Welcome, one and all, to the confusing and murky world that is ‘sustainable beauty’. Buckle in folk, it’s a long and windy road.


If you’ve heard of one, you’ve heard them all; green, sustainable, clean, natural, organic, vegan, cruelty free. It’s confusing enough to make you turn heel out of the cosmetics section. 

With no true guidelines, the problem with these terms is their definitions are subjective and often change from company to company, product to product, package to package. It’s nearly impossible to get a straight-up answer to what each means, let alone to decipher the truth from greenwashing.

And thus, we arrive at our first buzzword: Greenwashing.

This term refers to when a company or brand misleads a customer into thinking their product is environmentally friendly, when it’s not. Greenwashing has become rife in the beauty industry thanks to the rise in popularity for products that are clean/organic/natural/sustainable (you get the pic). You might see it in a misleading logo (a cute bunny/green leaf), eco-look packaging or by replacing widely known ‘toxic’ ingredients (ie. parabens) with equally dangerous, but lesser known, ones (so you won’t notice).

Sustainable beauty is an umbrella term for all cosmetic products that help protect the planet’s resources. Now, there are many different standards for what sustainable beauty actually looks like, but, in a nutshell, it encapsulates everything from packaging to ingredients and how those ingredients are sourced. Truly sustainable products are those that are ethically sourced and proven to be safe to the environment, with no-waste packaging (glass, biodegradable packaging or post-consumer recycled packaging).

Under the ‘sustainable beauty’ umbrella is a gaggle of other environmentally conscious labels. But what do they actually mean?

Green: Green beauty, in theory, should refer to products that are produced and packaged with no harm to the environment, for example, reef-safe sunscreen that’s sold in biodegradable packaging. However, green beauty can be a bit of a wishy-washy term that brands use to masquerade as evidence of protecting the planet’s resources. 

Clean: Clean beauty started off as quite a niche movement but, thanks to the likes of Goop, has now become quite mainstream. Clean beauty, similarly to green beauty, implies the product will have consideration to human and environmental health. Think about what clean-eating means (ie. no processed foods) and apply this to beauty; using non-toxic elements and plant-based ingredients for active results. If you’re unsure whether your product is clean or not, check out SkinDeep. This website has a comprehensive database of cosmetic products and breaks down the combination of chemicals in each with their toxicity scale (0 = least and 10 = most).

Vegan: A vegan beauty product doesn’t contain any ingredients that are derived from animals. Common non-vegan ingredients include beeswax, honey, lanolin and tallow. Interestingly, vegan and clean beauty are often aligned, but this is definitely not the case. A vegan product can still have concerning chemical ingredients in it. Buyer beware of this trap. 

Natural: Again, similarly to clean and green, natural beauty products only contain ingredients from plants and nature, and are minimally processed. However, this is where the similarities abruptly stop. A ‘natural’ label is not a precursor for having no environmental impact with palm oil being a great example of this. It’s a natural ingredient but the production of palm oil wrecks havoc on the environment. (PSA:— look for a certification on your palm oil products, for example RSPO, to be sure that it’s been farmed sustainably). 

Organic: These beauty products take ‘natural’ several steps further, made with non-GMO ingredients that have been grown, raised, harvested, manufactured and preserved without harmful chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or antibiotics. Many products will claim to be organic without certification, so make sure you look for an official seal from the likes of the USDA, NATRUE and BioGro.

Cruelty free: These types of beauty products have not been tested on animals anywhere along the manufacturing line or before being sold. Look out for logos from Cruelty Free (PETA), The Leaping Bunny (British Union Against Vivisection) and Not Tested On Animals (Choose Cruelty Free).

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