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Debunking 5 Claims about “Green” Skincare

Posted on: January 4th, 2021 by Kristen Chang

Pure, natural, healthy, ethically made. “Green” skincare brands make any or all of these claims, using visual branding to round out the ethos. You’ve seen it. Clean, spare packaging or bountiful use of green and brown. Leafy, flowery and other natural imagery. Possibly a beautiful, wholesome woman with radiant skin.* 

Beauty products that are “green” (sometimes called “natural”) are rising fast in popularity, addressing widespread consumer concerns about health, environment and animal welfare. They currently boast a $14B market, and are expected to see a 5% compound annual growth rate for the next five years. And skincare takes the largest share of that. 

Truly green skincare brands tend to use expensive ingredients or costly certification processes, so almost universally charge more. Most are largely true to their marketing. Others, whether intentionally or not, may make product claims that are exaggerated, misguided or misunderstood.* 

The Dirt on Greenwashing

Then there are the conventional, far-from-green brands that see the opportunity to get in on a growing market and higher price tags. They display green branding or catchphrases, letting consumers draw clean, earthy and conscientious conclusions about their products.*

So how do you separate true green from hollow “greenwashing”? Before spending top dollar for that gluten-free, SLS-free, plutonium-free night cream, do your best to ignore the marketing “feeling” and the statements about what isn’t in it. Go straight to the ingredients, certifications and any clear, objective, enforceable claims like “SPF 50” or “all packaging is post consumer and recyclable” or “100% organic ingredients.”* 

With a little knowledge and practice, you can become good at not only spotting greenwashing, but also knowing which ingredients to avoid and what green claims really mean. Then you can more easily find skincare products with the characteristics most important to you.*

1 – Vegan is always cleaner.

A product can be vegan and also chock full of chemical irritants, toxins, hormone disruptors and carcinogenic formaldehyde releasers. In fact, the vast majority of “dirty” skincare ingredients happen to come from labs, not animals. Some of the least healthy skincare products on the market contain nothing derived from animals.*

How about being ethically “cleaner”? Staying free of animal products earns serious ethics points, to be sure. However, offering vegan products doesn’t require any additional ethical commitments, such as when it comes to excessive plastic packaging, unsustainable ingredient sourcing or environmentally hazardous ingredients. That “proudly vegan” eye serum may even have been tested on animals! If your main concern is animal welfare, look for vegan products with cruelty-free certification or choose certified vegan, which requires that products be cruelty-free, too.*

2 – Natural is always healthier.

Unlike “organic,” “natural” is hard to define and not an FDA-regulated claim. What makes a skincare product “natural”? Can it contain any synthetics? A brand could go so far as to argue that their synthetics are made from petroleum, which is pumped from the earth. Or do you draw the line at the laboratory door? Then you bar, for instance, glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid and retinol. All three are wonderful skin-rejuvenating ingredients that are found in nature, but require lab production for skincare.* 

For some brands, “natural” appears to mean that their products contain only substances taken directly from plants or animals. If you purchase such a product, pay close attention to the expiration date and watch your skin for reactions. Without lab-formulated preservatives, products can start to go bad much sooner, becoming harmful to your skin. Plus, some very natural ingredients can be irritating or sensitizing in their own right, like bergamot fruit extract, ylang ylang oil and mandarin peel oil (all EWG 5).*   

In the end, as long as no regulated standards exist, “natural” is marketing more than it is informative. “Natural” on a skincare label doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is more safe, pure or healthy than some conventional products.*

3 – Ingredients that sound scary are scary.

Some magazine articles and skincare advocates espouse this rule of thumb: if an ingredient is hard to pronounce, avoid it. This is a shame, because some of the most healthy, effective ingredients have names that are a mouthful.* 

For instance: scary-sounding phytosphingosine. It’s a fat created by the top layer of your skin as barrier protection, found in select face creams for dry and aging skin. How about palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7, leontopodium alpinum callus culture (LACC), ergothioneine, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and superoxide dismutase? All safe and occuring naturally, research has shown that they deliver outstanding firming and anti-aging benefits. On the other hand, glyoxal, bronopol and quaternium-15 are easy enough to say but carcinogenic formaldehyde-releasing preservatives!*

No one expects you to be able to pick out what’s healthy and what isn’t on any skincare label. Thankfully you can look up ingredients on the Skin Deep database run by the consumer advocacy non-profit, Environmental Working Group (EWG). You’ll see ingredients rated one through ten, with one being the safest. Then, you can confidently tell which ingredients are scary, and which are not.*

4 – “Paraben free” equals safe.

“No parabens” is now a common feature on skincare labels. Understandable, considering that propyl- and butylparaben get a high hazard score of EWG 9, and isobutyl- and isopropylparaben earn the highest score, EWG 10. Ethylparaben, however, comes in at only an EWG 3, yet is routinely lumped in with the others.* 

Certain parabens aren’t the only hazardous skincare ingredients to avoid, but may have become widely infamous because they’re common and have a name that’s short and easy to remember. In contrast, you virtually never find a label trumpeting the lack of diethanolamine, quaternium-15, methylisothiazolinone or any of dozens of others rated hazardous by the EWG. Your body lotion may be paraben free, but still contain multiple ingredients that are carcinogenic, irritating, endocrine disrupting, or toxic to your organs, a fetus or the environment.*

As consumer aversion to parabens has grown, brands have been turning to other preservatives. Some are hazardous too, but haven’t yet come onto the mainstream radar. Others are safe, but may not do as good a job at keeping mold, bacteria and fungi at bay. This usually results in a shorter shelf life and potentially irritated, reactive skin from using a product that has gone bad.*

5 – “Food grade” ingredients are the gentlest.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, the idea of gently nourishing it is sure to sound very good. What better way to do that than with food for your face? Many high-quality food-grade ingredientsfrom coconut oil to yogurtdo just that.* 

Just the same, you can probably think of plenty of foods that your skin wouldn’t like smeared onto it, like fiery hot chili peppers or onions. Butane (EWG 6), aluminum (EWG 4-9), talc (EWG 8), and FD&C yellow no. 5 and blue no. 1 (both EWG 7) are all common skincare ingredients and also FDA-approved for food. In fact, among professional food handlers, skin problems are common and 40% are caused by contact with food.*

Inform Yourself

Read up on skincare ingredients, check labels against EWG Skin Deep and see a board-certified dermatologist. They’ll work with you to customize a plan that meets your skin’s unique needs, while also addressing any green skincare concerns. Soon enough, you’ll see through the greenwashing to the products you really want.* 


*Individual results may vary and are not guaranteed.