What Do “Organic” And “Natural” Really Mean When It Comes To Your Beauty Products?

When it comes to all-natural beauty products, not much is clear. So naturally, we talked to some experts.

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The phrase you vote with your dollars rings true in every facet of retail. You have the option to shop at businesses that practice sustainability, to devour food from companies whose morals align with your own, and to slather on face creams made with naturally-sourced ingredients. That said, there’s a tricky element here that many people may not consider. When you really get down to it, how transparent and honest are all these companies, and just how true are their claims? As an example: According to USDA guidelines, the term “free range” on your carton of eggs simply means that the poultry has been allowed access outside at some point in the day. For some husbandries, that may equate to letting chickens into ultra-cramped outdoor quarters for an hour a day—not quite the vision of jolly, free-range chickens frolicking in rolling green pastures we all have in our heads. Naturally, we were curious about whether these lax, often misleading label regulations also apply to the skincare market. What do “natural” and “organic” really mean when it comes to your beauty products? And how do you make sure you’re spending your dollars in the right place? For the answers to those questions, we consulted the FDA guidelines (spoiler: they’re pretty nondescript) and a handful of experts, including a beauty chemist, a product developer for natural skincare brands, a celebrity esthetician, and the co-founder of a natural skincare e-commerce site.

How “Organic” and “Natural” are Defined in the Beauty Industry

Every expert we spoke to about this topic agreed that the terms “natural” and “organic” are very loosely defined by brands in the skincare market. This is largely because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes a very hands-off approach to the topic. In fact, they explicitly state that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements for the use of the term organic is “separate from the laws and regulations that FDA enforces for cosmetics,” and that the FDA doesn’t even have a legal definition. With no definition, there’s very little—if anything—to enforce. It’s the Wild West when it comes ‘natural’ beauty products,” says Amy Regan, founder and CEO of the skincare brand Skinfix. “There really are no regulated guidelines of what constitutes a natural product, and the word is definitely overused. Each brand defines what ‘natural’ means to them.” At best, this creates buyer confusion, and at worst, it can translate to thoughtless manipulation, notes Alicia Freed, co-founder of natural and organic e-commerce site Living Earth Beauty. The website curates 100 percent natural, raw, and vegan products and is notably discerning when introducing a new product to their store—even their packaging materials are green. In that sense, they’re true experts when it comes to shopping for natural products. “While some companies may be using the term with integrity, what ‘natural’ usually implies is that they have used at least some natural ingredients, or naturally derived ingredients, in their formulations. However, this does not guarantee that they contain only natural ingredients,” Freed says. “Being green, clean, [and] non-toxic is very trendy these days, and many companies are jumping on the ‘green beauty’ bandwagon in order to cash in. This is what many refer to as ‘greenwashing,’ and it is a very popular tactic that seems to be gaining more and more momentum.” She adds that many of the largest players in cosmetics are releasing new products that use phrasing and imaging to convey a clean and pure approach, but in countless cases, these are just reformulations of the same conventional products with a “green” spin.

How to Make Sure You’re Getting the Real Deal

If buying natural or organic skincare is important to you, then you must be especially astute while shopping. Though you might be feeling understandably overwhelmed at this point, don’t fret. There are a handful of ways you can feel confident in your natural skincare purchases.

Look for Labels

One of the easiest things you can do is look for certification seals and stamps. For example, while the FDA doesn’t regulate organic and natural labels, the USDA’s definition has become a standard in cosmetics. If you see “certified organic” by the USDA on a label, that indicates the product meets the government’s regulated organic guidelines. “The term ‘Certified Organic’ describes the way agricultural product is grown and processed,” explains celebrity esthetician Biba de Sousa. “The National Organic Program … , in 2005, produced guidelines for organic products. In essence, growing, handling, and processing of the source ingredient involves no pesticides, no hormones, chemical fertilizers, preservatives, [synthetic coating], steroids, antibiotics.” There are three primary categories, says de Sousa, including 100 percent USDA Organic, 95 percent organic, and “made with organic,” which means 70 to 90 percent of the product is made with organic ingredients. This category cannot use the organic seal anywhere but can list organic ingredients in the information panel (marked by an asterisk). You can also look for additional certified organic labels, which follow carefully stated standards. Each country has its own label, for example, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’ Family of Standards is an internationally recognized seal as well. There are also seals by NATRUE, the Natural Products Association, Ecocert, and Demeter. While the standards for each of these companies vary, seeing their labels means the product contains 90 to 100 percent organic and natural ingredients. All that said, we highly suggest doing research on any certification label you see to make sure their standards align with your own. There are some certifications with lax standards, and it’s important to note that there have even been cases where brands incorrectly use certifications. Remember—it’s the Wild West out there!

Check the Ingredients

When in doubt, start reading. “At the end of the day, the most foolproof way to protect yourself and make the most informed decisions is to do your research and always, always read the ingredient [lists],” Freed advises.

She notes that the lists can look like a lot of gibberish at first—especially if you’re new to reading them. To minimize the initial confusion, you should familiarize yourself with the ingredients you shouldn’t be using. For example, Freed says it’s wise to avoid parabens, glycols and butyls, sulfates, aluminum chlorohydrate (often found in antiperspirant), toluene, nanoparticles, and hydroquinone. Chemical SPFs also aren’t ideal if you’re seeking all-natural products. Those include oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients that were recently set to be banned in Hawaii due to their damaging effects on coral reefs. You can replace chemical SPF with physical SPF ingredients, which include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Fragrance, perfume, and parfum are also words that should raise your all-natural seeking eyebrows. Even though they sound harmless, these ingredients are often used in the skincare industry as a blanket term that encompasses a host of other ingredients that probably aren’t natural or organic. “If you still have questions [after reading the label], contact the brand,” advises David Pollock, a beauty chemist for top beauty brands, including Lancome, SkinCeuticals, and Smashbox. “More and more brands are becoming transparent. If the brand won’t communicate with transparency, consider sticking with brands that empower you to make the right decision for you.”

Sift Through the Marketing-Speak

If there’s one point we want to keep reiterating, it’s that you should always be ready to read. Without some research, it’s easy to fall for gimmicks or to think that just because a product is sold at Whole Foods or the farmers market, it’s all natural. “When a brand uses words that sound nice in their advertising, branding, and packaging such as ‘nature inspired’ or ‘made with 100 percent [ingredient],’ take a moment to think about what they are actually saying,” Freed says. “Does their choice of words really say anything about the quality, content, or efficacy of their products? Likely, they are using words to evoke feelings of purity, but that’s usually not backed up by the content of their products.”

Another important thing to note is that phrases such as vegan, cruelty-free, sustainable, non-GMO, gluten-free, sulfate-free, and paraben-free don’t necessarily mean that all the ingredients are natural. If the aforementioned labels matter to you, seek such products out, but do be aware that the labels only indicate as much as they state and nothing beyond that. To draw a comparison, if a cupcake says it’s sugar free, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for you or that it doesn’t contain gluten or fat. It just means that it’s sugar-free.

The Bottom Line On All-Natural Cosmetics

At the end of the day, our best advice is to try not to let yourself get tricked by flashy advertising and to always do your homework. What ultimately matters—even more than where a product is sold or their feel-good promises—are the cold, hard facts, which amount to clean ingredient lists and trustworthy certifications. We understand this requires a fair amount of research and therefore a notable investment of your time. However, if buying natural and organic is important to you, then it’s ultimately worth going out of your way to selectively spend your dollars on brands that meet your standards. Won’t it feel good to be able to slather on your new serum with the same pride and enthusiasm as you get when slapping on an “I Voted!” sticker?