Navigating the beauty world can feel complicated.
There’s an infinite scroll of options to consider, from skincare to makeup to haircare products. Finding the right stuff that works for your unique complexion and hair texture is challenging enough—that’s why when women find a product they love, like the perfect mascara or lipstick color, they’re incredibly loyal—and now, savvy consumers are left questioning if their go-to purchases fall under the “clean” beauty category.
Like you didn’t have enough to worry about.
The clean, or green, beauty category has exploded over the past few years. Research shows that certain chemicals often found in beauty and skincare products like phthalates, formaldehyde, and parabens are correlated with increased rates of endocrine and hormone disruption. Over time, high levels of exposure to these chemicals can mess with fertility, weight, hormone production, and overall health. Plus, these chemicals can be abrasive to sensitive skin.
As a response, the consumers have embraced “green beauty” wholeheartedly. Buzzy terms like “natural,” “non-toxic,” “safe,” and “plant-based” have become trendy labels to slap on products as a signifier of their cleaner, healthier formulations compared to conventional products. But in reality, none of these words actually have an official or legal meaning … or are recognized by the FDA.
So what do you need to know about these labels when shopping for safer-for-you beauty, skin, and hair care products? Below, we lay out what you need to know about all the important words you might see on a label and ingredient list—plus what you need to be aware of, and what you can ignore as simple marketing.
Clean Beauty Terms
Technically, the term “natural” isn’t regulated by the FDA or USDA … which means that almost anyone can slap the word on their product. That being said, not all products with a natural label are trying to dupe you. Take a look at the ingredients list on the back of your products—ingredients are listed from highest to lowest percentage in a product (which is why “water” or “aqua” is the first ingredient in many skincare and hair care formulas!). Try to choose products that have synthetic ingredients at the end of their list.
According to Consumer Reports, “non-toxic” is another word that’s used by beauty brands but has zero regulation. “A product that does not meet the definition of “toxic” according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission should not necessarily be considered non-toxic.” So just because something isn’t deadly doesn’t mean that it’s non-toxic. Usually, though, this label indicates a product is free of synthetic chemicals. Again, take a look at the label and check for formaldehyde, parabens, and phthalates.
The organic moniker is one of the only terms that’s regulated by the FDA and USDA. For an FDA approval, a product needs to contain a certain percentage of organic material. This ruling varies from state to state, so an organic-certified hairspray in Vermont will probably have a different formulation than an organic-certified hairspray in California. For an official USDA Organic seal—which is difficult and expensive to purchase—products must be at least 95 percent organic.
It’s important to remember that just because a product is considered organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier or safer than it’s conventional (or natural) counterpart. Technically, even organic materials can still be unsafe and can cause allergic reactions. People can be just as allergic to something like lavender essential oil as they are to synthetic fragrances.
Again, there’s absolutely no regulation around the word “clean”—despite how often it gets thrown around in the beauty world. “Clean” is typically used to describe a product that’s free of parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde.
The descriptor plant-derived or plant-based usually means that a product is made from natural and botanical ingredients as opposed to synthetics.
What should you shop for?
At the end of the day, there’s no solid research that indicates organic beauty products are superior to their natural or plant-derived counterparts. Yes, all three are likely better to use than conventional products that contain parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde—but if your entire beauty routine isn’t totally organic, you’re gonna to be fine. Always aim to choose the best option—a product that’s low in abrasive chemicals, but still works!