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If you’re like most of the beauty product-using population, you’ve probably looked at the back of a bottle of lotion at some point and noticed a collection of symbols that seem like they should be self-explanatory but totally aren’t. We’ve all seen recycling symbols before, but what the heck does a disembodied hand reading a book have to do with applying dry shampoo?

Do we really need to know what all those symbols, hieroglyphics and pictograms mean to use our beauty products? In short, probably not. BUT they can be useful for learning where they came from, how to dispose of them and how ethical they are. So if any of those things are important to you, read on to find out what all those little pictures mean. Oh, plus it’s a cool way to flex on your friends if they care about kind of nerdy beauty things.

mobius loop recycling symbol
Shutterstock

The Good Ol’ Recycling Symbol

Hello, recycling symbol, old friend. We remember you from kindergarten and every moment of our lives since then. This one’s easy, right? WRONG. Actually, the recycling symbol (AKA the Möbius loop) we’ve always assumed means an item is recyclable (duh) doesn’t actually always mean that (huh?).

According to Jo-Anne St. Godard at the Recycling Council of Ontario, the symbol isn’t regulated and can appear on literally anything if a manufacturer so desires, regardless of if it can be recycled in your region. Cool, cool, cool.

Society of the Plastics Industry Symbols
Shutterstock

Society of the Plastics Industry Symbols

No this isn’t some sort of glitch or *gasp* editorial error—these symbols are actually different from the basic recycling symbol because of the numbers within the triangle. While the basic Möbius loop can be slapped on anything, these are actually informative symbols that let the recycling processor know what type of plastic resin the container is made out of. Funny enough, these don’t necessarily mean that a container is recyclable either—they just indicate the type of material.

How2Recycle.info symbols
How2Recycle.info

How2Recycle.info

How2Recycle.info is the new B in town (beauty-product-symbol, what did you think we meant?) and she’s here to tell you exactly how to recycle that shiz… well, sometimes. These symbols are useful because they indicate how to recycle the product, the type of material and the packaging format—we love a good step-by-step disposal explainer. The issue with these symbols is that they’re licensed, meaning companies have to pay a membership fee to use them. So while they are certainly clear and helpful, adding those symbols can be cost prohibitive for smaller brands. Womp-womp.

Green Dot symbol
Green Dot NA

Green Dot

Yes, another recycling symbol. Except it’s not. This little guy is actually a trademarked symbol called the “Green Dot” which originated in Germany and is now licenced all over the world. What it means is “the producer of the packaging has made a financial contribution towards recycling that packaging.” In Europe, the symbol is more standardized but in North America, it’s not a symbol of compliance and anyone who pays the licensing fee can put it on their products—it doesn’t mean the product is recyclable, made from recycled material or even that it has a cousin who recycled one time.

Numbered Jar (AKA Period-After-Opening) symbol
Shutterstock

Numbered Jar (AKA Period-After-Opening)

If you’re fancy, you might only use beauty products for as long as you’re meant to—also known as “being a smart consumer who doesn’t want pink eye”—and the way you do that is by paying attention to the PAO marking. The number of months (M) a product is good for is indicated inside or directly underneath a little pictogram of a jar.

e-mark symbol
Shutterstock

Estimated sign (e)

Okay, this one you probably don’t need to know, but it’s cool life knowledge. The e-mark or quantité estimée, if you prefer the French, is a symbol from Europe that basically indicates the manufacturer has done their due diligence to make sure that the container contains the stated amount of product. It’s typically with the quantity markings on the front, rather than on the back with the recycling symbols.

Disembodied Hand Educating Itself (AKA Refer to Insert) symbol
Shutterstock

Disembodied Hand Educating Itself (AKA Refer to Insert)

This one isn’t nearly as fun as it could be. It literally just means your product came with a pamphlet or box that has more info about using it. Boring! (But obviously useful).

cruelty free symbols
Leaping Bunny/PETA/CCF

Cruelty Free Markings

While Canada is in the process of solidifying a Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act, we’re left to decipher the hieroglyphics on products to find out if they were tested on animals. To that end, the three symbols above are the ones that are regulated by NGOs and can be trusted—that’s the Leaping Bunny Logo, the PETA “cruelty free” symbol and the Choose Cruelty Free “Not Tested on Animals” rabbit.

tree sustainable forests symbols
Government of Canada

Tree Symbols

Anyone can print a tree on a tree (ie paper) but just because your cardboard box has a leaf on it doesn’t mean it’s in any way friendly to the environment. The above three symbols—from the Forest Stewardship Council, Sustainable Forestry Initiative and CSA Group—are the only international symbols recognized in Canada to mean the fibers in the product were sourced from sustainably managed forests.

organic symbols
Canada Organic/USDA /Soil Association

Organic Symbols

It’s the Wild West out there when it comes to the term “organic” in cosmetics. Companies are throwing around the term right and left without any standardized idea of what it means or if their product adheres to any guidelines. As a consumer, the only symbols you can truly trust on packaging are the Canada Organic logo (mostly on food ATM), the USDA Organic seal (from the US, obvi) and the Soil Association Organic logo (a third-party certification from the U.K.). Other symbols and claims could be true, but these three are the most well-respected and regulated.

vegan symbols
VegeCert/Vegan.org/Vegan Society

Vegan Symbols

When it comes to vegan labels, we’re mostly relying on third-party NGOs to verify products and they’re different from country to country. The ones you’ll most commonly come across on beauty products in North America are the Canadian VegeCert certification, the American Certified Vegan logo and the U.K. Vegan Society symbol.

certified B corporation symbol
Certified B Corporation

Certified B Corporation

This symbol is less about the product and more about the company that made it. In order to attain and maintain Certified B Corporation status, a company is “required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment” and also pay an annual certification fee, of course.

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