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Understanding the Symbols on Your Cosmetic Products

Continuing on to Pt 2 of understanding your product labels, we are going to dive right into the symbols you see on the labels of your products. These will typically be on the back of your product near the ingredients list or the barcode, but some may also be located on the front. It’s important to know what each symbol indicates so you not only know what the product is, but you can also identify when symbols are legitimate and when they have been placed there by the company under false pretense. Unfortunately, there are many ways companies can fall under the radar when it comes to making and getting away with false claims on their product labels so, it’s always nice to know what to look for. While a company listing out what their product may or may not contain doesn’t necessarily mean they are making false claims, if they are using made up logos or only have things listed out in text, it most likely means that they have not had their products inspected to be qualified/certified by official organizations. The symbols I will talk about are going to be the ones commonly found on most products, but they are by no means the only symbols you may see on your products. It’s always a good idea to keep furthering your knowledge by doing a little more research on your own.

*All images used in the post were from Google and I do not own the rights to any of them, nor did I make them myself.*

  1. PAO (Period After Opening)– If your product does not have a digital expiration date on the label, it may have a PAO symbol instead. The symbol will have a number followed by the letter “M” (for months) dictating how long the product will last once it has been opened.
  2. “Best Before End Of” (BBE) Date– The hourglass symbol is another type of expiration notification on your product. This indicates that your product only has a shelf life of 30 months whether it’s been opened or not. The both the BBE and PAO symbols are only required to be on product labels in the European Union.
  3. Estimated Mark (“quantité estimée”)- Straight from Wiki: “this letter indicates the quantity of the product in a batch of packages shall not be less than the nominal quantity stated on the label; none of the packages marked have a negative error greater than twice the tolerable negative error (since no such package may bear the sign). The tolerable negative error is related to the nominal quantity and varies between 9 per cent on packages nominally 50 g (1.8 oz) or 50 ml (1.8 imp fl oz; 1.7 US fl oz) or less, to 1.5 per cent on packages nominally 1 kg (2.2 lb) or 1 litre (0.22 imp gal; 0.26 US gal) or more. The tolerable error decreases as nominal quantity increases, and is done by alternating intervals where there is a percentage error and intervals where there is a fixed error (and thus over those intervals the percentage error decreases).” So, basically this symbol indicates that you aren’t getting cheated with the quantity in your product. Products must contain the amount that is listed on the packaging (or VERY close to it) and there is only a small margin for error. This symbol is typically located next to the product quantity measurement.
  4. The Mobius Loop– A not so common name for a very common symbol. This three arrowed triangle means that the product packaging is recyclable.
  5. ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System (RIC)- While similar, this symbol is not to be confused with the Mobius Loop. RICs are a set of symbols appearing on plastic products that identify the plastic resin out of which the product is made. This helps with sorting once at a recycling facility.
  6. Green Dot– a European symbol that lets consumers who see the logo know that the manufacturer of the product contributes to the cost of recovery and recycling.
  7. Cruelty-Free– cruelty free products are products that are not tested on animals. This does not always mean they are vegan, though. Cruelty-free products can still use animal byproducts and keep their cruelty-free status as long as whatever byproduct is being used is obtained humanely (honey and/or beeswax for example). Contrary to popular belief, there are only 3 official symbols for products that have been determined cruelty-free by an outside organization. Companies can in fact add their own false “cruelty-free” symbol to their packaging if they choose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the company isn’t cruelty-free or that they are lying about their status, it just means that they are not officially certified through one of these three organizations. It is important to know that a company can claim to be “cruelty-free,” but if they don’t have an official logo, it could mean that they sell their products in countries where it is required by law to test on animals (i.e. China). Some companies have pulled out of selling in these countries to keep their cruelty-free status, but not all have. If you have a very strong stance against animal testing, it may also be good to know that just because a product/company is cruelty-free, does not mean their hands are completely clean. Some companies are owned by parent companies who do still test on animals so, it’s in your best interest to dig a little deeper to make sure you know where the products are coming from. I personally try to use all/only cruelty-free items in my home and on myself and I highly suggest others do the same!
  8. Vegan– Products that are labeled vegan contains zero animal products or byproducts and are not tested on animals. These three labels were the only ones that I could find that had real, verified testing, but there could be more that I missed. Again, if you want to be 100% certain, check the product company’s website for more info.
  9. USDA Organic Seal: This indicates that at least 95% of the product’s ingredients are organic. Manufacturers have to be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be legally able to use the seal on product labels and packaging.
  10. Ecocert Logo– Ecocert has a certification for products that claim to be natural as well as a separate certification for products that claim to be both natural and organic. For a product to be certified as natural, it must have a minimum of 50% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 5% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming. For the product to be considered natural and organic the product must contain a minimum of 95% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming.
  11. UVA Seal– This indicates a product has at least the minimum level of UVA protection required (usually SPF 15). While this symbol is beneficial, if you’re shopping for sun protection, you want your product to cover both UVA and UVB rays, so it is better to look for the words “Broad Spectrum” on your label.
  12. Refer to Insert– This symbol means all of the product information could not be fit onto the product packaging and the rest can be found in a small leaflet book that should (hopefully) be included in your product’s packaging.
  13. Flame Symbol– This means your product is highly flammable (found most commonly on aerosols). While I do feel this one is fairly obvious, you just can never be too sure haha.
  14. NSF (National Science Foundation) Logo– NSF tests products to verify the absence of contaminants ranging from microbiological organisms and heavy metals to chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA). They also confirm label claims, including “free of” and “made with organic ingredients.” QAI, a leading organic certification organization that is part of the NSF International family of companies, can certify personal care products to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and to NSF/ANSI 305: Personal Care Products Containing Organic Ingredients. Products that contain at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients, but which do not meet the NOP food-focused requirements due to cosmetic industry chemical processes and production methods, can be certified to NSF/ANSI 305.

Hopefully these will now make a little more sense and will be keys that help you with making future purchases! Next week, we will be breaking down ingredients in your products and what they are best for. I’ll also be discussing which ingredients work best for which skin types and what ingredients to try to avoid in your products for optimal results!


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