Greenwashing and What 5 Popular Terms on Beauty Products Actually Mean

Wandering down the beauty aisle, you’re likely to see words like “organic” or “chemical-free” on your mascara or body wash labels. They match your healthy lifestyle, so you’re good, right? Actually, it may not be that simple.

Because of major loopholes in U.S. federal law, cosmetics brands are able to boldly make claims like “natural” and “non-toxic” without proper regulations, so most of these terms end up becoming meaningless. This is known as greenwashing.

“The law does not require cosmetic labeling to have FDA approval before cosmetic products go on the market, and FDA does not have a list of approved or accepted claims for cosmetics,” explains the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its website. How can you sort through it all and find products that are significantly safer? Here’s a list of five common, yet misleading terms:

1. Natural

For years, the “natural” category has been the fastest growing segment of the global cosmetics industry, and a recent report predicts the market will be worth $16 billion by 2020. It’s very clear consumers are demanding natural and safer products, so brands are rushing to respond to the demand.

But what does it mean if you see “natural” on a label? Legally, nothing, since the FDA doesn’t regulate it. It may mean that all, or a certain percentage of a product’s ingredients are mineral or plant-based, rather than synthetic. To find out the level of a brand’s commitment to being natural, look for third-party certifications by the Natural Products Association, NaTrue, BDIH, and EcoCert. These organizations’ standards have a lot of overlap, but their requirements do vary, so checking their websites are your best bet.

Keep in mind that if a brand is committed to natural ingredients, that doesn’t necessarily mean its products are guaranteed to be safe. Some brands put the word “natural” on their labels for marketing purposes, so don’t forget to read the product’s ingredient list. If you don’t know what’s what, check out The Never List™. It features ingredients we prohibit during the formulation of Beautycounter products.

2. Organic

Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t regulate the term “organic” on cosmetic product labels. In order for brands to leverage the popularity of the term for more marketability, the front of their labels may inaccurately represent how much of the product is, in fact, organic.

If a cosmetic has a USDA Organic seal, that means some of the raw ingredients in that product (such as aloe or coconut oil) were produced without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. When you see these products, be aware that brands may still include potentially harmful preservatives or other questionable ingredients in their products despite using organically derived raw materials.

Again, check the ingredient list!

3. Preservative-Free

Beauty products that contain water, like shampoo, hand soap, and lotion, need to contain some sort of preservative to prevent yeast, bacteria, or mold from growing, because otherwise, they would be totally unsafe to use.

When a company claims a product is “preservative-free”, it could mean a few different things: The product may not contain any water, so it wouldn’t need a preservative in the first place; or the product may be made only with antioxidants (like tocopherol) or natural preservative boosters (like neem or rosemary oil). In a few rare cases, a brand may ask you to refrigerate the product or keep it on your shelf at room temperature for only a few days.

Again, the term “preservative-free” may not mean that the product is safer for your health.

4. Chemical-Free

Not all chemicals are the enemy. In fact, all substances are considered chemicals: even water! So, this term can be misleading due to the lack of regulation. Instead of looking for products that are “chemical-free”, go for products without toxic, harmful, or questionable chemicals, and make sure to do your own research, starting with The Never List™.

5. Dermatologist-Approved

A dermatologist may approve a product, especially if there’s payment involved, but that doesn’t mean the product has gone through any rigorous or standardized testing. It also doesn’t mean the product has been evaluated for its potential to impact long-term health. Dermatologists often recommend products that are less likely to irritate your skin, but rarely look at potential ingredient links to problems like hormonal imbalances or cancer.

The best strategy is to get to know the brands that make the products you’re buying and to choose brands that prioritize careful ingredient screening and safety over vague words used for marketing.