Greenwashing terms on skincare products are often misleading.
When it comes to marketing and labeling in skincare, it’s a bit of a wild west out there. Many of the common terms that appear on labels, websites, and in promotional materials don’t actually have much meaning.
In this article, I’m spotlighting five common greenwashing terms to look out for on skincare labels.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “The law does not require cosmetic labeling to have FDA approval before cosmetic products go on the market, and FDA does not have a list of approved or accepted claims for cosmetics.”
Yes, pause to let that sink in for a second.
The State of Skincare in the US Right Now
Laws regulating the cosmetics / personal care industry in the United States are majorly lacking and behind the times. The last major update was in 1938 with the Federal Food, Drug, and Safety Act. FDR was the president. Currently, only about 30 ingredients are currently restricted from personal care products in the US compared to about 600 in Canada and 1400 in the European Union.
Not only that, the FDA lacks authority to demand a recall on cosmetics. (It can only make a request.)
And to make it worse, there is virtually no regulation on what can be printed on skincare labels.
Have growing movements like natural and organic done good things? Undoubtedly. (I’m not saying that everything is dubious.) But it is important to consider the full story and look at the nuances.
Companies can exploit loopholes without proper regulation and use terms that may not be truthful and in essence, lack much meaning.
This practice is called “greenwashing.”
5 Greenwashing Terms to Look Out For
Literally everything on this planet is made from chemicals.
You, me, my cat, the computer I’m typing this on, water, your moisturizer, some old Justin Bieber CD…literally everything. Skincare products cannot be chemical-free. End of story.
If what is implied by this greenwashing term is “free of synthetic chemicals,” that still doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. See number 3.
This is a biggie. Organic is a common greenwashing term.
According to the FDA website, “The term ‘organic’ is not defined in either of these laws or the regulations that FDA enforces under their authority.” What this basically means is that there’s no standard way to define what organic means.
I tumbled down about half a dozen webpages about this issue only to discover it’s not as simple as you’d think. If something is “made with organic” then it’s only got to be 70% actual organic product. The other 30%? It could still include problematic ingredients.
Organic may be better, relatively speaking, but this is one of those instances where some products end up with a health halo. Read labels for the full list of ingredients.
Not everything that’s natural is good for health – for example, arsenic, belladonna, poisonous mushrooms – and not everything that’s synthetic is bad.
The FDA doesn’t regulate the term “natural.” Instead, look a little deeper if you see “natural” on the label, and check the ingredients.
Alternatively, you can look for third-party certifications. Beautycounter suggests scanning the label for, “…third-party certifications by the Natural Products Association, NaTrue, BDIH, and EcoCert.”
4) Dermatologist Recommended / Approved
These terms simply mean a dermatologist reviewed and recommended the product. It doesn’t mean the product was rigorously screened or tested.
This term doesn’t mean an ingredient or product is actually any safer.
Preservatives like parabens and formaldehydes may have a negative effect on health. Many companies are moving away from these potentially problematic ingredients in their formulations.
When you see “preservative-free” on a label, does that mean it’s any better? Maybe, maybe not. If a product contains no water, it may not require these additives and be labeled “preservative-free”, leading consumers to think it’s better for health.
Preservatives prevent the growth of mold or bacteria. Not all preservatives are without concern. It’s just important to not assume that the term “preservative-free” means the product is automatically better for health without looking deeper.
Labeling in the world of cosmetics and skincare products is tricky and many companies exploit vagueness and loopholes in regulations to make their products sound healthier. Or, due to lack of regulation, many greenwashing terms used on labels end up having no real meaning.
Here’s what you can do:
- Read ingredient labels.
- Look for third party certification.
- Purchase from companies committed to more transparency and pushing for more regulation, not less.
The point is greater awareness, not to get obsessive or become fearful. If you want a quick way of assessing the products you use, visit the EWG Skin Deep database or use the Think Dirty app when you’re out shopping.