How to Read Cosmetic Labels: What Those Symbols Mean

How to Read Cosmetic Labels: What Those Symbols Mean

You check the labels and ingredients listings on the foods you eat and the beverages you drink; however, not everyone remembers to do the same when buying skin care products and cosmetics. The ingredients in lotions, cleansers and makeup can find their way into your cells, bloodstream and the rest of your body.

The skin is the largest organ of the human body, and you should be discerning about what you put on it. The following is an overview of how to read product labels regarding the meaning of some of the most widely used symbols related to ingredients, animal testing standards and expiration dates on today’s personal care products:


Cosmetic Packaging Symbol Expiration DateMany cosmetic products can keep for long periods of time until opened. However, once the seal has been broken, there is a finite amount of time at which they’ll perform their best. In some cases, using the product after this time period could be unhealthy for you. Look for a number inside of the container to indicate how much time you have to use the product; for example, “12M” means “12 months.”

Most skin care and cosmetic products have a maximum freshness period of 30 months after opening and will feature a “best before” date. In the U.S., only OTC products such as sunscreen require hard and fast expiration dates to be included on the product.


e-mark estimated symbol

In the European Union, a lowercase “e” is the estimated sign (sometimes called an e-mark), which indicates that, across all of the cosmetics manufactured, the average volume or weight of the products is the same as the number on the label, per EU law. In other words, the volume or weight of the product is an average value. Packaging machines in the food and cosmetics industries are not completely accurate; there will always be a margin of inaccuracy.


Ecocert Logo

Ecocert is a certification program (non-governmental) for evaluating the organic contents of products. If the Ecocert Organic symbol appears on a label, it certifies that at least 95% of its plant-based ingredients and at least 10% of all ingredients are organic. If the Ecocert Natural symbol is on a product, it signifies that least 50% of its plant-based ingredients and at least 5% of all its ingredients by weight are organic.


USDA Organic Symbol

The USDA Organic seal 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.


Public Health Services Logo

If a product features the Public Health Services logo, this indicates that it is at least 70 percent organic and follows organic product processing and manufacturing guidelines. The mission of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is to protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of the United States. According to the PHSCC, this mission is achieved through rapid and effective response to public health needs, leadership and excellence in public health practices, and advancement of public health science.

Refer to Insert Symbol


Products from other countries may be required to include additional information about their contents in the form of a written insert. The product will indicate the presence of this information with an icon resembling a booklet being read.


If the product packaging features one or more of three bunny icons, it means the product or any of its ingredients have not been tested on animals.

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Fully Recyclable Symbol Logo Recycle

A round green and white interlocking arrows symbol indicates that the product packaging is fully recyclable. The FSC tree symbol lets consumers know any paper that was used in the product was not done so in a way that was detrimental to any forest.

The Whole Foods company has its own symbol for healthy skin and body care products. It features a stylized image of a small sprout and indicates that it contains none of the 400 ingredients that Whole Foods has deemed unsafe and unacceptable.

This label helps ensure high-level ingredient sourcing, results, environmental impact and user safety. This label also indicates that minimal processing is used in making the product. The “EWG Verified” label also indicates high standards in processing and safety.


Non GMO Project Verified Symbol Logo

There is increasing concern for alarm regarding products that are made with GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. While this concern is the strongest regarding edible products, GMOs can also pose a potential risk when applied to the skin.

GMO products are relatively new and the long-term effects of their use are not yet known. Seeing the “Non-GMO Verified” label removes doubt about the presence of these lab-created ingredients and allows you to steer clear of them even in your skin care product choices and cosmetics.


Certified Gluten Free Logo SymbolAn increasing number of people are reporting sensitivity to gluten and, in some cases, celiac disease. For these people, avoiding the consumption of products containing gluten is extremely important. For those with extreme sensitivity, even coming into contact with gluten on their skin can pose a health risk. For these sensitive individuals, looking for the Gluten Free label can help to inform product choices and bring peace of mind.


Certified Vegan Logo

The Certified Vegan symbol appears on products that do not contain animal products or byproducts and that have not been tested on animals. The logo is easily visible to consumers interested in vegan products and helps vegans to shop without constantly consulting ingredient lists. It also helps companies recognize a growing vegan market, as well as bringing the word Vegan—and the lifestyle it represents—into the mainstream.

The Certified Vegan Logo is currently on thousands of products manufactured by over 800 companies, but not on every vegan product yet.

What you put on your skin is just as important as what you put in your body with the foods you eat. Your cells drink in the ingredients of skin care products just as your body drinks in nutrients from the foods you consume. 

Watching for key symbols on product packaging can help you to determine if a product will be good for you and align with your values; these symbols can also help you to avoid supporting products that use animal testing or contain GMOs.

Are you feeding your skin the very best products for your body’s total health and nutrition? If not, start paying attention to what’s on the labels and ingredients lists of the skin care products you buy. By making the best choices, you'll be a happier, healthier and more beautiful you!