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What’s your beauty IQ?
An exclusive excerpt from ShopSmart

Take our quiz and find out how to tell when cosmetics claims might be bogus and when they’re for real. (see the answers at the end)

1. Before a new cosmetic goes on the market, the Food and Drug Administration must...
a. Test the product for safety.
b. Review data from the manufacturer supporting specific product claims.
c. Review the label for accuracy.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.

2. A “natural” cosmetic must...
a. Contain ingredients that are extracted from plants or animals.
b. Contain no artificial colors, fragrances, or preservatives.
c. Be less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.

3. A “hypoallergenic” product must...
a. Be tested and prove to be less likely to cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
b. Not contain common allergens.
c. Be less likely than other products to cause irritation.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.

4. Which of the following claims means that the product cannot contain any of the specified ingredient?
a. Alcohol-free.
b. Unscented.
c. Oil-free.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.

5. A noncomedogenic or nonacnegenic product...
a. Usually does not contain common pore-clogging ingredients.
b. Must be tested and shown not to cause pimples in acne-prone people.
c. Must be oil-free.
d. None of the above.

6. “Cruelty-free” means a product must...
a. Have no ingredients that were tested on animals.
b. Not be tested on animals.
c. None of the above.

7. Which of the following assures you that the product was tested before it went to market?
a. Sensitivity tested.
b. Dermatologist tested.
c. Allergy tested.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.

8. If the label says “made with organic ingredients,” that means it must have...
a. No synthetic substances.
b. At least one ingredient that’s organic.
c. At least 70 percent organic ingredients.
d. The term may be meaningless.

9. Can you spot the phony in this list of cosmetics claims?
a. “...contains enhanced dermosmoothing D/Contraxol+ and elastin-enhancing Fibrelastine to help renew elastin in just 48 hours.”

b. “...scientifically advanced skin care discovery that protects skin from the electromagnetic effects of today’s modern-day conveniences like cellphones and computers.”

c. “...exclusive multi-patent pending Bo-Hylurox technology...the at-home alternative to line-relaxing injections.”

d. “...the first and only thermophyllic serum specifically developed to intensify Dermal-Epidermal Junction integrity.”


1. e. The FDA does not approve cosmetics products (except for color additives) or their packaging before they go to market. Cosmetics companies are responsible for making products that are safe and accurately labeled. If the government suspects a product is hazardous or mislabeled, it can issue warning letters and go to court to make the company comply. But we found that some cosmetics companies that received warnings about deceptive drug-like claims in the past few years were still marketing products with similar claims.

2. e. “Natural” is not a legally defined term for use in cosmetics, so it can mean anything. Products with that label can contain ingredients extracted from plants but also have artificial colors, preservatives, or fragrances. However, even truly all-natural products are not necessarily safer or more healthful for your skin than ones containing synthetic ingredients. Some natural ingredients are highly allergenic. “Poison ivy is natural,” says Amy Newburger, M.D., a dermatologist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. “Give me a chemical that I know has been tested for purity and safety any day.”

3. e. The FDA has tried to legally define “hypoallergenic” but was struck down by the courts. While companies can use the term to refer to products that contain fewer known allergens, they can slap the label on virtually anything. Fragrances tend to have the most allergenic components. If you’re reaction prone, stay away from strongly scented products and always do a patch test with a new product.

4. e. “From a regulatory perspective, these terms have no significance and may be subject to misinterpretation,“ says Stanley Milstein, Ph.D., special assistant to the director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Oil-free” products can contain ingredients that might have a slick or oily feel to them. “Alcohol-free” products are usually devoid of ethyl or isopropyl alcohol but could still have other alcohols (look for ingredients ending in “ol”). “Unscented” cosmetics usually have no perceptible odor but might contain small amounts of masking fragrances used to block the smells of other ingredients. Still, they tend to have less fragrance than scented products and so might be a better choice if you’re allergy prone.

5. a. Although the FDA has not specifically defined those terms, companies usually use them to mean that a product doesn’t contain ingredients known to clog pores. So if you have acne, you can look for such a label. Keep in mind that some companies do tests on rabbit ears to see if ingredients are comedogenic, but those tests might not be reliable, and the results might not apply to humans. In fact, some noncomedogenic ingredients can actually cause pimples.

6. c. The terms “cruelty-free” or “no animal testing” are not legally defined. Some companies might avoid animal testing, relying instead on information from scientific literature, lab tests, or tests on humans. Others might use those claims on a product even when they commission independent laboratories to test individual ingredients on animals. Your best bet is to look for the Leaping Bunny symbol, signifying that a product conforms to a corporate standard set by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, an international coalition of animal protection groups.

7. e. Many big-name cosmetics makers do test their products, but because the FDA doesn’t require supporting evidence for any claims before products go to market, you can’t count on marketing copy to be true. False claims are illegal, but since terms such as “allergy tested” or “dermatologist tested” are not formally defined, it might be difficult for the FDA to take action against the companies that wrongly use those words.

8. c. The government’s rules for organic cosmetics are more lax than those for most organic food items. Questionable chemicals could be used in the nonorganic portion of organic cosmetics. To avoid those chemicals, check to see if the product is labeled “100% organic,” meaning it must contain only organic ingredients. “Organic” means that it has at least 95 percent organic ingredients. “Made with organic ingredients” means that it has at least 70 percent organic contents besides water and salt.

9. Psych! They’re all real claims. We just couldn’t top the copywriting pros. “Some of the technical terms represent end products of considerable basic and applied scientific research,” Milstein says. “Others may well be empty, pseudoscientific-sounding platitudes.” In other words, don’t believe everything you read, even if it’s on a scientific-sounding label.
Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.