In recent years, the trend towards green beauty has transitioned from “super crunchy” to “majorly mainstream,” with huge retailers including Target and Nordstrom expanding their natural beauty sections to keep up with demand. But how do you know if that natural beauty product you’ve picked up is really as good for you as the label indicates? Does “organic” automatically mean healthy, and who even ensures that all the claims are accurate? The FDA doesn’t implement much strict regulation about what harmful ingredients can’t be used in cosmetics, so it’s up to consumers to sift through the thousands of products on the market to figure out what’s actually good for us.
“Sadly, we are on our own when it comes to finding beauty products (and food for that matter!) that are truly safe,” RMS beauty founder Rose-Marie Swift told PeopleStyle. From dozens of different marketing terms to ingredients you probably can’t pronounce, it can feel overwhelming to find a product you can feel good about. So to cut through the clutter, we talked to some of the biggest experts in green beauty to break down exactly what all the terms and buzzwords you can’t stop hearing really mean.
What does it mean to be a certified organic beauty product?
Just because a product is labeled “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it really is. “As part of the National Organic Program, you have to have a minimum content of 70 percent organic ingredients to get a ‘Made With Organic’ claim on the label,” said Tracey Favre, director of Quality Assurance International Inc. To be in the big leagues and earn an official UDSA seal, a product goes under even more scrutiny.
VIDEO: The Crazy Cost of a Lifetime of Makeup
“For the USDA seal, you have to have 95 percent or greater organic ingredients, and that extra 5 percent can’t be any ingredient that is listed as not allowed under the National Organic Program,” she added. So what about all those other products claiming to be organic? Stay wary – what you see may not be exactly what you think you’re getting. “The USDA doesn’t have jurisdiction over labeling claims on personal care products (they only do on the agricultural ingredients), so you really need to look for those marks to give you confidence of what you’re getting,” Favre said. “That is really key for consumers to understand.”
What about all-natural beauty?
Although there is no official government organization that oversees the natural beauty market or pinpoints a specific definition for it, many brands go through third parties to get certification. “For us, natural means choosing the purest and best forms of the most effective, nature-derived ingredients available,” said Tata Harper, who created her own namesake natural skincare brand.
According to Harper, the term “natural” in beauty means the complete formula is 100 percent synthetic free. “I thought consumer products were all tested and strictly regulated, and it was really shocking to learn that wasn’t the case,” she told us.
Since there isn’t a specific regulating body for natural products, Harper turns to Ecocert, an organization that works to specifically certify ingredients as natural. “Getting certified is optional, but it’s what we do to give our customers more clarity,” she said. Read a product’s website and label closely to see how natural the product you’re using actually is.
I’ve also been hearing about this thing called clean beauty. What’s that?
Like natural beauty products, for “clean” products, there is no official body by the government to regulate what’s what. But brands looking to reputably claim a “clean” designation get certified by a third party organization to give consumers confidence in what they’re buying.
“Clean safe, non-toxic and verified by a third party,” C2 California Clean co-founder Christine Falsetti told us. “A lot of things that are clean are also green. When I go in the shower, it all washes off into the ecosystem, so if you think about the larger footprint you have, it’s important.”
So what’s the difference between “clean” and “natural,” then? “I like to think of poison ivy and poison oak–that is something that is naturally occurring and beautiful in nature, but you’re not going to rub that on your body,” Falsetti said. “Or other things, like natural talc, can still cause allergic reactions in a lot of people, so that isn’t considered ‘clean.'”
What ingredients should I be wary of if I see them on an ingredient deck?
First and foremost, if anything on an ingredient list includes the words sulfates and parabens (which are used as artificial preservatives in cosmetics), it’s not green. “They have possible links to cancer and reproductive issues, and even though the link isn’t fully proven, there is enough doubt that we aren’t comfortable using it,” said Lanolips founder Kirsen Carriol.
Another big one to look out for: fragrance. “A lot of people use the word fragrance to mask bad ingredients in the product,” said Vert Beauty owner and makeup artist Amanda Hume. “Fragrance is a big red flag because you can hide a lot of things in it,” Farelli added. “Companies are allowed to use this term to hide the combination of other chemicals used in the ‘fragrance.'”
Mineral oil feels moisturizing on the skin, but in reality, speeds up aging. “It doesn’t penetrate the skin so it seals it and creates a barrier,” Hume said. “This doesn’t allow the skin to breathe (which is an important function of that organ) so it slows down the process of normal cell development which results in premature aging.”
What’s a good place to get started if I want to go green?
Don’t feel pressure to throw out all the beauty products you own and go all in right off the bat. “I think the best place to start is with products you use daily – whichever they are,” Harper said. “Say you use moisturizer daily but you don’t wash your hair daily. Start with moisturizer. Make a personal commitment and take your time finding the best things for you.”