The Buzz on Buzzwords
Clean, organic, cruelty-free—when it comes to beauty products, the FDA has yet to regulate how brands can use these words. Definitions are subjective and often change from company to company, package to package, making it nearly impossible to navigate—or decipher—the truth from greenwashing. Here, we break down the most common buzzwords for some much-needed clarity.
WHAT DOES CLEAN MEAN?
Safe for people and the planet, clean means that a beauty product should have considered human and environmental health, using a nontoxic element as a baseline and plant-based ingredients for active results. Much like eating clean rejects the idea of processed foods and focuses on nourishing, plant-based produce that delivers all the vitamins and antioxidants needed for a healthy immune and digestive system, the same is true for clean skin care.
WHAT DOES GREEN MEAN?
The word green should mean that the product does no harm to the environment. For instance, a reef-safe sunscreen with biodegradable packaging would be labeled green. However, this is a wishy-washy term with no true definition and is usually used as an umbrella for any product that claims to protect the planet’s resources.
WHAT DOES ORGANIC MEAN?
Personal care products that are certified to be at least 95 percent organic will bear an official USDA Organic Seal. Products bearing the USDA Organic Seal must also comply with handling and manufacturing specifications, and the use of genetically modified organisms is prohibited. In an effort to avoid pesticides, the clean beauty industry has begun to use organic, plant-based ingredients in products wherever possible. However, the certification is expensive, so many smaller brands will independently label ingredients that are organic on packaging, despite not carrying an official seal.
WHAT DOES NONTOXIC MEAN?
Water and oxygen can be toxic in the wrong dose. So when a beauty product is labeled nontoxic, it likely means that the ingredients have not been shown to cause adverse health effects at the levels found inside the formula and for the intended use. This is true of every beauty product currently sold in the United States. In the clean beauty space, nontoxic means that a product shouldn’t include any ingredient that’s been deemed toxic at any dose by a third-party resource like the European Union or Environmental Working Group.
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE MEAN?
Sustainable goes hand in hand with green. It means that the ingredients on the inside of the package—including how those ingredients were sourced—and the packaging itself should not be harmful to the planet. When you use any product, the ingredients go down the drain and into the water system, which, thanks to exfoliating microbeads and preservatives like BHA, is causing a marine environment health crisis. Likewise, many conventional beauty products are made from petroleum jelly and are packaged in plastic, both created from the oil industry. Truly sustainable ingredients are those that are ethically sourced and proven to be safe for the environment, with sustainable or no-waste packaging being defined as glass packaging, biodegradable packaging, post-consumer recycled packaging, or the ability to recycle empty bottles appropriately through a TerraCycle program.
WHAT DOES VEGAN MEAN?
A beauty product is vegan if it doesn’t contain any animal by-products or ingredients sourced from animals. Common non-vegan ingredients found in clean beauty products include beeswax, honey, lanolin, and tallow. Many people associate vegan with clean, but this is not the case. A product can be vegan and still contain chemical ingredients of concern.
WHAT DOES CRUELTY-FREE MEAN?
A beauty product is cruelty-free if it has not been tested on animals anywhere along the manufacturing line or before being sold. It can also mean that any animal-derived ingredients were not extracted at the expense of an animal’s welfare (like natural-fiber makeup brushes). A beauty product can be cruelty-free but not vegan, and vice versa.