Learning To Read Your Cosmetics Label Can Save You Cash

Many over-the-top claims made by cosmetic companies already elicit eye-rolls. But did you realize that even promises made by your most-trusted brands might be suspect?

In our article researching the effectiveness of anti-aging creams, Highya discovered that the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees cosmetic labeling, doesn’t require manufacturers to test that their products live up to claims.

See also: Is This Stuff Working? A Look at Anti-Aging Creams

The only FDA standard that regulates cosmetic companies covers claims that would “create changes in the skin” — thereby classifying the ingredients as a pharmaceutical. 

What does that mean for consumers? 

That products with too-big promises likely can’t do all that they say. However, it’s not just claims of sculpting your jawline or erasing years from your face that are suspect. Here’s an objective look at which promised miracles might just be marketing jargon.

Debunking Common Cosmetics Claims

By using catchy phrases and scientific-sounding reasoning, cosmetic companies are able to make their product packaging really “pop” on the shelf. Here are a few common claims that just might be using improper advertising to capture your attention:

Pore Minimizing Products

The notion that you can minimize pore size has been around for centuries. In older times, a splash of cold water would appear to do the trick. Now, we know that pore size is genetically determined. Sadly, that means pores cannot be made smaller. [1]

So what are pores about? These miniscule openings are actually the location of hair follicles on your skin. Inside are sebaceous glands that help produce the oils to keep your skin soft and smooth. That also means those with more oily skin are genetically predisposed to bigger pores. Pores can appear larger than normal if dirt is trapped inside, or if a mix of dead skin cells and sebum clog up the opening, forming a pimple that stretches out the skin.

In short, those “pore minimizing” products simply fill in the tiny ridges and openings, making your skin appear flat. Instead of slathering on an additional product, focus on regular cleansing and moisturizing for the best effects.

Eye-Specific Creams

Cosmetics companies claim that the reason you need a separate eye cream is because the skin around your eyes is a little different from the rest of your face. While it’s true that the skin under the eyes is thinner than in other places, the area is actually no more sensitive than other areas from the neck up (assuming you aren’t applying products directly to your eyeball). [2]

So, what causes your under-eye area to show signs of aging first? The skin around your eyes gets a much greater workout than the rest of your face; every time you move your eyes, whether you squint, smile or widen them in surprise, you're working out the tiny muscles that eventually cause eye-area wrinkles. Additionally, the skin under the eyes can be prone to puffiness if excess fluid from allergies and sinus problems is allowed to build up.

That doesn’t mean you don’t need to moisturize the area. Under-eye skin is unique in that it doesn’t produce the same skin-softening oils as the rest of your face. However, there are no scientifically valid studies showing so-called special ingredients for the eye area are necessary for protection. A quick look at the ingredients list of any eye cream will show minimal variation from your standard facial moisturizers — certainly not enough to justify their often exorbitant prices.

Lash Growth Products

After the successful launch of prescription-only Latisse, many companies have jumped on the lash-growth bandwagon. By now, cosmetics shelves are stocked with products, from serums to mascaras, that claim to make your fringe fabulous.

However, most over-the-counter alternatives are only colorless liquid eyeliners with some peptides or exotic plant extracts thrown in, minus any research showing they can affect lash growth. One company, RapidLash, was producing highly-reviewed results. However, they were forced to remove their active ingredient (isopropyl cloprostenate) after Latisse manufacturer Allergan won a case claiming RapidLash’s ingredients worked more like a drug than a cosmetic. [3]

For consumers, Allergan’s win points back to the FDA’s distinction between pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, reminding us that if a company claims their product creates noticeable change without a prescription, it’s likely too good to be true. 

Scar Treatment Creams

With summer looming, many of us are anticipating the return of skimpier, skin-baring outfits by getting back into the gym. But aside from losing winter flab, there’s another concern that comes with the start of shorts season: unsightly scars.

But consumers turning to over-the-counter treatments — the gels, creams, oils and sheets available at the local drugstore — should know that a review of these treatments found that most, unfortunately, don’t work. [4]

What can you do to keep scars at bay? The only proven method is to keep a cut or wound clean and covered. Don’t pick at the scab that eventually forms and don’t use products with alcohol or fragrance in them. Finally, for the most minimal marks, keep the skin out of sunlight until the wound has completely healed. [5]

Split-End Solutions

Split ends are caused by repeated wear and tear on your hair strands. The biggest causes of split ends are heat from styling tools, exposure to sun, and hair dyes. The outer layer of the hair gets worn down, eventually causing the end of the strand to fray.

The frayed ends of your hair follicle are much like chipping a fingernail — once the damage is done, there’s no solution (save glue) that can bind those fibers back together.

However, that doesn’t stop companies from selling hair care products that “mend” or “repair” split ends. But those claims of repairing treatments are bogus. Instead, split-end products simply make strands lie flat, temporarily reducing their frayed appearance. [6]

To avoid the fray, be gentle with your hair: Reduce the use of heated styling tools. Don’t over-dye or over-brush. And most importantly, get regular trims to keep hair looking healthy.

What About The Promises On Each Product Package?

While what’s inside your favorite cosmetic must be listed, often the label itself is prone to misleading promises. Here is a closer look at what cosmetic companies say vs. what those statements really mean:

Patented Formula

Packaging will often promise that a particular product can do something no other competitor can. But what’s behind those one-of-a-kind claims? All a patent means is that a manufacturer has the right to a specific chemical, or combination of chemicals, for a period of time — not that the specific product delivers unique results.

Dermatologist Recommended

Cosmetics companies commonly claim that their product has received an MD stamp of approval. However, to make such a claim, the dermatologist in question doesn’t even need to be board certified! Additionally, individuals often offer endorsements in exchange for a fee, which negates any premise of an objective review.

Clinically Proven

Whether promising to work in clinical tests or a lab-environment, stating that a product has been “clinically proven” certainly sounds scientific! Although, scientists warn that not all clinical trials are created equal, and results may be subject to a considerable amount of bias.

Organic Ingredients

Are you of the mind that nature knows best? A label stating “USDA Organic” is, indeed, a legitimate claim. The seal confirms that what’s inside has been formulated with 95% or more organic materials (stuff from living matter) and that pesticides or antibiotics were left out.


The claim of “hypoallergenic” promises that a product won’t irritate sensitive skin. However, there are no federal standards regulating what constitutes as a hypoallergenic product, meaning that cosmetic companies don’t have to be gentle when slapping the label on their newest skincare product.


Much like hypoallergenic, “non-comedogenic” refers to products that supposedly won’t cause acne flare-ups or clog your pores. Once again, there aren’t any federal standards regulating what is considered acne-safe, leaving sensitive-skinned consumers at the whim of each company’s labeling standards.

Repairing & Contouring

These terms imply that a product will fix problem skin, be it sagging, wrinkles, acne marks, or by just delivering an invigorated glow. However, promises of repair closely toe the FDA’s line differentiating pharmaceutical promises vs. cosmetic ones. Once again, if a product declares the ability to create noticeable change without a prescription, they’re likely fibbing.

Bottom Line On Product Packaging Promises

Deciphering cosmetics claims can easily leave consumers feeling frazzled, but your best defense against beauty aisle money wasters is having realistic expectations for what over-the-counter products can actually achieve. Here are a few more facts to help make sure you’re less likely to be disappointed:

Expensive doesn't mean better! 

The truth is that there are good and bad products in all price ranges. Spending more doesn't necessarily mean you're getting a better product and, in fact, way too often it means you’re being sold some overblown claims.

Cosmetics salespeople aren't skincare experts. 

Although most cosmetics salespeople mean well and are not deliberately lying to you, they are trained to sell products—period. They frequently don't understand much, if anything, about skin, and the majority definitely don't understand cosmetic formulation or what works and doesn't work for different skin types. 

A single product is never the answer, nor is a single ingredient.

Just like your body requires a complex diet of assorted beneficial foods to keep you healthy, your skin requires a similarly complex array of ingredients. In addition, different skin types require different products to meet different needs, such as oily, dry, or combination skin, skin that is characterized by rosacea, sun damage, brown spots, red marks, acne, or wrinkles, and so on.

Return a product that doesn't work. 

If you buy a product that doesn't live up to its claims, take it back for a refund! It's not your fault if a moisturizer didn't lift sagging skin as claimed or if an eye cream didn't eliminate dark circles or puffiness. If more people returned products whose claims didn't come true for them, the cosmetics industry might take notice of the demand for more realistic promises of results.

And if you’re feeling swayed by captivating claims? Remember that the FDA doesn’t allow manufacturers to sell cosmetics with drug-life effects or make medical claims without a prescription. Instead, stick to skin care basics combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise to put your best face forward.

Interested in a particular product or feel strongly about your results? Check out our reviews of popular skincare and cosmetic products or share your own review on our product pages!


  1. Real Simple: Can You Shrink Your Pores?
  2. Paula's Choice: EYE CREAMS: DO YOU NEED ONE?
  4. LA Times: Do scar remedies really work?
  5. WebMD: Wound Care: Your Essential First Aid Care Guide
  6. SELF: Can You Repair Split Ends?

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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