Have you ever looked at a beauty product label and wondered what in the world half the terms mean? Whether you've been in the skincare game for a few months or a few decades, you're probably at least semi-acquainted with the ever-growing list of beauty trends, buzzwords, and marketing slang. Much of the staple jargon—like "non-comedogenic" and "clean"—has been adequately covered already, so we're shifting our focus to some of the more recent terminology that's firmly planted in the skincare lexicon. Consider this your ultimate cheat sheet to beauty labels.
The world of sunscreen has its very own (and very long) list of jargon. What you need to know about “broad spectrum” sunscreen is that it protects your skin from the two primary types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA and UVB.
“UVA is most responsible for causing signs of aging, and UVB is most responsible for sunburns and skin cancer,” explains Muneeb Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who’s amassed a following of 6 million on TikTok for his skin expertise.
Every sunscreen you use ought to be broad spectrum in order to be fully protected. Fortunately, almost all modern sunscreens are broad spectrum, so that should be easy enough.
This phrase is similar to “dermatologist tested,” only it refers to products being tested in a clinical setting. Dr. Shah says that a lot of products are clinically tested, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they had any results that were beneficial. Think of it this way: anyone can take a test, but it doesn’t mean you got an A.
“Most reputable skin care brands do test for safety on at least 30 participants prior to releasing a product. Now some brands take it a step further and will do testing for efficacy,” says Dr. Shah. “Most of the results are participant-reported, or reported by the company doing the testing. Basically, the testing can be very biased."
While testing for safety, stability, and longevity is super important, Dr. Shah says not to hang your hat on the phrase “clinically tested.”
You’ve likely seen the term “color correcting” on tinted moisturizers, BB creams, or CC creams (which is where the name “CC” actually comes from). This typically refers to a temporary visible evening of the complexion, as opposed to a physical permanent change.
“Most color correcting products have ingredients that balance out skin tone. For example, the addition of green oxides in skincare products help to balance out redness,” says Dr. Shah. “Some products, like Dr. Jart’s ($52; sephora.com), have ingredients that actually treat underlying redness, like centella asiatica.”
Dermatologist Tested and Approved
Here’s another marketing phrase that gets consumers pumped up, but doesn’t actually hold as much weight as you’d think.
“Dermatologist tested and approved means that a dermatologist reviewed the clinical data and ingredients before the product was brought to the market. This term means little with respect to the aesthetics or effectiveness of the product itself,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a NYC-based board-certified dermatologist.
While it’s nice to have that stamp of approval from an expert, it’s important to take this phrase with a grain of salt.
DNA repair is the epitome of a skincare buzzword. The truth is that it’s a pretty loose and undefined term—kind of like how “clean” has its own definition depending on the brand.
“True DNA repair is done by enzymes in our own body that can recognize DNA damage, remove the DNA damage, replace it with a normal piece of genetic code, and then glue it back together,” explains Dr. Shah. “Some products that claim to be DNA repairing will be antioxidants that help to protect against DNA damage. Additionally, some people will claim that sunscreen is DNA repairing.”
With that in mind, there actually is a burgeoning category of skincare products that may go above and beyond this loose definition.
“They contain enzymes similar to our own repair mechanisms, like photolyase seen in Neova DNA Total Repair ($89; dermstore.com). These are promising, but more studies are needed,” says Dr. Shah. “There is one enzyme that was developed almost a decade ago that was actually found to repair DNA—T4 endonuclease V—but it really hasn’t taken off in the mainstream.”
Epidermal Growth Factors
Often abbreviated EGF, epidermal growth factors have really picked up momentum in the last several years. For example, Bioeffect EGF Serum ($165; amazon.com) has made a splash, and platelet rich plasma (PRP)—an add-on treatment in many in-office procedures—contains growth factors, as well.
“Simply put, growth factors are messengers that tell our cells to behave in a youthful, healthy manner to regenerate,” says Dr. Zeichner. “However, it is unclear how effective these growth factors really are and if they even penetrate into the skin at all.”
Basically, scientific data has yet to catch up to the excitement, but EGFs show promise. This is a space to watch.
According to the FDA, hypoallergenic cosmetics are simply products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products. The problem is that there are no actual federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term "hypoallergenic,” meaning that it can mean whatever a particular company wants it to mean.
So why do companies use it? The word is commonly used for marketing to lead consumers to believe that products will be gentler to their skin than non-hypoallergenic cosmetics, but don’t take that to mean that they absolutely won’t give you an adverse reaction. The truth is that there is no such thing as a universally "hypoallergenic" cosmetic. Both dermatologists and the FDA agree that it has very little meaning, so you should always head into a new skincare product with caution by patch testing.
The word “patented” may trigger something in your mind that says, “Ooh, this must be a good one!” In reality, though, patented technology simply means that a product uses technology that’s protected by a patent. It doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality or efficacy.
“Who owns the patent is another story, as it can be owned by a large company that licenses out the use to many different companies, so it may not be unique to that particular product,” says Dr. Zeichner.
The moral of the story is to not let the word “patented” persuade you too much. It’s neither inherently good nor bad.
“Protein agents—also known as peptides—are molecules of various sizes that tell our skin cells to do a specific job,” says Dr. Zeichner. “For example, some proteins reduce inflammation, others brighten the skin, and others enhance cell turnover.” In that sense, you can think of protein agents as little messengers who work overtime for your skin.
You might have seen these terms (a number with a hyphen and free) on nail polish bottles. Free is a term that means a nail polish is free of a certain amount of toxic chemical ingredients.
This includes 3- free, 5- free, 7-free, 9-free, or 10-free, with 10-free being considered the purest of all 'free' nail polishes. That means they are created without 10 of the most common chemicals found in nail polishes: toluene, Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, Camphor, Ethyl Tosylamide, Xylene, parabens, animal by-products, and fragrance. In other words, the higher the number, the better the formula.