Green, clean & cruelty-free: Your ultimate guide to natural beauty

No longer a hippie trend relegated to health food stores, the demand for natural beauty is sharply on the rise. From non-toxic formulations to responsibly sourced ingredients, we're more curious than ever about what we're applying to our skin. After all, it's one of our largest and most precious organs!

By now you’ve probably heard of terms like 'clean beauty' or 'cruelty-free'. You may even be using an eco-friendly skincare brand. But what does natural beauty really mean?

It doesn't have to be confusing! We’ve demystified the common lingo and certifications for you from this new wave of ‘naturally’ marketed skincare. Read on for a handy list of clean beauty terms and their definitions.

Your ultimate guide to natural beauty definitions

Natural Beauty

More and more brands today are using the term ‘natural’ on their packaging. Legally, however, this word doesn’t have a concrete definition in the world of beauty. Regulating bodies like the FDA, USDA and EEU just don't have a set standard for the term. Natural beauty products should use formulations that are free from synthetics and sourced from nature (land or sea). Examples include natural botanical oils from plants or sea salts.

For a product to be called natural, however, 'nature-derived' ingredients only need to make up a tiny percentage of its formula. Basically, your natural skincare may not be as green as you think!

That's why a lot of green beauty brands are moving away from the term ‘natural’ to avoid empty promises. What’s more, there are safer synthetics in the industry which are more consistent and eco-friendly. Natural skincare often contains animal-derived ingredients like beeswax, collagen, keratin, lanolin, squalene, fish oils, honey, albumen, carmine, cholesterol and gelatin.

Vegan & Vegetarian Beauty

Vegetarian beauty products won't contain any animal products, but they may still contain by-products like beeswax, honey or milk proteins. If a product is vegan it won't contain any animal derived ingredients whatsoever. Instead, they use alternatives like vegetable proteins, butters and oils. Algae steps in to repair, shea butter for hold, moringa oil for nourishment and argan oil for softening.

Your ultimate guide to natural beauty - vegan and cruelty-free lipsticks by Solos CosmeticsLipsticks by Solos Cosmetics use vetted vegan and cruelty-free formulas

Cruelty-Free

Usually depicted by a cute rabbit icon, if a makeup or skincare brand declares they are cruelty-free it means no animal testing has taken place at any point. That should cover their entire product creation process, from the ingredient sourcing level to third-party testing and after manufacturing. Feel assured when you see certifications from PETA and Leaping Bunny, which are the two main cruelty-free organisations. 

Another point to note about cruelty-free is that the governments of some countries like China require mandatory animal testing of imported makeup and skincare products. So when a beauty brand enters the Chinese market and sells their products in China, they cannot claim to be cruelty-free. Products actually made within China itself don't have to be tested on animals. 

Clean Beauty

Clean Beauty can be generally defined as products that are safe for humans without causing any skin irritation, body system disruption or ill effects. 'Cleaner' skincare or cosmetics avoid ingredients that are toxic, carcinogenic or harmful to the environment. The general philosophy of clean beauty is that not all synthetic ingredients are harmful. Certain lab-made ingredients like hyaluronic or glycolic acid are safe for human use. 

Green Beauty

In comparison, Green Beauty is often used as an umbrella term to refer to any skincare made from nature-derived ingredients within a lab. It comprises ‘organic,’ 'clean beauty' and ‘natural beauty’, and implies a brand's products use minimal synthetic ingredients.

Many green beauty brands think about their impact beyond just ingredients too. This often includes the sustainability of their whole supply chain. When it comes to packaging, they may opt for recyclable, compostable or biodegradable options. Ingredients-wise, they may choose to minimise their environmental impact through reef-friendly ingredients and avoid chemicals like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate.

Many green beauty brands worth their salt focus heavily on reducing their plastic waste. This has led to a rise in zero-waste beauty and the return of cleansing bars, bamboo toothbrushes and toothpaste tabs. It’s not just fashion that has a microplastic problem, either. Microbeads used in exfoliators and cleansers in skincare break down into microplastics when released into our waterways. They’re gradually being banned from beauty products world wide.

Natural beauty range by Luxe BotanicsLuxe Botanics' formulations are rooted in both science and nature

Fair Trade 

Fair trade beauty supports communities around the world who farm their ingredients, like shea butter, cocoa butter and Marula oil. We should vote with our wallets to choose products that do not exploit small-scale farmers in countries like as Madagascar, Ghana and the Dominican Republic where many such ingredients are sourced and where exploitation is rife. Fair trade is a partnership with local farmers to ensure respect, transparency, and greater equity for them in international trade.

Plant Based 

Plant based skincare or cosmetics should use ingredients derived from fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seeds, nuts or herbs. However, there’s often confusion between ‘plant-based’ and ‘derived from plants’. This can mean a product contains treated plant-derived ingredients that no longer have their natural properties.

Organic 

Hurrah - this is a more regulated term within the skincare industry. Organic beauty should contain ingredients grown without pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilisers, GMO, sewage sludge or ionising radiation. Interestingly, for land to be considered organic its soil must be free from toxic substances for 5 years! 

There’s also a difference between ‘organic’ and ‘certified organic’ ingredients. A certified organic has been regulated by an external body like the National Organic Program. They require at least 70% of a product's ingredients to be organic. The USDA, another official certification, requires 95% organic ingredients to be organic.

Natural beauty products by Want Skincare
Many ingredients used by Want Skincare are fair trade and organic certified.

Biodynamic

If your beauty product says ‘biodynamic’ in the labelling it's referring to biodynamic farming or agriculture. In a nutshell, biodynamic is everything organic but on another level. In the interest of a closed-loop system, biodynamic methods emphasise soil health and prohibit the use of synthetic chemicals. It considers the farm a living organism that is self-contained and self-sufficient with little human intervention.

What sets it apart from organic farming is that a biodynamic farm meets its needs from within the system, where farmers use regenerative techniques such as crop rotation, composting, interplanting and seed saving to ensure land health.

Distinguishing between natural, organic and biodynamic...

Think of it as a spectrum. Natural products contain ingredients from plants and nature with minimal processing. 

Organic takes ‘natural’ several steps further by including non-GMO ingredients. These have to be grown, raised, harvested, manufactured and preserved without chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or antibiotics.

These steps sound pretty exhaustive, and they are to ensure the least amount of contaminants in your skincare. Taking these kinds of measures also costs a lot more than regular processes. This is why most organic products have a higher price tag.

Biodynamic is the ultimate level in the spectrum. The ingredients in biodynamic products are held to the absolute highest standard, so it promotes the highest product quality with the least environmental impact. 

Hypoallergenic

Hypoallergenic should mean that ingredients will not cause any allergic reactions. However, according to the FDA there are no federal standards governing the term. Basically, that means that brands can twist it to mean whatever they want it to mean. Always read your labels to see what the active and inactive components are. Using some single-ingredient products — like petroleum jelly, shea butter, sunflower oil or cocoa butter — can minimise the risk of an allergic reaction.

Non-Comedogenic (or Oil-free)

Non-comedogenic means a product avoids clogging pores and unwanted signs of acne. It's often used interchangeably with ‘oil-free’ because people with oily or acne-prone complexions may benefit from less oil in their skincare.

That being said, there is the misconception that oils will cause acne and thats just not the case. Oil-based serums can be powerful treatments for dryness, dulness and acne. For example, Kigelia africana, a long sausage-shaped fruit sourced from the Malawians in South Africa is an anti-bacterial powerhouse that combats acne and sensitivity. 

The truth is any ingredient can cause break-outs because we all have our unique skin chemistry. To truly rule a product in or out you’ll have to test it first.

Natural beauty products by Alcheme Skincare
Skincare by Alcheme offers fragrance and fragrance-free options


Fragrance-free

Fragrances, natural or synthetic, are a common sensitising ingredient that can cause irritation or redness. When a product is fragrance-free it usually means no synthetic (man-made) fragrance has been added to the product. 

Some products offer scented and fragrance-free versions; what’s the difference? The difference between fragrance-free and unscented is that no particular aroma was chosen for the product, or it does not contain any artificial scents. However, sometimes brands still add a light fragrance agent to cover up the scent of ingredients that may not be as appealing. When in doubt, choose fragrance-free.

Non-toxic 

Another term that’s become over simplified and can have multiple meanings! A non-toxic product shouldn’t contain ingredients that are linked to health risks. Parabens are a common example — a preservative added into most water-based products which has been linked to breast cancer. You'll find parabens in a lot of drugstore skincare; they prevent bacteria growth while products sit on your bathroom shelf.

Other hormone-disrupting compounds to look out for include phthalates, triclosan, formaldehyde, synthetic colours and even most chemical sunscreens.

Chemical-free

You can probably guess that 'chemical-free' means no harmful ingredients included, but to say there are no chemicals is impossible. Why? Everything is technically a chemical. When two hydrogen atoms fused with an oxygen atom you get water! 

Chemicals are the building blocks of life. What makes the difference is how toxic a chemical is and if it's considered toxic in the country we live in.

While the EU has banned more than 1,300 ingredients from cosmetics, beauty is one of the least regulated industries in the US, they’ve banned only around 30. The Environmental Working Group in the US reported that women are now exposed to a daily average of 126 chemicals from cosmetics, food, cleaning supplies and pollution.

Safe synthetics 

The main reason why brands use synthetics in their products is to maintain consistency and increase shelf life. Many natural brands choose to forgo these which means they have a shorter shelf life. 

Using lab-made synthetics is also an approach used in vegan skincare as many ‘naturally-derived’ elements such as squalene and hyaluronic acid found in many serums, moisturisers and toners can be made from animal parts. Labs can now create these chemicals from bacteria and plants. While being a man-made process, it is more humane and stable.

Sustainable Packaging

If a chain is as strong as its weakest link, green beauty is as strong as its packaging. Conscious consumption can be made circular if the packaging our beauty products come in can be recycled, reused, composted and disposed of in a way with the least environmental impact. 

As more brands move to use recycled or refillable bottles, dry ingredients to avoid using plastic, or opt for zero-waste options like cleansing bars and shampoo bars, there’s a strong movement to reduce the plastics circulating from store to bathroom to trash.

USDA Certified Organic

USDA is one of the regulated organic certification agencies. Requiring at least 95% of the ingredients to be organic, the USDA mostly regulates food ingredients.

If a beauty product uses an agricultural ingredient certified by the USDA and meets their production, handling, processing and labelling standards, it may be eligible to be certified under NOP regulations.

ECOCERT

A non-government organic certification agency based in Europe, ECOCERT certifies cosmetic, household and food products all over the world. 95% of ingredients need to be plant-based and 10% have to come from organic farming.

The formula also needs to be free from GMO, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicon, PEG compounds, synthetic perfumes and dyes or animal-derived ingredients beyond milk and honey. The packaging must be recyclable as well.

 

Demystifying natural beauty definitions on ZERRIN

Demystifying other common beauty terms…

It’s not just fancy terminology that gets confusing, it's also the supposed results of our ‘lightening’, ‘brightening’ and ‘clarifying’ washes and serums. Here’s the 101 on all those itty-bitty details.

Brightening, Lightening & Whitening

We see these terms being used interchangeably in the skincare world because most of these results are in the same neighbourhood of fairer skin. The difference between skin lightening and whitening is largely based on the degree or severity with which melanin production is reduced. Skin lightening methods are more gradual and give a less obvious effect, while whitening uses stronger inhibitors like hydroquinone or mercury to strip the skin of its melanin. 

Brightening products usually refer to the removal of dead cells that give skin a dull appearance to make it look more radiant and “brighter”. They typically use alpha and beta hydroxy acids, vitamins A, E and C to encourage cell turnover. Some brightening products may also contain natural extracts and antioxidants that have lightening properties e.g. liquorice root or Camu Camu extracts that work excellently to fade dark spots.

Gluten-free

Not as commonly used, this term exists for those who can’t use wheat-based ingredients like hydrolysed wheat protein or wheat germ oil used as hydration or cleansing agents. Medically diagnosed Celiac disease sufferers are often concerned with the products they’re putting close to their face. These include lip products, toothpastes and even shampoo.

Clarifying 

Mostly used in haircare, clarifying shampoos cut through product buildup and oils to leave your hair squeaky clean. Perfect as a pre-cleansing before salon treatments.

Hydrating vs Moisturising

Some of us suffer from dry skin, but how do we know if we need something that hydrates or moisturises, or both? Moisturising and hydration are not the same thing, even if they both provide your skin with the much-needed nourishment. 

If you’re prone to having dry skin that can’t lock in moisture, moisturisers work best. If you have a dull, lacklustre complexion, your skin may be dehydrated, so hydrators can step in. Hydrating products are usually water-soluble, so it is suitable for most. For best results, hydrators and moisturisers should be applied morning (before sunscreen) and night.

Firming

Many cosmetics companies claim their products will lift, rejuvenate, tighten and firm using skin-firming ingredients. What does that actually mean? While they include ingredients that our skin produces, firming can be accomplished in a myriad of ways. 

Skin ages faster with sun damage, so sunscreen should be a must in your skincare routine. Using products with antioxidants and vitamins make all the difference for your skin to look younger and fresher. Peptides - the natural starter for your skin to replenish lost ingredients and amino acids, is a booster for a more radiant, youthful complexion. 

Looking for vetted beauty brands that stand up to their claims? Shop our curation here.


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