A Guide To What Clean, Green, And Natural Really Mean In Beauty

Trying to decipher what ‘clean,’ ‘green,’ and ‘natural’ mean when it comes to beauty products? Turns out, they're more than just buzzwords. We spoke to industry insiders to break down the terminology and what it means for the future of the market.
Written by Vivien Moon
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A Guide To What Clean, Green, And Natural Really Mean In BeautyJazmin Quaynor/Unsplash

The United States Congress hasn’t voted to update laws regulating the cosmetics industry since the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Yes, that’s some 80 years ago, which is to say that there’s been a lack of oversight as to what goes into beauty products and what claims brands can make about them. But, hopefully, that is about to change.

In 2019, the Cosmetic Safety Enhancement Act of 2019 (a.k.a. H.R. 5279) was brought before the House of Representatives to establish more rigorous regulation for cosmetic companies. Focusing on ethical manufacturing, facility registration, ingredient authentication, and transparency, the bill had the potential to overhaul the industry as we know it but unfortunately the bill did not pass. But all is not lost, in December of 2022, Congress passed the “Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA)”, which overhauled the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) framework for the regulation of cosmetics.

While the decades-long lack of regulation from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal agencies is frustrating, consumers and brands have been taking matters into their own hands. Customers are increasingly demanding transparency from beauty companies. In turn, brands are self-imposing similar – if not stricter – guidelines on what can be expected from their formulas, packaging, and environmental impact. That means cleaner products, more sustainably sourced componentry, and a movement toward eco friendliness.

In honor of Earth Month, The AEDITION is taking a look at the beauty industry through a green lens — speaking to market leaders on what ‘clean,’ ‘green,’ and ‘natural’ truly mean when it comes to cosmetics and skincare.

What Clean, Green, And Natural Really Mean

Much like the cannabinoid industry, there is little regulation influencing what beauty companies can and cannot say about their products. Looking at the marketing and technical terms emblazoned on labels and websites can confuse the most seasoned beauty vet. Whether you’re looking to decode what’s in your eyeshadow and mascara or want insight into moisturizers, sunscreens, deodorant, and essential oils, the ingredient list can hide a lot.

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With that said, there are some general rules of thumb you can follow when reading beauty labels. Here’s the basic breakdown:

  • Clean: ‘Clean’ products are those without toxic ingredients — be them natural or man-made. Jamie Leilani Pelayo, co-founder of natureofthings, describes clean beauty as being “void of synthetic chemistry, toxins, GMOs, or any other substances deemed potentially harmful to one’s internal or external health.” Because the FDA has only banned a select few ingredients from product formulations, brands have taken it upon themselves to cease using questionable chemicals and compounds like parabens, phthalates, talc, and formaldehyde – to name a few.
  • Green: Those labeled ‘green’ are usually products that are made sustainably and will not harm the earth through their manufacturing or recycling. For Tiila Abbitt, founder of vegan makeup brand Āether Beauty, sustainability matters on more than just a commercial level. “Green, for me, is turning into blue beauty, which takes the sustainability lens to everything,” she shares. “Beauty Heroes is a great retailer that takes the environment into account, as well as the ingredients. That, to me, is the next step.”
  • Natural: This might be the easiest to remember. ‘Natural’ means the ingredients are derived from nature (i.e. nothing is made in a lab). Brands like Tata Harper, Herbivore Botanicals, and True Botanicals offer natural ingredients in all their skincare products.

Additional terms in this sphere to remember are ‘organic,’ ‘vegan,’ and ‘cruelty-free.’ Organic implies that the ingredients are grown in non-genetically modified soil — without herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and more. Vegan and cruelty-free products, meanwhile, aren’t tested on animals and do not contain animal byproducts.

Do Your Research

Since not all beauty and personal hygiene items are created equal, research is key – especially when it comes to skincare. For Shrankhla Holecek, founder of ayurvedic skincare brand UMA Oils, creating clean beauty products goes hand in hand with making organic beauty. “To us, that means farming organically to preserve soil balance, minimal dependence on artificial fuel and irrigation, working with natural cycles of the sun, seasonality, and extracting our oils in a conscious, efficient, and thoughtful way,” she says.

These buzzwords are important to understand because they are not interchangeable. For example, a product might be clean and cruelty-free, but that does not mean the packaging is sustainable. Similarly, a formula can be clean but not natural.

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Here’s the thing: synthetic ingredients aren’t always the bad guys. In fact, sometimes they can be vital to keeping a product safe and stable or better than the real thing. Take silicate mineral mica, an ingredient commonly used to give makeup shimmer and shine. Abbitt opts for a synthetic variation in her makeup palettes when she can’t vet the source of natural mica. “We source from the U.S., so it is not connected to child labor whatsoever,” she explains. “[Synthetic mica] is exactly how it sounds: it’s made in a lab and looks exactly like mica, but it’s clear.” A more ethical and environmentally sound alternative, Abbitt ensures her products have the highest-quality ingredients because “mica can have the same issues as talc,” she says. “It naturally grows around asbestos, so it can have contamination like talc.”

Why These Terms Matter

Before H.R. 5279 made its appearance before Congress, Scott Faber, the senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), said in a statement that, since 2009, “617 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 93 chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm in more than 81,000 products.”

Due to the lack of regulation in the industry, it has fallen on the shoulders of consumers to determine what they trust and are willing to put on their face and body. “Without these definitions that are defined by the FDA or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) people will, unfortunately, take their own marketing spin on things,” Abbitt laments. “It is up to the client to do a little more due diligence to see if the brand has these initiatives and what that means.” In order to eliminate any greenwashing in an industry that is so poorly regulated, customers must continue to demand clarity and truthfulness from manufacturers.

What It Takes to Run a Clean, Green, or Natural Beauty Company

Spearheading any operation is difficult. But, when it pertains to quality control, these skincare brand founders understand the need for vigilance from the ground up. “We utilize our ‘No-No List’ across the board on the manufacturing side of our business,” Pelayo says of the ethos at natureofthings. “This means that everyone who touches our products is aware of the ingredients that we refuse to use, as well as the quality of ingredients that go into our products.”

Being thorough can be time-consuming, but it is a part of the job when health is on the line. “We have direct relationships with the vendors and request safety data sheets and other pertinent documentation from all of our raw material vendors to review prior to purchasing the material needed,” she adds. “We work with manufacturers who specialize in all-natural, clean ingredients. We stay current with the research that is constantly being done in the clean beauty space to ensure our products and our brand maintain this level of standards.”

For UMA Oils and Holecek, keeping things green means utilizing the proper machinery in the production system. “Our essential oil distillery is uniquely self-sustaining and environmentally friendly with its innovative machinery that converts waste products back into reusable fuel,” she says. The reasoning, Holecek explains, is that it “allows us to operate with minimal dependence on outside energy resources, while leaving behind the smallest of footprints.”

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From start to finish, Holecek recognizes that every element of the process has an impact. “The water used for the distillation process is cycled back into the farms, while we also take measures to minimize our dependence on artificial irrigation,” she explains. “Furthermore, fragrant remains of flowers and plants left over after the extraction process are converted into incense.”

All of these individual yet compounding efforts are what Pelayo believes will create long-term change in the industry. “Putting an end to animal testing, GMO crops, and harmful chemicals used for growing is a challenge,” she says. “But we, as the beauty community, have the power to be a guiding force by starting to refrain from using these ingredients.”

How to Ensure Your Products Fit Your Values

At this point, you probably understand how important it is to research before you buy — especially in the beauty and wellness space. If you wish to establish a more clean, sustainable, and non-toxic beauty routine, here’s what to keep an eye out for:

  1. Check the Label: “I look for precise labels — like ‘organic’ or ‘free from’ — and I study the label to decide whether a product is ‘clean’ for me,” Holecek explains. Then, note how the ingredients are named. “Generally speaking, if it has more than five to six ingredients that I cannot exactly map back to an actual ingredient I know, I'm a little wary of whether the product passes my sniff test,” she says. If you’re having trouble deciphering, try cross-referencing the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) to see how common ingredients may be listed on labels.
  2. Check the Certification: Organizations like PETA, Leaping Bunny, and Made Safe have their own certifications that can be found on beauty products that meet their scrupulous standards. Retailers have also taken steps to demystify the consumer experience. Sephora and Target have their Clean at Sephora and Target Clean initiatives, while Follain, Credo, The Detox Market, Shen Beauty, and more only sell products that meet a certain set of guidelines.
  3. Check the Internet: At some point, you are going to need to trust that brands are practicing what they preach, but the proof can often be found through online resources. Pelayo understands that consumers will naturally be inquisitive, so she recommends “avoiding products that have huge ingredient lists with more than half of them being strange-looking words.” She is quick to add, however, that this can be tricky because “there are natural ingredients with strange, long words.” As necessity is the mother of invention, Pelayo says this conundrum is what led natureofthings to build out a glossary of terms on its website. It details every single ingredient the brand uses and what it is derived from.

The Takeaway

There is a difference between clean, green, and natural beauty products. Guaranteeing that the classification is legitimate, however, is where the confusion lies. Fortunately, more and more brands and retailers are responding to consumers’ demand for transparency and are imposing their own standards and regulations. At the end of the day, you are your biggest advocate. Ensuring the products you purchase and put on your skin are in line with your values (and actually work!) means doing a little research and learning how to read the label.

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VIVIEN MOONis a senior editor at AEDIT.

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