Cosmetic advertising, labelling and ingredients


How reliable are manufacturer claims and ads?

Claims on a label or in an ad for what a cosmetic can do must be accurate so they do not mislead people. Since certain claims, like increased attractiveness or increased masculinity, can only be judged subjectively, some puffery (exaggeration that does not mislead the public) is tolerated.

However, be doubtful of any therapeutic claims (to modify body functions, prevent or treat disease) on a label that does not have a Drug Identification Number (DIN) or Natural Product Number (NPN) on it. Therapeutic claims are only allowed on drugs or natural health products, not on cosmetic products.

Radio or television ads are previewed and cleared with Advertising Standards Canada before they are broadcast. Health Canada may intervene with a printed advertisement when an advertisement poses a significant safety concern.

Marketing terms

Marketing terms may be used on cosmetic product labels, packaging, or in radio, television or print ads. Health Canada does not consider marketing terms to be related to health or safety. Therefore, such terms are not regulated by Health Canada. However, the Competition Bureau regulates marketing terms under the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and the Competition Act, and can take action on those that are false or misleading. Here are some explanations of commonly used marketing terms you may come across.

Fragrance Free or Unscented

The marketing terms "fragrance free" and "unscented" are generally understood to mean:

  • fragrances have not been added to the cosmetic product, or
  • scents in the cosmetic product have been hidden by a masking agent. Masking agents can be listed individually, or under the term "fragrance" or "parfum" on the list of ingredients.

Therefore, if "parfum" or "fragrance" appears in the list of ingredients, the product contains fragrance or a masking agent.

"Hypoallergenic" is neither a legal nor a scientific term. It simply means that the manufacturer has chosen ingredients to produce a finished product with minimum potential for causing allergy. This does not guarantee that the product will not cause an allergic reaction in some individuals, since people are allergic to a wide range of substances. There are no non-allergenic cosmetics. If you experience an allergic reaction to a cosmetic, try switching to a different brand.
This term means that preservatives have not been added as an ingredient to the product. Natural or synthetic preservatives are essential for all cosmetics. The warm and damp area of your bathroom, where people use and store many cosmetic products, can be an ideal environment for microorganisms to grow in your cosmetics. Microorganisms can also find their way into cosmetics through cross-contamination when a cosmetic or its applicator touches your skin or hair and then touches the cosmetic again. Fortunately, most cosmetics contain preservatives to keep harmful bacteria, mold and yeast from finding its way in and growing on your cosmetics.
Ophthalmologist Tested/Dermatologist Tested
These terms usually mean that a test on the product was conducted to make sure that the product is not (or is less) irritating to eyes or skin, and that this test involved a skin or eye doctor at some point during the study. It is the safety of the product that has been tested, not how effective the product is. There are no regulations that standardize the type or number of tests needed to use this claim on labels.
Not Tested on Animals
This means the cosmetic product was not tested on animals, but does not guarantee that the individual ingredients were not tested on animals. For new ingredients, animal testing is sometimes needed to determine that the ingredient is safe. The scientific community is moving toward using fewer animals and is gradually producing valid tests that do not use live animals, instead using cell cultures (called "in vitro testing") as well as predictive computer models. However, these new methods cannot completely replace animal testing at this time.
"Organic" is a term that means that a plant or other natural material is certified to be produced without pesticides. Organic standards and certification vary from province to province, but generally, when a product is labelled as "organic", this means that the entire product is made from greater than 95% organic ingredients. Individual ingredients can also be labelled as "organic" if they meet the standards.


What information must be on cosmetics labels?

Labelling is regulated by the Food and Drugs Act, the Cosmetic Regulations and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and Regulations.

To meet these requirements, cosmetic labels must show:

  • the ingredient list
  • the common name of the product (for example hairspray)
  • the amount of product in metric units or count (for example, 2 bars or 55 mL)
  • the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor
  • warnings or cautions
  • directions for safe use of the product

All the information listed above must be in English and French, except for the ingredient list which needs to be indicated using the INCI nomenclature. There are also specific labelling requirements for the safe use of special products, like hair dyes and tooth whiteners. Also, the law does not allow false and misleading statements or deceptive packaging.

More information on Labelling Cosmetics as well as Cosmetic Ingredient Labelling.

Of note, additional labelling may also be required by other applicable legislation, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

Why is ingredient labelling important?

The labelling of cosmetic ingredients helps Canadians make more informed decisions about the cosmetics they use, since they are able to easily identify ingredients they may be sensitive to.

Mandatory ingredient labelling using the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) system also lets doctors refer to one common name for the purpose of treatment and incidence reporting.

Because many other countries also use the INCI system, Canadians travelling abroad will be able to recognize and avoid ingredients, as needed, without needing to know additional terminology.

Canada's cosmetic labelling has now been brought into line with international standards. This will contribute to health protection, while helping to lessen trade barriers and increase trade opportunities for Canadian businesses.


How will I understand International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) ingredient terms?

Most of the names for cosmetic product ingredients are technical chemical names that might be hard to understand. However, the INCI system was designed because INCI names act as universally-recognized symbols that represent a substance which may otherwise have many different trade names. By only allowing INCI names, Canadians only need to know one name for an ingredient instead of having to remember a number of different technical or trade names.

To find out more information about a specific ingredient in a product, contact the business whose address can be found on the product label.

What ingredients are allowed in cosmetics?

Under the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), only ingredients that do not present an unreasonable health and safety risk to Canadians, when used according to directions, are allowed in cosmetic products. Health Canada maintains a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, which lists ingredients that are described as either prohibited or restricted in cosmetic products.  

Cosmetics and their Ingredients must also comply with other applicable legislation, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA), which manages risks to Canadians and the environment.

How do I find out what ingredients to avoid?

The best way to figure out which ingredients to personally avoid is to work with your health care provider. They will be able to advise you, based on your medical history, about the ingredients to avoid and their corresponding INCI name.

Natural versus synthetic

There is a general assumption among consumers that "natural" products or ingredients are better or healthier than similar ones using synthetic ingredients. Often, however, these "natural" ingredients are no different in chemical composition than their synthetic counterparts. In fact, a synthetic substance that mimics a natural one can sometimes provide a purer, more stable ingredient that gives the product a longer usable life.

Health Canada considers both natural and synthetic ingredients to be equally suitable for use in cosmetics.

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