Decoding Cosmetic Labels

estimated sign
period-after-opening symbol
Leaping Bunny
Refer to Insert
Green Dot
Certified Vegan
Premium Body Care
resin identification codes
EU Cosmebio

Contrary to popular belief, being able to decipher those tiny, vague symbols on packaging labels is not something that just happens when you become an adult. Same goes for doing your taxes, eating more vegetables, and responsibly using a credit card—except for a reminder that Tax Day is April 15th, you'll find no help here for those. Sorry, and godspeed. But what we can help you with are those cosmetic labels. Here are the 12 most common labeling symbols, and what they stand for:

The 'e' [1]
What it doesn't mean: This product was produced by Ryan Seacrest.
What it does mean: The lowercase 'e' is a symbol called the "estimated sign." Found on products produced in the EU, it ensures that the amount of product in the packaging is correct. "8 fl oz" is guaranteed to be eight fluid ounces, and the packaging prevents any altering of the amount of the contents without opening or destroying it. Basically it says you're getting what you paid for—volume-wise.

The floating lid and jar with a number and an 'M' on it [2]
What it doesn't mean: Lids off to 30 million sold, and counting!
What it does mean: The "period-after-opening symbol" tells you how long your product is good for after opening. If the open jar has a 12M on it, know that it will expire 12 months after breaking the seal, popping the lid, etc.

The content bunny [3]
What it doesn't mean: Only happy bunnies were killed in the making of this product.
What it does mean: No bunnies—not even the little jerks that bite—were killed in the making of the product. The internationally recognized "Leaping Bunny" symbol is the highest guarantee that no animals were harmed—in all stages of development and production, and it goes for all parties involved, including labs and suppliers. The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) audits companies wishing to use the symbol on their packaging to be sure that they adhere to the symbol's strict cruelty-free standards.

The open flame [4]
What it doesn't mean: Great with graham crackers!
What it does mean: The "flammable" symbol means that under no circumstances should you introduce the product to flames or high heat. So while Virginia Slims look wicked elegant with your new half-inch acrylics, wait 'til after you've painted them the glossiest, most chemical-laden Sox shade of red to light up.

The amputated hand studying for midterms [5]
What it doesn't mean: Read a book, it's not all about looks.
What it does mean: The "Refer to Insert" symbol means that the label on the actual container doesn't include all the info on the product, so the manufacturer has included a handy leaflet for reference. Which you'll keep just beside the product on your vanity forever and always.

The triangle made of ribbon arrows [6]
What it doesn't mean: There's a Human Centipede joke here somewhere...
What it does mean: This is the internationally recognized symbol for recycling, and indicates that the packaging is recyclable. If a percentage is present, it means that the manufacturer used that amount of post-consumer waste in making the packaging.

The cuddling arrows [7]
What it doesn't mean: This product endorses 'Swirl' as the very best fro-yo flavor.
What it does mean: Companies pay to use the "Green Dot" symbol on their packaging. The license fee goes toward the cost of recovering and recycling various materials, like those drop-off bins outside of grocery stores and elementary schools. The symbol alerts you that the brand from which you're buying supports those efforts—through that fee. It's cyclical, if you think about it. Like recycling!

The vegan heart [8]
What it doesn't mean: Made with love by adorable supervillains.
What it does mean: The "Certified Vegan" symbol means that not only was the product not tested on animals, but it also contains no animal products.

The "NSF" [9]
What it doesn't mean: Not safe for, like, anything.
What it does mean: The "NSF" symbol means that the product is made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

The "What's that Whole Foods symbol doing on this unrelated brand?" symbol [10]
What it doesn't mean: This brand is made by Whole Foods, and Whole Foods says it's cool to use.
What it does mean: Not happy with the confusing standards of other "natural" labeling symbols, at some point Whole Foods decided to take matters into their own hands. If a product boasts the "Premium Body Care" symbol, it contains no parabens, sodium lauryl sulfates, and over 400 other ingredients Whole Foods has deemed not up to par. More here.

The triangle with a number inside and letters underneath [11]
What it doesn't mean: Letters can have hats, too.
What it does mean: These are resin identification codes, and appear on plastic packaging. They help determine which polymer was used in the plastic, and thus allow recyclers to sort properly. Because everybody knows that low-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate do not mix.

The French one [12]
What it doesn't mean: This product is automatically better than everything else in your medicine cabinet.
What it does mean: The EU's Cosmebio symbol signifies that the product contains at least 95 percent natural ingredients and does not contain synthetic coloring, fragrances, preservatives, or petrochemical products, or genetically modified ingredients.

—Annie Kreighbaum

Illustrations by Annie Kreighbaum.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Hai Yen Nguyen

    1. Love the drawings. 2. This being a beauty site and all, I've learned a lot of tricks as a loyal reader but this was possibly the most informative article ever. I don't know why, I feel like I've been let in on a little secret. All that information hidden in plain sight all these years and I just didn't know how to decipher it. Great work!

    • ITG Annie

      Why thank you! I was just curious myself, glad somebody else found it useful too :)

      • overanalyzer

        I always wondered about that e.

        • Lisalyn

          I used to know what it meant but totally forgot. Thanks for the reminder & for all the other great tips.

    • circafashion

      i agree, this article is so informative.

  • Mademoiselle nature

    Really nice article. I hope to see a post helping all the beauty fans to decrypt the INCI or the detailed composition of a beauty product.
    I like to see what I put on my skin :-)))))

  • Thu

    love love love this piece!

    great work annie!

  • Inkygrl

    This is great, thank you!

  • Mandy

    Really informative, and the drawings are adorable, but I wish the images were embedded throughout so that we didn't have to keep on scrolling up and down.

  • Julie

    Great info, thanks for sharing!

  • Catherine Dream

    Brilliant writing!

    Also, always wondered about that bloody 12M!

  • animalhandler

    I was painting my nails (OPI hong kong sunrise) as I read this, looked at the side of the bottle, realized I could now decode it's good for 24 months after opening, calculated that I'm putting expired shit on my food-holders, and then shrugged and carried on. Still, this was really informative and helpful!

  • Molly Beaupre

    Great article Annie! This is important information to know and share. I feel so informed.

  • Tess @ Tips on Healthy Living

    Haha, great post! I've wondered about some of my cosmetic labels, and now the mystery is gone. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jessie

    Ur an angel for saving us......thanks A ton for this post

  • NoFilter Magazine

    Hilarious and informative. Thanks!

  • Tanni

    this article was very informative,
    it's basically everything one should know but most probably doesn't,
    you really did good research work there :)