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The truth behind those 'sensitive skin' product labels

All those label terms, from "sensitive skin" and "hypoallergenic" to "fragrance-free," might not mean what you think they mean.
/ Source: TODAY

Shopping for a new cream or lotion? Don’t be overly impressed by ointments that promise to be formulated “for sensitive skin” or “hypoallergenic.”

These terms are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the products could still irritate the skin or cause a reaction, said Dr. Rajani Katta, a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. She made the comments Friday during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t any labeling language that guarantees a product is hypoallergenic and suitable for sensitive skin,” Katta noted.

“Manufacturers may use certain language for marketing purposes, and the same terms may mean different things on different products.”

'Natural' isn't better

She also cautioned consumers against focusing too much on “natural” ingredients, noting that poison ivy is “all-natural,” too. Even if a natural ingredient is good for your skin, some products could mix it with additives or preservatives that could be harmful, Katta said.

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You may think terms like “fragrance-free” or “unscented” are pretty clear-cut, but they can also be misleading. Current labeling laws allow companies to use those descriptions on products that still include fragrance chemicals under certain circumstances, Katta said.

What's a consumer to do?

"The key is to understand your skin type, read labels and realize that the consumer is being taken in by words that are not necessarily regulated and mean something different to each manufacturer," Dr. Debra Wattenberg, a New York dermatologist, told TODAY.

Become familiar with a product's active ingredients, so if you know you're allergic to a particular ingredient — whether it's PABA or lanolin, for example — you can avoid it, she advised.

Then, look for specific ingredients that will help your skin type.

For dry skin

Look for products that contain hyaluronic acid because that's a very good hydrator that pulls water into your skin, Wattenberg said.

For combination skin

Learn about your own skin type and realize people often have a combination, so even though you may have acne-prone skin, that doesn't mean you always need harsh or drying acne-fighting ingredients.

And remember: Just because a label says the skin care product is "all natural" doesn't mean there aren't chemicals in it or that it's necessarily good for your skin, Wattenberg noted.

RELATED: Can 'all-natural' products irritate your skin? Yes, and here's how to avoid it

If you have sensitive skin and want to try a new cream, test a small amount of the product on your forearm for a week to see if it causes a reaction, Katta advised. If you have skin inflammation, avoid new products altogether, she added.

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