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. One of our largest and most precious organs!
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.
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 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.
Having only a small percentage of ‘nature-derived’ ingredients in its formula can qualify the product as ‘natural’. 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 and 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.
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 in their 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 even if a natural beauty or vegan-friendly brand exports to China, they cannot claim to be cruelty-free.
Clean Beauty can be generally defined as natural beauty products using ingredients 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. Overall, clean beauty brands tend to be less stringent with natural-ingredient selection.
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 and look into the sustainability of their packaging and production. They may opt for recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging, use reef-friendly ingredients and avoid chemicals like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate to minimise their impact on the environment. It’s not just fashion that has a microplastic problem. 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 worldwide.
Another term you’ll have heard from the ethical fashion world, a fair-trade beauty product is supporting people and communities around the world who farm the ingredients, like in your favourite shea butter and Marula oil products. It is on the consumers to use their dollars to choose products that do not exploit these small-scale farmers in countries such 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.
If a natural beauty product is plant-based it should use naturally grown and derived ingredients like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seeds, nuts and 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.
This is a more regulated term within the fashion and skincare industries. If your product is organic it contains 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. Certified organic has been regulated by an external body like the National Organic Program. They need at least 70% of a product’s ingredients to be organic. The USDA requires 95% organic ingredients before they give their seal of approval.
If your beauty product says ‘biodynamic’ in the labelling it refers 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 the health and longevity of the land.
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 and are exhaustive, and that’s to ensure the least amount of contaminants in your beauty and skincare. Not to mention, all these measures cost a lot more than regular procedures, which is why most organic products have a higher price tag – but quality does come with a price.
Biodynamic is the ultimate level in the spectrum (for now). It promotes the highest quality with the least impact on the environment. Mainly because the ingredients in biodynamic products are held to the absolute highest standard.
Hypoallergenic should mean that ingredients will not cause any allergic reactions. However, there are no federal standards or definitions that govern the term, according to the FDA. Basically, that means that brands can twist the term to mean whatever they want it to mean and could be false advertising. Always read the label and ingredient list 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 skin reaction.
Non-Comedogenic (or Oil-free)
A complicated term for issues a lot of us face, non-comedogenic means a product avoids clogging pores and unwanted signs of acne. The reason why it is often used interchangeably with ‘oil-free’ is that people with oily skin or acne-prone skin will supposedly benefit most from the least amount of oil in their skincare.
That being said, there are some misconceptions around what causes acne. For example, hemp oil is a powerhouse that actually combats acne and clogged pores, whereas potassium chloride is a salt compound that contributes to acne formation. The truth is, any ingredient can cause break-outs because we all have our unique skin chemistry. Ultimately, to truly rule a product out you’ll have to test it first, even if the ingredients are deemed natural and safe.
Fragrances, natural or synthetic, are a common sensitising ingredient for all skin types and can easily cause skin irritation or redness. When a product is fragrance-free it usually means no synthetic (man-made) fragrance has been added to the product. So for example, you can smell the natural scent of cocoa butter or pomegranate oil as they are naturally fragrant.
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.
This is another oversimplified term in the natural beauty world, with multiple meanings. In a nutshell, a non-toxic product shouldn’t contain ingredients that are linked to causing any health risks, like parabens, a preservative added into most water-based products which have been linked to breast cancer. Parabens are common in a lot of drugstore skincare because they prevent bacteria growth while products are sitting on your bathroom shelf. Other hormone-disrupting compounds to look out for include phthalates, triclosan, formaldehyde, synthetic colours and even most chemical sunscreens.
Now, probably the most nonsensical term thrown around is ‘chemical-free’. You can probably guess that it means no harmful synthetics, 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 matters is how toxic a chemical is and if it’s 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.
The common reason why companies put 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. This is because many ‘naturally-derived’ elements such as squalene and hyaluronic acid found in many serums, moisturisers and toners is/can be made of chicken combs or the eyeballs animals. Labs can now create these chemicals from bacteria and plants. While being a man-made process, it is more humane and stable.
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 soap 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 that is certified by the USDA and meets the USDA/National Organic Program production, handling, processing and labelling standards, it may be eligible to be certified under NOP regulations.
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 other common beauty terms…
It’s not just fancy terminology that can greenwash us, it is 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.
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.
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 things, 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. Your skin might be dehydrated if you notice a dull, lacklustre complexion. This is where hydrators 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.
Many cosmetics companies claim their products will lift, rejuvenate, tighten and firm using skin-firming ingredients. What does that actually mean? These products include the same ingredients present in our skin to achieve the same look. However, firming can be accomplished in a myriad of ways.
Skin ages faster with sun damage, so sunscreen is a must-have 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.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.