Greenwashing: The Beauty Industry's Dirty Little Secret

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
It’s pretty safe to say that most people reading this website are well-informed shoppers. And, as much as we hate to pull the whole “millennial” card (simply because it feels like it’s getting tired, doesn’t it?), a study conducted by the Intelligence Group found that three-quarters of us do online research before buying a product. We here in R29’s beauty department see the fruits of this labor every day in our comments section, where you point out things like ingredients and formulations, and ask for alternative, “cleaner” suggestions. 

But, there’s a tricky side to words like “clean,” “natural,” and even “organic” — namely, that a lot of it is bullshit. “In cosmetics, unlike food, these terms are not regulated unless certified. And, even then, certification can mean something or nothing, so it’s pretty confusing,” explains Mia Davis, the head of health and safety at Beautycounter, a brand that defines its mission as providing the highest standard of health-conscious formulas in cosmetics. 

The word “natural,” for one thing, “has no hard or agreed-upon definition,” says Davis. When I ask Jessica Richards, the founder of indie-cool Brooklyn-based shop Shen Beauty, for a hard-and-fast definition of the word “clean,” she pauses — it's not an easy concept to articulate, and there's no real hard and fast definition of the word in the industry. “What I expect out of a 'clean' product is to see either organic or natural ingredients in conjunction with being paraben-free, petrochemical-free, no animal testing, mineral oil-free, alcohol-free, fragrance-free, and silicone-free," she says. That's a whole lot of frees.  Adds Richards, "It is also important in beauty products that they are tested for all skin types and hypo-allergenic."

Seems like a tall order? That's because it is — and one that is too expensive and labor-intensive for the majority of brands to strictly adhere to. Yet, many of those brands take advantage of the lack of regulations to pull a fast one on consumers. “Some deceiving brand owners go as far as to say that they’re organic on their packaging, even though they have just one drop of an organic essential oil,” says Rose-Marie Swift, the founder of cult “green” beauty brand RMS Beauty. (For full disclosure, Swift uses many certified organic ingredients, but her brand is not USDA-certified, even though it's very highly regarded in the green-beauty community.) 

This sort of false marketing is a particularly difficult gray area of the beauty industry — the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides the “USDA Organic” seal of approval. That seal looks exactly the same when placed on a product’s label, even though it can mean three different things: 100% organic, which is only organically produced ingredients other than water and salt; organic, which is 95%; and “made with organic ingredients,” which is 70% approved ingredients, and can be marketed like "body lotion made with organic lavender, rosemary, and chamomile."

However, a lot of companies use words like “bio-organic” or slap the word “organic” onto their labels even though they have no certification whatsoever. “That’s called greenwashing,” says Swift. “And, since the cosmetic industry is self-regulated, it leaves tons of room for scrupulous business owners to pad their pockets on this trendy, ‘organic’ bandwagon…basically anyone can write the word on their label until they get busted, which could take years. And, only until someone reports it will there be red flags.” 

The other odd thing about the organic certification process is that it’s run by the Department of Agriculture. A quick glance at the USDA’s website shows that there’s no information about cosmetics on its front page, nor on its drop-down menus. Swift says there’s no actual legal division of the USDA for the certification of cosmetics. 

In the European Union, Ecocert has emerged as the USDA counterpart, and is largely regarded in the industry as a more sophisticated approach to cosmetics certification. However, it is difficult to find out why — the body is nowhere near as transparent about its process or what its label means on its website. “They have many levels of certification,” Swift says. “Yet, the customer has no idea as to what [those levels] may be.”

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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

Finally, there’s the Soil Association, which is easily the most transparent of all the bodies. (Richards holds it up as the pinnacle of organic, safe cosmetics.) It helped to develop the COSMOS standard, which helps to “harmonize organic standards globally.” Among its certification requirements: the producer must have its manufacturing facility inspected (including an ingredients audit) once a year, the product formulas and labels have been approved according to its standards, anything non-organic is only being used because there’s currently no organic alternative, and all ingredients are free of genetic modification. Adds Richards, "And, it doesn't just mean they use organic ingredients.  The ingredients must [also] be grown from organic soil that is put through rigorous testing." There’s also a list of approved brands available on the association's website. 

All of this is not to say that organic is king, however — it’s just to point out how many different interpretations of the word there are. “There are a lot of different interests involved in purchasing and manufacturing beauty products,” says Davis. “Someone might be vegan, or gluten-free, or care about ‘natural’ products because of sustainability or toxicity, or all of the above. But, you can’t be everything to everyone.”

For Beautycounter, that means “safe” formulas — Davis provides fully transparent research about the ingredients used in its products, eschewing anything even potentially linked to illness or disease. She implemented in-formulation lead testing for makeup: “The FDA offers no guidance on what levels are safe, so I looked to drinking-water standards to give us a limit I felt wouldn’t put anyone in harm’s way,” she explains. P.S. Lead testing is not legally mandated by our government, nor by any of the aforementioned organic certification bodies — after all, “lead is technically natural,” Davis says. “But, it’s also a neurotoxin. You don’t have to prove a chemical is safe before you bring it to market in the United States. A lot of chemicals released into the market have little or no safety data — the FDA doesn’t even define safety with cosmetics.” Go figure. 

Many beauty brands also create the illusion of being green by focusing on one specific ingredient — like, say, argan oil — and drawing in the consumer that way. “The consumer doesn’t realize that that one, or even a select few, ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ ingredients are being drowned in chemicals,” Swift says. “If you turn around a product and look at the ingredient deck, try and find that organic ingredient — you’ll often see it in the mix of a long list of tongue-twisting words that have no logical meaning. Are they natural? Who knows."

Other brands also try to bolster their “green” image by using recyclable packaging and putting the cruelty-free label on it, or making the claim that they’re vegan, which might confuse shoppers into thinking their formulas are green or organic when they’re not. “At this moment in time, everyone has to pick their battles,” Davis says. “Some people might be more concerned with potentially hormone-disrupting chemicals, while others are concerned about the effect harvesting will have on the orangutan population.” The question for you, as a consumer, is: What matters in your life?

Richards, Swift, and Davis point to the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, run by Environmental Working Group, as a solid resource as to the safety of ingredients in your beauty products. Swift says it takes a lot of research to make a smart purchase — but, right now, that’s about all consumers can do.

What needs to happen is policy change. But, of course, that’s a whole other set of issues to sift through: “The big beauty companies hide behind trade secrets and disclosure, and it’s an old way of thinking,” Davis says. “I want the U.S. to be a global player in the beauty industry, and maintain that we have to move forward with health-affecting policy change. If companies aren’t incentivized to test for low doses of chemicals, why would they?” 

If you’re not going to call Congress, Davis has another avenue of change: “When a consumer fills out a comment section and lets a brand or company know that she’s informed, she is helping. In fact, the good news is, she already has helped! The claims around green and organic used to be much more egregious.”

We haven’t exactly come a long way in terms of safer or greener cosmetics, but we have made progress. And, since these issues are already in our collective consciousness, one can only hope that change is coming. 



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