Clean, green, sustainable, natural… the list goes on. When it comes to the beauty world, there are so many labels and terms slapped on to products without any real context. The waters are undeniably murky, and we often find ourselves asking: What is clean beauty? What do all these other terms mean? And, which are the most important to pay attention to? Let’s take a look at why beauty lingo has become so confusing, as well as break down some of the most common terms used in the industry.
What does ‘clean beauty’ mean?
According to Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic scientist, formulator, and co-host of the popular Beauty Brains podcast, there is a simple reason terms like “clean,” “green” and “natural” are confusing to consumers of beauty products: they have no legal definition. They are, by all accounts, marketing terms. The aim is to grab your attention, lure you in, and tempt you to buy. In itself, this isn’t a shock. Every brand uses marketing. But when different brands use the exact same terms in different ways, it becomes a recipe for consumer confusion.
Using “natural” as an example, Romanowski explained to LIVEKINDLY: “Companies can use the term to refer to something made only from ingredients they take directly from nature. Or, they can use it for products that are made with ingredients that are all lab-made synthetics that have natural origins. There is no legal standard for what these terms mean.”
With that in mind, it’s vital for us as consumers to look past the marketing terms. Here’s why it’s important to know which ingredients are toxic to you and do your own research before making a purchase, as well as how to look for certifications on products that claim to consider the planet and the animals.
What is considered “natural” makeup?
In the past, there have been attempts to introduce legal definitions for “natural” cosmetics. In 2019, in the U.S., the Natural Cosmetics Act was introduced to The House of Representatives. The bill aimed to both define and legislate the use of the terms “natural” and “naturally-derived.” It would mean that products with less than 70 percent natural ingredients couldn’t be labelled as natural, and it would allow the FDA to legally intervene on any misuse.
The bill has not progressed since it was introduced, and if it were to pass, it would still leave brands to use many other terms without regulation, like “green” and “clean.” It begs the question: should there just be one centralized, simplified term, that encompasses beauty that is good for people and the planet? In Romanowski’s view: It would certainly be helpful, but it’s unlikely to ever happen.
“Companies rely on these types of marketing terms to set their products apart from the competition,” he explained. “Small companies rely heavily on fear marketing to convince consumers to buy their products, rather than buying the less expensive, better working products produced by big companies. If all brands could call themselves ‘clean’ and mean the same thing, then a small start-up brand would be competing with someone like P&G or Unilever, and they would lose on price.”
So, the lack of legal definition around “clean” and “natural” helps to give small start-up brands a boost, as it leaves more room for clever marketing. “If there was clarity in the marketplace it would be good for consumers,” Romanowski says. “Good for large companies. But bad for small, start-up brands.”
The truth about greenwashing
But what about other terms, like “sustainable” and “green?” It’s easier for smaller brands to label themselves as planet-friendly and mean it, as they require fewer resources to make and package their products than major multinational beauty giants.
Brands emerging now are also aware of a shift in consumer buying habits. People want more environmentally-friendly products, so start-ups can opt to use recycled packaging and eco-friendly ingredients right from the start. Larger brands, however, are playing catch up.
Garnier, for example, owned by L’Oréal, relies predominantly on “green” beauty marketing. But in 2018, L’Oréal admits consumption of its products represented 140,000 tonnes of plastic, and it’s likely only a small percentage of this packaging was recycled. The company has pledged to only use refillable, rechargeable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025. It is positive progress, but looking at the here and now, much of its packaging still contains virgin plastic.
But the lack of legal definition around “green” allows L’Oréal to market some of its products in the same way that a smaller brand, which may have only ever produced zero-waste, recyclable, or refillable products, can. So with that in mind, the use of the term means different things for the different brands.
5 Questions Around Beauty Terms, Answered
The beauty industry is far from gaining any real regulation and clarity in the use of its marketing terms. But to help you get a baseline understanding of what some of these terms generally mean, we’ve answered a few FAQs and broken down a few definitions.
What is clean beauty?
The term “clean” is used alot in the beauty industry, and it’s one of the most confusing terms out there. It can be used interchangeably with the term “natural,” but it doesn’t really mean the same thing, as some ingredients described as “clean” can also be synthetic. Generally speaking, “clean” means non-toxic. Some of the most common ingredients shunned by the “clean” beauty industry are parabens and sodium lauryl sulphate. (But there is research to suggest even these aren’t as harmful as some brands like to make out.)
“[Clean beauty] products are made using plant-based ingredients or synthetic ingredients that are deemed ‘safe’ by whatever standard they are following,” explains Romanowski. He added: “The standards are made up. It is illegal for any company to sell unsafe beauty products.”
Regulation in the cosmetic industry may be famously lacking, but the FDA does note on its website that brands and manufacturers have a legal responsibility to ensure that their products are safe. (But, it also adds that there is no legal requirement for specific tests to demonstrate that safety.)
“If a product is out on the market (on sale at large retailers like Target, Walmart, etc.) you can be confident they are safe,” said Romanowski. “I would be less confident of products produced by small brands as they often (but not always) skip safety testing.”
With that said, toxicity can be subjective. What causes a painful reaction to one person’s skin, may not have any impact on another person’s. This is another reason why it’s important to look past marketing slogans, and look at the ingredients themselves. “The most important ingredients to avoid are ones to which you are personally allergic or have some bad reaction to,” advises Romanowski. For more on clean beauty, find our guide to debunking some of the most common myths here.
Is green beauty sustainable?
As stated, “green” can be used by different brands in different ways. It could refer to an ethos, an ingredient, packaging, anything that it claims considers the environment. It’s so vague, it can be used in pretty much any way the brand likes (which can often lead to greenwashing, find out more on that here).
When it comes to ingredients, “green” overlaps with “natural” beauty in the sense that most are plant-based, says Romanowski. He notes: “[The] ingredients are derived from plants but with more concern about the environment.”
According to Harper’s Bazaar’s Ultimate Guide to Clean Beauty: “The word green should mean that the product does no harm to the environment. For instance, a reef-safe sunscreen with biodegradable packaging would be labeled green. However, this is a wishy-washy term with no true definition and is usually used as an umbrella for any product that claims to protect the planet’s resources.”
What is sustainable beauty?
The official definition of sustainable (when applied in an environmental context) is to conserve an “ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” But again, in the beauty world, there are no legal guidelines in place to ensure a brand is using it correctly.
To make sure a company is carrying out sustainable practices, it’s important to look for proof beyond the buzzword. The most reliable form of proof is certification.
One of the best certifications to look out for is B-Corp. There are only a handful of beauty brands certified as such (Beauty Kitchen, The Body Shop, and Dr. Bronner’s are among them). The B Corp certification is one of the hardest sustainability certifications to achieve. There is a rigorous assessment process, where brands are examined on their ability to “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.”
But there are many other stamps and seals of approval out there. You can find a comprehensive list here.
Is natural beauty the same as green beauty?
As we’ve touched on previously, “natural” beauty means the ingredients are derived from the natural world. Or, it can mean that some of the ingredients were. According to Romanoski, generally it is applied to products that are “made using plant-based ingredients, no petroleum products.”
While “natural” is also sometimes used interchangeably with “green,” it does not mean the same thing. Just because an ingredient is natural does not mean it is sustainable. Take palm oil, for example. Found in 70 percent of beauty products, it is a natural product, but intensive harvesting of the ingredient is destroying the rainforest.
The answer is, again, to look closer at the ingredients label, and search for relevant certifications. For example, The Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit that works to protect farmers, forests, and forest communities, has a (short) list of certified health and beauty brands.
What is vegan beauty?
Vegan beauty is completely free of animal products. That means no carmine (which comes from bugs), no shellac (also from bugs), no collagen (from animal connective tissue), honey, beeswax, you get the picture. But again, there are no legal restrictions around the use of the term “vegan” or “vegan-friendly” on beauty products.
One way to know for sure the product you’re using is animal-free is to look for The Vegan Society Trademark. Around the world, the UK-based organization has certified around 45,000 products in 79 countries.
To earn the stamp, brands must prove their products are 100 percent vegan by meeting a tough product criteria and providing evidence of the ingredients used, how they are manufactured, where they are manufactured, and how they are tested.
Ultimately, as it stands, it’s down to beauty consumers to figure out what we want from our products and look past the wordplay to find it. Check the ingredients, sourcing information, and look for certified proof of promises. And remember it’s about progress, not perfection; buy with your values in mind as much as you can, and you can’t go far wrong.