Greenwashing: How Cosmetics Convince You That They’re Natural

“Green” products are one of the hottest trends in beauty today. But, do you know what terms like “natural” or “organic” really mean?

Most consumers don’t—but it’s not your fault.

In cosmetics, unlike food, these terms aren’t regulated unless a product is certified. For example, not only is there no hard-and-fast definition for the word “natural,” it’s a difficult concept to articulate.

Does “natural” mean a product is paraben-free, petrochemical-free, no animal testing, mineral oil-free, alcohol-free, fragrance-free, and silicone-free? Or is it simply tested for all skin types and hypoallergenic? More importantly, which standard is most important to you?

While not necessary to be certified organic, creating a product that conforms to all of those standards is a pretty tall order—one that’s too expensive and labor intensive for most brands to adhere to. Instead, some deceiving brands will say that they’re organic while including only a single drop of organic essential oil. Others may use many certified organic ingredients, but lack the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “USDA Certified Organic” seal of approval.

And even certification can be confusing to consumers. The USDA Certified Organic seal looks exactly the same when placed on a product’s label, even though it can mean three different things: 

  • 100% Organic: Made entirely from organic materials (besides salt and water). 
  • Organic: At least 95% organic materials, with remaining ingredients approved by the USDA.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70% organic ingredients and can display three organic ingredients on the label.

What Is “Greenwashing”?

The other odd thing about the organic certification process is that it’s run by the Department of Agriculture. A quick glance at the USDA’s website shows that there’s no information about cosmetics on its front page, nor on its drop-down menus. In fact, there’s not even a legal division of the USDA for the certification of cosmetics. 

Which is why some brands skip the certification process altogether, instead slapping words like “bio-organic” or “clean” onto their labels—despite lacking any proof of conforming to those standards.

Doing so is called “greenwashing,” and since the cosmetics industry is self-regulated, there’s plenty of room for less-scrupulous brands to cash in on the trendy “organic” bandwagon.

Greenwashing In Action

Some beauty brands create the illusion of being green by focusing on one specific ingredient—like argan oil—to draw you in. This is confusing as consumers don’t realize that one, or even a select few, “organic” or “natural” ingredients are being drowned in chemicals. 

What’s your first clue? If you turn around a product to look at the list of ingredients, try and find the one that’s promised to be organic—you’ll often see it in the mix of a long list of unfamiliar, tongue-twisting words. Are they “natural”? It’s unlikely. 

Other brands try to bolster their “green” image by using recyclable packaging, putting the cruelty-free label on their products, or making the claim that they’re vegan—which might confuse shoppers into thinking their formulas are green or organic when they’re not. 

Why Companies Continue To Greenwash Cosmetics

All of this isn’t to say that organic is king—it’s just to point out how many different interpretations of the word there are, because there are so many different interests involved in purchasing beauty products. Some shoppers might be concerned with remaining vegan, while others care about “natural” products because of sustainability, toxicity, or all of the above. 

Cosmetics brands, big and small, will continue to market "green" beauty products as long as consumers show a keen interest in the origins, cultivation criteria and sustainability of products and raw materials used.  

But, why not go all the way green? There are a few reasons:

All-natural cosmetics just don’t work as well.

If a brand restricts the ingredients that they can use in a formula, they’re at a disadvantage against other brands who don’t follow those restrictions. Sure, those restricted-ingredients products may work; they just don’t work as well as standard cosmetics products.

And when it comes to what consumers buy, there’s no question: Consumers buy products that work. Shoppers may want products that are “all-natural” or “green,” but those choices are quickly shelved if they prove to be less effective.

All-natural cosmetics can be less safe.

One of the biggest challenges brands face when creating an all-natural cosmetic is that, for that product to reach store shelves, it has to be proven as safe.

Most of the ingredients that are used in cosmetics are capable of being contaminated with microbial growth. Unfortunately, the ingredients that are really good at killing disease-causing microbes are not natural!

This means that unless brands create special airtight packaging made under antiseptic conditions or sell products with expiration dates, there’s simply no way to create all-natural, preservative-free products that are safe—at least not at a reasonable cost.

And cosmetics companies are in the business of making money. They may have secondary goals of sustainability or helping the planet, but when it comes down to it? Burt’s Bees is just as interested in profits as Proctor and Gamble. 

So, “greenwashing” cosmetics, or creating a cosmetic that appears more natural, helps consumers feel as if they’re purchasing something a little better for themselves (and the environment), while costing less to make than those that are all-naturally formulated.

True “natural” consumers are still a relatively small part of the market.

While the natural cosmetics market is growing, those who demand certified-organic standards still only represent about 10-15% of green-conscious shoppers. [1] So, the biggest manufacturers won’t change their better-selling formulas just to get a piece of the smaller market.

They will, however, add an extract or drop of essential oil here and there to capture the attention of those who are still swayed by a product that calls itself “organic”—greenwashing at its best.

What To Look For When Shopping For “Green” Cosmetics

Deciding what level of “green” is best depends on each shopper’s individual preferences. How to smartly shop for what matters in your life? Here are a few certifications you can rely on beyond the USDA Certified Organic seal:

  • The Natural Standard: Products that meet the Natural Standard, as defined by the Natural Products Association, are made mainly with natural ingredients, contain no ingredients that may have suspected health risks, have not been tested on animals, and use environmentally sensitive packaging.
  • BDIH Certification: BDIH is a German association that developed guidelines for certified natural cosmetics in Europe, which defines natural products as those with high-quality plant-based ingredients and no synthetic colors or fragrances, no silicones, no paraffin, and no petroleum products.
  • EKO Organic Mark: To be eligible for the compulsory EKO organic mark, products must be made with 95% organic ingredients and without any ingredients that have been genetically modified or radioactively irradiated. The EKO mark is owned by the Dutch certifying organization SKAL and can be found on most organic products from European Union countries.

Another trick? Look for products in smaller packages. 

If a product is in a huge container and sits on a shelf for ages, it probably has preservatives to help keep it fresh for longer and is less likely to be truly made of natural ingredients.

Finally, watch for red-flag ingredients by learning to read ingredients labels. 

If you’re committed to a natural lifestyle, whether it's food ingredients or beauty product ingredients, this is a really important step. Get to know a few of the ingredients that you want to avoid and keep them in mind when you’re shopping.

To learn more about which ingredients might conflict with what matters most to you, check out the comprehensive list at Keep a list on hand while shopping, or use the organization's mobile app, so that you can double-check if you’re unsure.

Want to know more about which cosmetics ingredients work best? Check out “Learning To Read Your Cosmetics Label Can Save You Cash.”


1. Burt's Bees, Tom's Of Maine Owned By Fortune 500 Companies

  • October 22, 2015

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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