Your Glossary of Clean Beauty Terms
The beauty industry has never slowed down and lately, there are tons of conversations happening about "clean, toxin-free, chemical-free, green and natural beauty" from bloggers, magazines, social media, and beauty brands. I see these trendy buzzwords tossed around left and right and most of these words are used incorrectly without a full understanding or used to drive fear in consumers. So, I thought it was a good time to have a no BS conversation what exactly some of these terms and claims mean and if there is any validity to them.
That being said, unfortunately, the beauty and personal care industry in the United States is highly unregulated and brands can say and market whatever they want. They are essentially "educating" consumers and are often fearmongering and misleading to make them think their product or brand is safer, greener, cleaner, more natural etc. I totally get it, brands are trying to sell more products and make a buck, it is a business after all. However, even though it's stated on the label does NOT mean it's necessarily true or even beneficial! There is also a term called "greenwashing" which when a company makes claims that their products are healthier or more environmentally friendly than they actually are. At the same time, instilling fear into people to purchase their product over competitors isn't a great marketing tactic either. Whatever happened to transparency?
My commitment to you
Not only have I been in the beauty industry for 14+ years as a licensed esthetician working thousands of faces, I work for a skincare brand as an educator and in product development. I spend a great deal of time working with and researching ingredients for benefits and uses, rules, laws, and regulations to be truly informed for you as readers of this blog and my career. I feel it's my responsibility to keep it real and to help people be more enlightened consumers on what they put on their bodies and one of the many reasons I started this blog in the first place. I strongly believe in education minus the sensationalism.
What you will continue to find on my blog and social media is scientifically studied thoughtfully researched and educational posts on the physiology of the skin with ingredients that are both fantastic and not so great for the skin without instilling fear. I think it's important to identify such ingredients and terms so you as consumers can confidently read labels while shopping and make an informed decision for yourself on pillars you find of value.
So let's dive into what some of these terms mean....
Legally, this term means nothing as there is no official governing or certifying organization for this word and is used freely in the beauty and personal care industries. However, the general term is defined by using the most natural and/or plant-derived ingredients available with no synthetic or lab made ingredients.
I will note, the term natural it doesn't necessarily equal vegan. For example, if you see the colorants crimson lake, carmine lake, C.I. 75470 or natural red 4 you may be surprised to know it's obtained by boiling beetles. Natural, yes. Vegan, no.
Again, there is no official governing or certifying organization for the term "clean beauty". The definition may vary from a brand, writer or blogger but the common definition is ingredients that are safe for humans that do not cause skin inflammation/irritation, body system disruptions or ill effects. These ingredients can be natural or synthetically derived. For example, poison oak is a plant from nature but it doesn't mean it won't give you a rash while lab made hyaluronic acid is perfectly safe for humans!
Often the ingredients not included in these formulas are parabens, synthetic fragrances (with phthalates), synthetic dyes/flavors, formaldehyde releasers, the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone, PEG compounds or sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate etc.
*This is the encompassing term I use on my blog/social media and how I evaluate all of the products I personally use and recommend to you.*
Toxin-Free or non-toxic
These two terms are a bit more aggressive, fearmongering and more of a marketing word, but mostly mean the same as clean beauty as described above.
This is my absolute least favorite term tossed around the beauty industry because simply, it's impossible and there is NO SUCH THING. In my opinion, this is one of the worst words to use to market a product because it really plays on the fears of people. Chemicals are the building blocks of everything from the most basic and natural of substances like water which is made up of two hydrogen atoms and a single oxygen atom. Or take a look at the chemical composition of a banana for example...
Basically, it's good for the environment and brand may partake in one or several green initiatives.
- Made with recycled packaging or the packaging is recyclable
- Going completely box-less for less waste
- Making bar soaps instead of cleansers that require plastic/glass bottles
- Using biodegradable potato packing peanuts instead of styrofoam
- Compostable face wipes
- Sustainability with nature (trees, animals etc.)
- Tree-free sugar cane paper boxes
- Solar or wind-powered manufacturing plants
- Planting trees for products sold
- Sunscreen ingredients that do no harm coral reefs
This is one of the few terms that is actually regulated. First, what is the definition of organic anyway? It means that the ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, GMO, sewage sludge or ionizing radiation. Did you know it takes 5 years for soil to be free of these substances in order for the land to be considered organic?
Now, in terms of beauty and personal care just because a product's label says "organic" doesn't mean it really is. "Certified organic" and "organic" mean also mean different things. There are a few organic organizations/seals a product or brand can earn. One is the National Organic Program which requires 70% organic ingredients and the other USDA Certified Organic which requires 95% organic ingredients.
ECOCERT is a non-government organic certification agency that was founded in France in 1991. Though it is based in Europe they certify cosmetic products as well as household and food all over the world. The ECOCERT standard is that 95% of the ingredients must be plant-based and 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming. Also, the formulation must have an absence of GMO, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicon, PEG compounds, synthetic perfumes and dyes, animal-derived ingredients unless naturally products such as milk and honey. The packaging must be recyclable as well.
This means no animal testing at any point in the creation process of a beauty product. This includes individually sourced ingredients, third-party testing, and finished products.
There are two main cruelty-free organizations, PETA and Leaping Bunny.
Vegan + Vegetarian Beauty
Vegetarian - This means no animal part is in the formula, but animal by-product ingredients are allowed such as beeswax, honey or milk proteins.
Vegan - This is defined by no animal ingredients and no animal by-product ingredients whatsoever.
Gluten Free Beauty
In beauty and personal care products, wheat-based ingredients like hydrolyzed wheat protein or wheat germ oil are used as hydration or cleansing agents. Gluten-free products will obviously not contain these ingredients.
The good news is the gluten molecule is too large to penetrate the barrier of the skin. So for people with true medically diagnosed Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities the only concerns would be products that could accidentally end up in your mouth like lip products, toothpaste, shampoo running down the face in the shower etc. This is because the reaction to gluten happens within the intestines.
So are gluten-free products important for people without Celiac or gluten sensitivities? Nope, not at all.
Whether us plant lovers would like to admit it or not, plants can be inconsistent in their makeup and contain a ton of natural chemical compounds within them which can cause an allergic reaction more so than a lab-made ingredient. So for the sensitive or reactive skin types using natural ingredients may be something to be mindful of.
Synthetic ingredients are also more humane and sustainable. For example, the ingredient hyaluronic acid which is found in many serums, moisturizers and toners is/can be made of chicken combs or the eyeballs of slaughtered animals. Labs can produce vegan hyaluronic acid from bacteria or plants. Same goes for squalene which was once derived from shark liver oil and considered pretty pore clogging. Nowadays, it's derived from olive oil or sugar and it's put through a hydrogenation process (in a lab) to produce humane, stable and non-pore clogging squalane.
Bottom line, there is a difference between safe synthetics and potentially harmful synthetics.
We hear this term and think oh it must be great for sensitive skin or won't cause reactions. However, there are no accepted testing methods, regulations, restricted ingredients for this term.
Non-comedogenic and oil-free
This term is often referred to as potentially pore clogging and contributes to the formation of acne. Well, yet another term with no accepted testing methods and a brand can say their products are non-comedogenic freely.
The term "oil-free" falls into this category too implying that oil causes acne. Guess what? Potassium chloride is a salt compound that is used as a thickening agent in skin care but historically considered pore clogging. Meanwhile, hemp seed oil is in fact, an oil but works as a powerhouse to combat acne and clogged pores.
The truth is, ANY ingredient can make anyone break out and there are no guarantees as we all have our own unique skin chemistry. What clogs the pores of one person may not clog the pores of another.
Fragrance-Free vs. Unscented
These words are often used interchangeably but mean different things.
Fragrance-Free - No synthetic fragrance has been added to the product. This means you may smell the natural scent of cocoa butter or pomegranate oil for example as they are naturally fragrant, but completely from nature.
Unscented - This means no particular scent was chosen for the product. However, that doesn't mean a light fragrance agent wasn't added to cover the scent of ingredients that may not be appealing.