What Does Going Green Really Mean? A Field Guide To Natural Beauty

It seems like every time we check our inboxes, there's an email touting a pretty new product that’s fair- trade, local, biodynamic, or emblazoned with about one of about a zillion other buzzwords to make us think our purchase is somehow better for the planet. Instead of going along with the greenwashing, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the world of eco- friendly products and uncover what’s actually best for the environment.
We talked to the super-knowledgeable women behind three eco-chic beauty lines — RMS Beauty, Tata Harper, and Sumbody — to get the real deal on decoding labels and settling the debate on natural vs. organic, once and for all. Read on to get the scoop on just how green your fave products really are.
Know The Terminology
There are a lot of different terms out there related to how eco-friendly a product is, but it can be hard to decipher the legit claims from the BS. Here's a little refresher course on the most common green labels:
Natural: The problem with the word natural is that it's not a term that's regulated, so a brand can combine a boatload of chemical ingredients with one natural oil and slap the term natural on its label. “Honest natural products contain ingredients from plants and nature and are minimally processed,” says Rose-Marie Swift, founder of RMS Beauty. It can be hard to determine just how unprocessed an ingredient is, so when in doubt, look for labels from the Natural Products Association. French certifying body Eco-Cert also breaks down what percentage of a product is natural, and what is organic.
Organic: “Organic products take ‘natural’ several steps further as they are made with non-GMO ingredients that have been grown, raised, harvested, manufactured, and preserved without chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics – giving you products with fewer contaminants,” explains Rose-Marie. Certification bodies are more stringent with organic products, so look for seals of approval from Eco-Cert, the USDA, the Soil Association, and the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Just be careful to pay attention to the wording: Something that says "made with organic ingredients," just means that 70% of the ingredients in that product are certified organic — it doesn't guarantee the whole of the product is free of parabens or chemicals. For the purest products, look for brands that are certified 100% organic, as that means all of the ingredients in it are pure, and it involves no chemical fillers.
Biodynamic: This is an agricultural method that takes a more holistic approach to the soil, and is considered by some to be the very pinnacle of environmentally-conscious and pure growth practices. Like organic farmers, those who practice biodynamic farming abstain from using chemical pesticides, but they view the plants, soil, and animals as a whole — a self-sustaining system that interacts naturally to create the pure, untouched ingredients. Biodynamic brands are certified by the Demeter Association.
Photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper
Look Beyond the Buzz
“Unfortunately, as soon as marketers learned that consumers enjoyed the idea of non-synthetic products, the words began to appear on all sorts of products, whether they were truthful or not,” explains Rose-Marie. “It’s called greenwashing, and it’s possible because consumers have to be well-informed to distinguish frauds from the real deal.” If you're not confident in your ability to read labels critically, everyone we chatted with suggested going to EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, which rates products based on the safety of their ingredients.
Find A Cause
It’s unrealistic to expect your entire beauty cabinet to be filled with products that are local and organic (um, does the farmer’s market sell handmade foundation?). “People have so many standards for green,” says Tata Harper, founder of Tata Harper Skincare. “There’s not one formula that will accommodate everybody. For me, it’s about being 100% synthetic-free.” That means she might import hyaluronic acid from the Czech Republic, but she grows the alfalfa — which is oxygenizing, who knew? — that goes into her products, on her farm in Vermont. Both Tata and Sumbody founder Deborah Burnes mentioned that they'd rather use ingredients that worked, rather than sourcing local at the expense of the final product. While they strive for local, efficacy is more important to them.
Seal The Deal
“The most important thing a consumer can do is understand the ingredients in a product,” says Deborah Burnes, author of Look Great Live Green. With so many terms being tossed around, it’s best to look for third-party seals to see if the tube you’re holding is actually filled with honest-to-goodness organic ingredients. Check out the label for these markers and you’ll be able to find out if the brand is certified fair trade, sustainable, natural, organic, or ships carbon-free (to list a few).
Bottom Line: The government only does the bare minimum when it comes to regulating terms for cosmetics, so you have to put in the extra effort to become an informed, knowledgeable consumer. If using all-natural and organic products is important to you, take the time to research the subject more thoroughly and always be sure to read labels. There are plenty of trust-worthy, eco-friendly, efficacious, and truly green products out there; you just need to know how to find them.
We've already told you a few of our favorites, now you tell us: What are your go-to green brands?
Photos: Courtesy of Tata Harper, RMS Beauty; Via Sumbody

More from Skin Care