What Do “Clean” and “Natural” Beauty Labels Actually Mean?

When Alexandra Papazis, 33, became pregnant with her first child, she began the hunt for clean beauty products. “I was nervous about the possibly harmful side effects from certain ingredients,” she says. “But it’s very confusing to figure out what’s actually clean.”

That’s an all-too-common refrain these days. With clean, organic, natural, and vegan formulas, to name just a few, there are more options on shelves than ever before, and it can seem impossible to understand the differences between them. A “natural” skincare product may seem healthy, but is it better or safer than one labeled “clean”? And really, what is the difference between “all-natural” and “plant-derived”?

There’s no easy answer because the rules don’t apply here. In fact, there are no rules. Welcome to the Wild West of skincare where labeling is something of a free-for-all. Getting to the truth requires a little homework, but there are a few simple things to remember when it comes to understanding these labels.

Welcome to the Wild West of skincare where labeling is something of a free-for-all.

Decoding Beauty Labels

The Food and Drug Administration typically oversees labeling in the beauty industry, but it doesn’t regulate terms like “organic” and “natural.” Its only standard? Labels have to be truthful and not misleading — a pretty vague directive that’s all too open to interpretation. Otherwise, the bulk of the regulation in this area is left to others.

“Organic”

The FDA doesn’t even bother with “organic”; that label is instead in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To get a USDA-certified “organic” seal, at least 95% of the formula in question must be organically produced, meaning those ingredients were grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, or any other synthetic ingredients. Beauty products with a short ingredient list, such as a coconut oil cleanser or a shea butter body lotion, have an easier time meeting that standard since they don’t have a whole line-up of ingredients that need to be individually validated as organic.

The USDA does offer an alternative for products that meet lower thresholds. If a skincare formula contains more than 70% organic ingredients, for instance, the USDA will consider it for the label “made with organic ingredients.”

Earning one of these labels may be a goal of many beauty brands, but the process of getting an “organic” certification can be lengthy and expensive. In some cases, it can take as long as a year, says cosmetic chemist Vanessa Thomas, which can be a barrier for smaller, niche, or indie brands.

This high level of oversight gives “organic” products relatively more credibility than other labels. But, because there is no supervision over the non-organic percentage allowed in the formulations, there is also the possibility that they may contain hidden culprits that wouldn’t necessarily qualify the product as “clean.”

“Natural”

Then, there is the question of “natural” — or “all-natural,” “plant-derived,” or “eco-friendly” — beauty products. It’s up to you to believe what you want, because there’s zero regulation around these types of terms. "It’s used quite loosely,” Thomas says. “’All-natural’ can mean that the ingredients are produced in nature, but this does not necessarily mean that they are organic. For example, an all-natural product can be made with plant-based ingredients, but also can have man-made or synthetic ingredients present in the formulation.”

Any product can use the term “natural” if there’s something plant-derived in it. What it is and how much there is of it doesn’t matter. For instance, a lotion may be made mostly of petrolatum, a common moisturizing ingredient derived from the petroleum refining process, but if it contains just a few drops of rosehip seed oil, it could feasibly be labeled as a “natural” moisturizer. (Claiming “natural” based on just a fraction of the formula happens so often that there’s now a word for it: greenwashing.)

Even if a so-called “natural” product is made from all-natural ingredients, that doesn’t necessarily make it safe. Just because an ingredient comes from nature doesn’t mean it’s good for you or your skin. (Exhibit A: poison ivy.) That’s the case for some essential oils, which at certain concentrations and for some people with skin sensitivities can cause irritation. According to Thomas, “It [also] does not mean that the product has been inspected, tested, or certified in any way."

“Vegan” and “Cruelty-free”

Fortunately, there are third-party certifications out there for products that are vegan — meaning they are free of any animal or animal-derived ingredients like honey — or cruelty-free, which ensures there was no testing performed on animals. PETA offers labeling for both categories of beauty products, while the Leaping Bunny logo created by a coalition of animal protection groups certifies that a brand follows cruelty-free practices throughout the company’s entire supply chain.

“Clean Beauty” Is the Beauty Industry’s Answer

Given the confusing regulation — or lack thereof — around “organic” and “natural,” clean beauty is steadily gaining ground as the standard for safe products. "Clean ingredients are generally supposed to mean that they are ingredients that do not pose any kind of threat or toxicity to human health,” Thomas says.

A Guide to Your Beauty Labels:

Clean: self-regulated by beauty industry, but currently the gold standard

Organic: at least 95% organic ingredients

Made with Organic Ingredients: more than 70% organic ingredients

Natural: zero regulation

Vegan & Cruelty Free: third-party oversight by PETA and Leaping Bunny

While this may be the preferred label, it’s important to note that there is no third-party certification or government regulation over the term “clean.” Instead, the clean beauty movement is built on self-regulation and each brand’s transparency about what is — and isn’t — in their products. This requires consumers to be more diligent about knowing the standards of each retailer or beauty brand they shop.

For example, Sephora’s “Clean at Sephora” seal largely focuses on brands formulated without specific ingredients, while Ulta’s “Conscious Beauty” category puts a larger emphasis on sustainability. Retailers like Credo Beauty and Follain only sell beauty brands deemed “clean,” but their own standards for which products qualify can vary widely. Credo bans more than 2,700 ingredients, whereas Follain excludes only 30 common ingredients and ingredient groups.

There are some ingredients that make regular appearances on almost all off-limits lists. Parabens, phthalates, sulfates, formaldehyde-releasing ingredients, and butylated hydroxyanisole are just a few common beauty ingredients that are also considered endocrine disruptors, able to cause hormonal disruption and other health problems. Some of these are banned altogether in the European Union and other countries like Japan and Australia. Standards are less stringent in the U.S., where cosmetic ingredient regulations haven’t been significantly updated since 1938, though this may change if the bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act is passed.

Until then, navigating the contents of your beauty cabinet can be tricky, especially as research behind these ingredients continues to develop. In the meantime, there are a few ways to take matters into your own hands, as Papazis did. “So many products claim to be clean, but then they have things like sodium lauryl sulfate and fragrance in them,” she said. “There’s so much back and forth, I decided to be as safe as possible and not take any chances.”

First, choose to shop brands who are transparent about their own clean standards. Second, stick with retailers who thoroughly vet their inventory. Finally, use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which gives ingredients a safety rating based on the available science.

As all health-conscious consumers know, what products you choose matters. Until the U.S. begins to tighten its standards for beauty ingredients, embracing “clean” is the smartest move you can make for both your skin and your overall wellness.

Our Experts

Vanessa Thomas

Cosmetic chemist in Bartow, FL and the founder of Freelance Formulations

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