How to decipher clean beauty, natural and organic skincare products

How to decipher clean beauty, natural and organic skincare products

Clean, natural, organic, vegan, cruelty-free—when it comes to beauty products, there is little if no regulation on how brands can use these words. Definitions are subjective and often change from brand to brand, package to package, making it nearly impossible to navigate—or decipher—the truth from greenwashing. Here, we break down the most common buzzwords for some much-needed clarity.


Safe for people and the planet, clean means that a beauty product should have considered human and environmental health, using a nontoxic element as a baseline and plant-based ingredients for active results. The clean beauty movement has been influenced in part by consumers becoming more discerning about their health and more educated about the ingredients in beauty products. 



Organic products are made from a minimum of 70-95% of organic inputs derived from plants and other natural material. More importantly, they are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, growth hormones or antibiotics and are minimally processed to preserve the natural properties. Organic processes prohibit the use of solvents such as mineral oils, petroleum derived products, benzene, propylene glycols, synthetic fragrances and perfumes, silicones. Preservatives must be derived from natural sources, ensuring they also do not leave a harmful footprint on the planet, particularly the soil, water and air. 


Natural products contains ingredients from natural sources, their main ingredients may be plant-based but are not necessarily organically produced. A natural ingredient can still be farmed with pesticides, chemical fertilisers, growth hormones or antibiotics. They may contain preservatives and chemicals of contentious debate such as sulphates, glycols, parabens, silicones and phthalates. Natural products can also include animal products including beeswax and minerals. Natural is an unregulated term, the FDA, USDA, or EU do not have any regulations or standards on the term.


Water and oxygen are chemicals and can be toxic in the wrong dose. So when a beauty product is labeled nontoxic, it likely means that the ingredients and specifically the concentration of ingredients have not been shown to cause adverse health effects for the intended use. In the clean beauty space, nontoxic means that a product shouldn’t include any ingredient that’s been deemed toxic at any dose and many will utilise supplier data and studies on ingredients master data sheets or a third-party resource such as The Environmental Working Group or the European Union. 


It is estimated that every year we produce roughly 400 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, with 8 million tons entering our oceans. It has been suggested that if this continues, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Aside from earth-friendly options to plastics, a sustainable approach considers earth-friendly production, to ethical sourcing of ingredients and carbon neutral shipping services. It means that the ingredients on the inside of the package—including how those ingredients were sourced—and the packaging itself should not be harmful to the planet. Truly sustainable ingredients are those that are ethically sourced and proven to be safe for the environment, with sustainable or no-waste packaging being defined as glass packaging, biodegradable packaging, post-consumer recycled packaging, or the ability to recycle empty bottles appropriately through a recycle program. 


A beauty product is vegan if it doesn’t contain any animal by-products or ingredients sourced from animals. Common non-vegan ingredients found in clean beauty products include beeswax, honey, lanolin, and tallow. Many people associate vegan with clean, but this is not the case. A product can be vegan and still contain chemical ingredients of concern. 


A beauty product is cruelty-free if both the ingredient and the final product has not been tested on animals anywhere along the manufacturing line. It can also mean that any animal-derived ingredients were not extracted at the expense of an animal’s welfare. A beauty product can be cruelty-free but not vegan, and vice versa.


Cosmeceuticals are a hybrid of the words “cosmetic” and “pharmaceutical” which eludes to their scientific and medical origin. Cosmeceuticals are medical grade skin care ingredients to give a noticeable positive change in the skin. They target skin conditions such as ageing, acne, pigmentation and rosacea or sensitive skin. Well known cosmeceutical ingredients that dermatologists swear by include vitamin A, vitamin C, niacinamide/vitamin B3, vitamin E, tocopherols also known as vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, alpha and beta hydroxy acids such as lactic, salicylic and glycolic acids, Pro-vitamin B5/pathenol to name a few.