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.
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.”
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.