What those ‘Dermatologist Recommended’ and ‘Clinically Proven’ labels on your lotions and soap actually mean

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All of the soaps, scrubs, and shampoos that hang out in your bathroom are littered with statements like “doctor recommended” and a whole list of alleged advantages that separate it from the competing product you left behind at the store.

But, in the not-so-highly-regulated world of cosmetics, it’s tough to sort through all that jargon and really get to the bottom of what you’re actually putting on your skin.

Here’s how to decode all the statements on the products you use every day.


‘Clinically proven’

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Flickr/Fieryspirit

What it sounds like: The product has gone through strict clinical trial testing on large sample sizes of human volunteers.

What it means: Anywhere from one person to a million people have tested out the product in an experimental setting. Robert Lochhead, a polymer science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi told Business Insider, “Clinically approved means somewhere, a doctor has put it on someone and said it’s OK.” And it matters what the word “clinically” is followed by. If it’s say, “clinically proven to heal wounds,” that would make the cosmetic now a drug, since it’s altering the body, which would require much more oversight by the FDA.


‘Active ingredient’

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Joe Raedle/Getty

What it sounds like: Something in this product is alive!

What it means: The FDA defines an active ingredient as something that seeks to change your body in some way, whether it be preventing an illness or clearing up your skin. Active ingredients are what differentiate cosmetics from drugs: Cosmetics can skirt through with far less regulation than drugs, which the FDA has a lot more oversight on.


‘SPF’ in non-sunscreen products

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What it sounds like: Your skin will be substantially protected from the sun’s rays.

What it means: Many cosmetics companies use small amounts of SPF to keep their products themselves safe from the sun, said Lochhead. So if your foundation has “sunscreen” listed as the third or fourth ingredient down, don’t rely on it as your first line of defense against sun damage.


‘Acne face wash’

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Flickr user Saluda UdeA

What it sounds like: A solution to the pesky zits that keep bothering you even into adulthood.

What it means: All acne cleansers/lotions/assorted other creams also contain the active ingredients that classify them as drugs, meaning they likely have more regulatory oversight than cosmetics that do not. The two most commonly used active ingredients in today’s acne products are hydrogen peroxide and salicylic acid, which work to fend off blooms of bacteria that irritate your skin.


‘Extra whitening’

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What it sounds like: A substance that will clean your teeth and brighten your smile.

What it means: Toothpaste counts as a drug because it contains sodium fluoride or stannous fluoride, compounds that prevent cavities. That means it has to undergo more strict regulation than the average cosmetic. Unfortunately when it comes to the ‘whitening’ aspect of toothpastes, there are generally no active ingredients working to guarantee that your pearly whites get even whiter.


‘Dermatologist recommended’

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Flickr/Mike Mozart

What it sounds like: Dermatologists everywhere vouch for this product.

What it means: For things like dandruff shampoo (also a drug because it treats a medical condition), the ‘dermatologist recommended’ label does carry some weight. But if it’s on your average soap or lotion: “That’s a very weak claim,” Lochhead said.


‘Guanine’ — no, it’s not guano (a.k.a. bird excrement)

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Flickr/Alex

What it sounds like: There’s poop in your mascara.

What it means: While guanine does derive from the word guano, the crystalline substance in your mascara tube doesn’t come from birds or bats. Instead, it comes from fish scales. Guanine, which is found in a number of other cosmetics such as shampoos and skin care products, is what makes the mascara dark and opaque.


‘All natural’

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Flickr/Memphis CVB

What it sounds like: This product is superior to your average chemical-filled product.

What it means: The “natural” label can be a complete mixed bag. For companies like Lush, which pride themselves in handmade products, the goal may be to steer clear of the latest chemicals that haven’t had as much testing as tried-and tru-materials. But for other companies, “natural” could mean chemicals that aren’t tested, Lochhead said. And products carrying the label may also not carry critical preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria.


Fruit ingredients

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Lindsey Turner/flickr

What it sounds like: A marketing gimmick to make a product seem worth purchasing.

What it means: Honey, pomegranate seeds, and avocado oil are all fun to see added to your favorite cosmetics. But are they actually helping? In some cases, yes. Honey is actually a pretty good cleanser and pomegranate seeds are great for dry skin.