Natural, organic, clean, green, nontoxic—all of these words are used to describe the huge movement towards a more transparent beauty industry. Lately, conversations about this phenomenon are on the rise, showing up in retailers as big as Sephora and CVS. According to a Harper’s BAZAAR poll taken last year, nearly 50 percent of surveyed women (1,000 participants ranging in age, race, and ethnicity) claim to use natural beauty products.
“Purchasing natural beauty means committing to caring for your personal well-being and the health of the planet.”
Depending on the brand, company, or publication, the definition of ‘natural’ varies. Without a clear definition, greenwashing has the ability to run rampant, so let’s stop the confusion. Natural beauty refers to skincare and cosmetics products made without elements proven to be harmful to people or the environment.
We demand transparency and quality with our food, clothes, and now our beauty products, but is it better than opting for conventional? Purchasing natural beauty means committing to caring for your personal well-being and the health of the planet. And yet, discernment is still necessary for filtering out the false claims from the transparent ones. By doing our research and shopping thoughtfully, we can weed out the dangerous products from the nourishing ones.
How Beauty Products Affect Our Health
One of the most glaring differences between conventional and natural beauty products is the attention to ingredients. Not unlike the food industry, traditional beauty brands have been selling products with impossibly long ingredient lists for years. In addition, many of those ingredients bear complicated names, rendering the list often useless to the average consumer.
“Not unlike the food industry, traditional beauty brands have been selling products with impossibly long ingredient lists for years.”
Many watchdogs and natural beauty advocates have found these confusing lists hide a plethora of toxic chemicals. Over the last decade, scandal after scandal has called the products we put on our bodies into question. Parabens, phthalates, and SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate), for example, have been exposed as possibly harmful preservatives and synthetic aids.
For these reasons, natural beauty brands have taken over the industry and touted themselves as healthier alternatives to big beauty corporations. Some companies go so far as to claim that their products are safe enough to eat. Seriously. Watch Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Fallon eat a Goop product.
“While greenwashing is almost exclusively used in reference to clothing, the concept wreaks havoc in many industries, including this one.”
But here’s where it gets tricky: the beauty industry—including the natural beauty industry—is largely self-regulated. We may be in the dark about ingredients in most conventional beauty products, but we don’t always know the truth about products labeled ‘natural’ either. While greenwashing is almost exclusively used in reference to clothing, the concept wreaks havoc in many industries, including this one.
Also, some marketing of natural beauty products perpetuates the misconception that all chemicals are harmful, and all naturally-occurring chemicals are non-toxic. We still know very little about the products we use, and our best bet is to take our time looking into each one before we buy it.
How Beauty Products Affect the Environment
Along with the health scares related to the beauty industry, traditional products create a hefty carbon footprint. Ingredients commonly found in conventional beauty products such as petroleum and silicone are not only bad for our health but ultimately detrimental to the environment.
“The largest environmental impact is how traditional ingredients are extracted or manufactured—regardless of if they are naturally occurring or not.”
In 2018, Gay Simmons, the owner of Oh, Oh Organic, told Vox, “We have a lot of carcinogenic materials…the problem is the chemicals that are being used both for cosmetics and for household cleaners are made using some really environmentally destructive methods.”
The most significant environmental impact is how traditional ingredients are extracted or manufactured—regardless of if they are naturally occurring or not. For instance, palm oil is a natural substance, though the methods used to harvest it often strip the land, leaving destruction behind. Some natural beauty brands will still use palm oil but specify the use of oil harvested by companies who have NDPE policies (no deforestation, no peat development, and no exploitation). Many beauty ingredients are neither all good or all bad, requiring more mindful shopping.
“All of this packaging contributes to the overflowing landfills, plastic ocean pollution, and microplastic epidemic.”
Packaging presents a problem as well. In 2018, Teen Vogue shared global data from the market research company Euromonitor in a piece covering plastic packaging in the beauty industry. The research showed that, in 2010, the industry produced 65.62 billion plastic packaging units and grew to 76.8 billion in 2017.
All of this packaging contributes to the overflowing landfills, plastic ocean pollution, and microplastic epidemic. Most natural beauty brands have taken it upon themselves to find sustainable alternatives to wasteful packaging such as reusable glass containers or by using recycled materials, but this isn’t always the case, which is why it’s essential to research before making a purchase.
How to Shop for Better Beauty
The conclusion? Natural beauty brands are making a transparent effort to protect our health and the health of the planet by investing in responsibly-derived ingredients. However, it remains vital for customers to make thoughtful purchases, regardless of the labels beauty products boast.
“It remains vital for customers to make thoughtful purchases, regardless of the labels beauty products boast.”
Just like in ethical fashion, the key is to avoid generalized claims and vague wording. Instead, take a few extra minutes to read the ingredients list on a product and scroll through a company’s website. If a beauty brand claims to be natural but doesn’t provide specifics, it’s most likely greenwashing.
Consider using the following template and question list when reaching out to brands for information about ingredients, ethics, and sustainable practices.
Dear [Insert Brand],
I’m interested in purchasing [insert product] and would love to learn more about the listed ingredients. On your website you state that you [insert brand claim, i.e. sustainable practices, clean ingredients, ethical manufacturing etc.] and I’m wondering what exactly that means. Could you tell me what your brand specifically does to ensure that no ingredients in [insert product] harm people or the planet?
I look forward to hearing more about [insert brand]!
Thank you for your time,
[Insert Your Name]
Other questions to ask:
1. How do you package and ship your products?
2. Does your brand give back or support any environmental organizations?
3. How do you ensure that your ingredients are sourced ethically?
4. Where do you source your ingredients from?
5. Could you provide a transparent breakdown of your supply chain?
Finally, since natural beauty means something different to every company and customer, it’s important to know your values and make purchases that align with your beliefs. No one company can do it all, though many are making genuine strides towards a better beauty industry. And that’s the first step in making a difference.
Start your natural beauty journey by checking out our favorite natural makeup brands committed to organic, natural, and cruelty-free practices.