What Do Product Labels Mean?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board

You probably already know that many everyday household products can trigger allergy symptoms. While your chronic hives may not be caused by allergies, it can still be helpful to understand which ingredients may aggravate your sensitive skin.

Products that many people may be sensitive to include:1

  • Soaps and detergents
  • Cleaners
  • Shampoo
  • Body wash
  • Bubble bath

If you or your child has chronic urticaria, reading product labels can seem overwhelming. Many ingredients are listed as chemicals that you cannot even pronounce. Allergens can be hidden under other names, even when listed on the label. Knowing how to read the product labels can help you better manage your hives.

What do different labels and terms mean?

All cosmetics marketed to consumers in the United States must comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules regarding ingredient listings. Most of the time, makers need to list their ingredients.2

However, product makers can list fragrance ingredients as just “fragrance.” This is because breaking down the information into several parts may compromise a business's trade secrets. Trade secrets are under protection by law. Unfortunately, this makes it hard for you to know which ingredient might trigger your symptoms.3


This label claims there are no ingredients in the product that people with allergies should avoid. However, the term "hypoallergenic" is not regulated by laws. The company that makes the product decides if a hypoallergenic label should apply. For this reason, people with allergies should use caution and read these labels carefully.4


Organic products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These products are made without using pesticides or antibiotics.5

Two categories of products can have the USDA organic seal:6

  1. 100 percent organic – Only contain organically produced ingredients and processing. No additives are allowed.
    Organic – Must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
  2. Products with the phrasing "Made with organic ____" are required to have only 70 percent organic ingredients. Remember, just because a product is organic does not mean it is safe.5,6

Fragrance-free versus unscented

A fragrance-free label means that a product does not have any added scents. However, it does not mean there are no odors from ingredients used to make the product. It simply means these ingredients are not used to mask the product’s strong smells.7

Some unscented products can still have chemicals and perfumes that irritate or cause a reaction. Fragrance might be added to mask the scent of other ingredients, just not enough that you can smell it.7


Artificial or processed preservatives or ingredients are not allowed in products with an "all-natural" label. It is important to know that "all-natural" is not clearly defined by regulating agencies.6

What to keep in mind when choosing skin-care products

Knowing which products might trigger a reaction can be hard. Keeping a few things in mind might help, including:8

  • Always read product labels.
  • Choose products with the least amount of ingredients. Even better, choose products with ingredients you recognize and can pronounce.
  • Try new products on a small, healthy area of skin.
  • Follow label directions, no matter how simple they may seem.

Look out for these potentially irritating ingredients and some of the products they are found in:9

  • Formaldehyde (household disinfectants, glues, adhesives)
  • Isothiazolinone (baby wipes and other personal care products)
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine (shampoos and lotions)

Helpful resources

Websites are available to help you decode confusing labels. There are many to choose from, but some you might find helpful include:

Not all products are created equal, especially if you are living with allergies. It is important to read product labels and to do your research on a product before you buy it. By using these tips and your new knowledge about product labels, you might help avoid reactions from some products.

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