wrinkles or stimulate stem cells) – you know that the product you are looking at is questionable. So, if therapeutic claims are not permitted on cosmetics, then what claims can be made and what do they really mean? I have rounded up the most common label claims you are likely to see, and provided the interpretation that would render these claims truthful:
Not Tested on Animals / Cruelty Free
This is understood to mean that the finished cosmetic product that you have purchased (e.g. your lipstick) was not tested on animals. However, individual ingredients in your cosmetic may have been tested on animals. Whenever a new ingredient is introduced to the marketplace scientific studies, including animal testing may be required to demonstrate the safety of the ingredient. Additionally, these ingredients may have been tested on animals a long time ago when safety for the ingredient was first assessed, resulting in no animal testing on the current ingredients, but still with historical evidence of animal testing. In some places, like the EU, India, Israel, Turkey, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and Guatemala bans have been placed on animal testing of cosmetic ingredients which is a great start. However, in Canada, the USA and Australia animal testing for cosmetic ingredient is still permitted, so this is something to be aware of when purchasing from these countries.
Vegan is a lifestyle that is characterized by excluding products and practices that result in the exploitation of animals – whether this is in the diet, clothing or any other purpose. However, since there is no formal definition of veganism, there are different interpretations of what ingredients and products can be deemed vegan. Companies can choose to create their own standard for their cosmetic products to comply with may not align with the lifestyle choices made by a specific vegan consumer. For example, honey is acceptable for use by some vegans, but not all. Thus, a cosmetic company, may decide that honey is a permitted ingredient in their vegan products, under the “Vegan standard” that they have developed for their products, but not be considered permissible by all vegans. For consumers, looking for more clarity on the standard by which a product has been deemed “vegan” it is recommended to purchase a product from a company that has obtained external third-party certification on their products, which clearly indicate the ingredients and practices a company must comply with, in order to use a certification seal on their labels. Examples of Vegan Certification seals are:
Natural / Natural Sourced
This may be used to describe an ingredient or entire product and is generally defined as ingredients that are obtained from natural source materials and are minimally processed using simple processes like grinding, chopping or drying, an example of this would be an exfoliant product containing ground apricot pits to provide the exfoliating action. Where an ingredient has been obtained through extraction or isolation from the original plant material, but is not altered by processing, this ingredient would be considered to be “naturally sourced”. An example of this would be peppermint oil that was obtained from the peppermint plant using a cold pressing technique. Where an entire product has been labelled as “natural” this means that every ingredient in the product would be considered “natural”. If any synthetic ingredients (including colour additives) are present in the product, this would make this product claim false. With that being said, there is a general assumption among consumers that "natural" cosmetic products are better than similar ones using synthetic ingredients, as the term “natural” is typically associated with “safe”. However, this is simply not the case, to put this in perspective, arsenic can be natural, but is assuredly not safe for use in a cosmetic. Moreover, a synthetic duplicate of a “natural” ingredient has the same composition, and in many cases and can be beneficial in that it can be a purer, more stable ingredient that gives the product a longer usable life and limits harvesting plants and animals that may be endangered. It is best to do your research when looking for natural cosmetic ingredients and products to determine if they are natural and equitable for the environment.
Dermatologist Tested/Doctor Tested / Ophthalmologist Tested
This means that the product or ingredients have been tested to determine if the product of ingredients would cause eye or skin irritation, where a Dermatologist or Ophthalmologist was involved at some point. However, under the Cosmetic regulations, it is up to the Company to determine product safety – there are no specific number or type of tests that are required to confirm that the product or ingredients are not irritants.
This means that at least one Dermatologist has provided an endorsement of the product. Although, it is recommended that the company has conducted a survey demonstrating that a substantial proportion of dermatologists selected at random recommend this product in their regular practice.
Written by Jacintha Roberts, B.ENG, M.ENG
Jacintha Roberts is an Engineer, and Director of Regulatory Affairs at dicentra, specializing in the safety and quality of food, dietary supplements, natural health products (NHPs), non-prescription drugs, cosmetics, medical devices and consumer health products. She has previously worked in the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) of Health Canada.
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