Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

Shelves are loaded with beauty products that claim to be natural, organic, cruelty-free, non-toxic, clean…you name it.

While we may assume that these are positive features, increasing at least the ethical component, we might get easily confused on what such terms really stand for. At least I do.

What is the difference between all these definitions and what are the required parameters?

Clean Beauty Business

Where there is a trend, there is a business. And no beauty sleeping on it.

The beauty industry is valued at an estimated $532 billion and counting, with the US being the largest market.

One of the top priorities of this industry is transparency and traceability. Consumers are increasingly demanding to have greater insight into what their products are made of along with where and how.

The clean beauty economy, rising star of the beauty industry, is booming with the global natural and organic beauty market estimated to be $22B.

The mention of clean beauty in earning calls, which is when a public company discusses their financial results with their shareholders, has sky rocketed in 2019.

Which explains why corporations like Unilever, P&G and Target are working towards integrating this field through acquisitions, accelerators and internal brands incubations.

In 2019 alone, Unilever acquired the clean skincare line Tatcha for $500M while Shiseido was buying the clean-beauty startup Drunk Elephant for $845M.

Marketing strategy or actual change?

Consumers’ increasing attention towards sustainable products has pushed companies towards not only delivering such products, but also promoting it aggressively.

Brands are creating marketing strategies relying on delivering to clients the feeling of buying something not only clean for them, but also for the environment.

So, how thin can the line between an actual change in ingredients, packaging and sourcing methods and a pure marketing campaign be?

Are companies just greenwashing or is it really a new and better product? Answer is, the line might be very thin as these terms are mostly hard to regulate.    

Sometimes, not regulated at all. Currently the FDA has extremely limited regulatory oversight over cosmetic and ingredient standards, as regulations have not been updated in a long time.

The only government oversight of cosmetics companies comes under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, passed in 1938. The act focuses mainly on regulating adulterated or misbranded products, or products that are falsely packaged.

So let’s try to understand what these terms stand for.


The term “natural” has no legal meaning. It is a marketing disclaimer.

A product might be 50% synthetic and still claim to be natural as it has some natural ingredients. The definition is not regulated by any institution making it applicable to everything. The best way for you to understand how reliable this is, is to check the label and the ingredient list.


The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) regulates such terms.

When a brand or product is organic, it means it has been certified by the USDA as the agriculture ingredients have been produced under a strict code of cleanliness, excluding pesticides and fertilizers, and avoiding genetically modified organisms.

If that’s the case, the product will have a logo certifying that. In case you can’t find the green USDA certified logo, then something is off, and they will probably get into trouble soon.


This term is also not properly regulated and mostly used as a marketing push.

Non-toxic simply means that no ingredients labeled as toxic for humans are contained. The most known are phthalates (contained in household products, shampoo, conditioners etc…), formaldehyde (i.e. nail polish, hair gel), lead acetate (hair dye, lipstick) and coal tar (hair dye and anti-dandruff shampoo).


Vegan means it doesn’t contain any ingredient derived from animals or animals byproducts. The most common ones in cosmetics are beeswax, honey, collagen and keratin.

Although it is likely, a vegan product is not necessarily better for the environment, or for you.

Cruelty-free on the other hand, mean it was at least ethically sourced as it was not tested on any animals.  A product can be cruelty-free without being vegan.

Is vegan skincare better?

Vegan cosmetic/skincare usually uses essential oils and nature-derived ingredients. They are usually rich with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The cleanliness and simplicity of this composition suggests for a better product, although it is not to take for granted. Also, given the natural composition, it might be softer and better for sensitive skin. Finally, as it happens in vegan diets, the impact on the animals and planet should be overall lower.


One of the most reliable ways to know if what we are buying actually complies with our standards, is looking for certifications.

While there are obviously government agencies (FDA, USDA etc…) regulating terms and definitions, throughout the years different types of organizations have shaped to answer an increasing demand for transparency.


B-Corp is the highest certification a product can aim to obtain. A benefit corporation is defined as follows: a traditional corporation with modified obligations committing it to higher standards of purpose, accountability and transparency. Benefit corporations commit to creating public benefit and sustainable value in addition to generating profit.

The B-Lab is a global nonprofit organization that certifies the performances of a business, making sure it meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. To become a B-Corporation, your company’s performances are measured in five categories: governance, workers, customers, community and environment. To gain the certification you have to pass and exam of 4,000 questions and gain a minimum of 80 points. As of today, there are 3,608 certified B-Corporations.  

Among the beauty brands we find Davines, BeautyCounter, The Body Shop, Dr. Bronner’s and Ethique.

There is an app for everything.

If you still find yourself staring at the shelf not knowing how to choose your next night cream, remember that your smartphone knows better.

Several technologies are rising to facilitate the consumer in reading labels, trace ingredients or providing information on the packaging.

Indie skin-care brand Kinship, reduced its environmental footprint by partnering with Ocean Waste Plastic, a Danish company that pays fishermen to collect plastic from the oceans and then recycles it creating packaging. Kinship has put a QR code on their packaging, which can be scanned to reveal how much of it was made with up-cycled plastic and where that plastic was collected.

Apps like thinkdirty https://www.thinkdirtyapp.com/ , skincarisma https://www.skincarisma.org/ or detox me https://getdetox.me/en/ (also for food, cleaning supplies etc…) on the other hand, help you understand how clean your product ingredients really are.

On top of this, you can research around blogs and magazines. Here you can find a full list of our favourite clean-beauty brands 🙂

beauty, cleanbeauty, skincare

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