Guide to Decoding Skincare Labels (and seeing through marketing BS!)
If you’re like me, you want to have the know-how and street smarts to be able to see through greenwashing that's everywhere in the beauty sector. Decoding labels is an important step to becoming more empowered and informed about what goes onto your body -- Let's clarify some of the words used most often when marketing "natural" skincare.
Consider this your plant-based beauty glossary. Feel free to come back and reference this anytime.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite: ORGANIC
Essentially the only term regulated by a governing agency in the states, the US Department of Agriculture. They hold standards for farmers like no use of GMOs, and only the use of approved pesticides and fertilizers.
You may see a label that says, “Made with organic ingredients” which means that the product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
You’ll also see products labeled with the USDA certified organic seal, this means the product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
They do not regulate the remaining 30% or the remaining 5% so it’s always wise to have a look at the ingredient deck to make sure the remaining non-organic ingredients are aligned with what you want to be using on your skin, but this is a pretty good place to start.
The major downside of this is that getting USDA organic certification is very costly and for most small farms and growers, it just doesn’t make good business sense to invest, even if they are growing organic. So don’t write products off completely that don’t carry this seal -- most of my favorites don’t!
Another term you may see as you start curating your clean, plant-based beauty ritual is WILDCRAFTED.
This term tells us more about the skincare company’s production and sourcing methods. For example, wildcrafted means that some of the ingredients were harvested completely in the wild, like seaweed, foraged herbs, mineral rich clay or other ingredients that are harvested without cultivation, they just exist naturally.
Generally speaking, I believe wildcrafted ingredients are a beautiful display of nature’s wisdom. Usually this is a sign that a skincare company practices slow beauty manufacturing practices, but not always. Like all of them wildcrafted is a buzzy term and some experts are concerned about natural ecosystems if the foraging is not done with restraint and understanding, that it could have ecological downsides. This is a good example of where a product could be well made with wildcrafted ingredients, and not qualify for the USDA organic seal.
Next up is VEGAN beauty products vs. CRUELTY-FREE beauty products
Two terms you’ll see often on labels. Hear this! They are not interchangeable. VEGAN means the product does not contain any animal derived ingredients, such as beeswax, honey, alpha hydroxy acids from lactic acids which comes from cows milk, carmine, which is a red dye made from crushed beetles, etc. So if you are vegan, it’s always important to look for this label.
CRUELTY-FREE means the product has not been tested on animals. You may see the Leaping Bunny certification logo which ensures the product and ingredients from multiple suppliers have not been tested on animals. The terms vegan and cruelty-free often go hand in hand. But many times, a cruelty free products are not vegan.
Ok next up let’s talk about the ubiquitous, NATURAL
you see this everywhere, natural beauty, natural skincare, natural makeup natural, natural, natural. This term has the connotation that what’s inside that bottle is close to the earth, close to nature and leads you to believe the product is good for you, or the environment.
There may be some beautiful art on the bottle of a flower, or an aloe plant. But allow me to let you in on the dirty little secret of the beauty industry… the Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) has not actually defined what NATURAL means, and they DO NOT regulate the validity of the claim NATURAL on skincare labels. Did you know, a skincare company can include ONE ingredient sourced from nature, and then affix the word NATURAL front and center on the front label. So for me, the term natural beauty, holds very little meaning or value.
Even a natural ingredient could have been processed poorly, for example using high heat processing to create plant oils, verses slow, cold pressing. This retains all of the natural bioavailability of antioxidants and enzymes, whereas high heat or high pressure processing renders the oil lifeless. So you can see, it’s more about how the ingredient got to the bottle.
The last term I want to touch on briefly is SUSTAINABLE
This one really means a lot to me as a holistic skin therapist. You may have noticed a shift happening within the fashion world toward more ethical, sustainable clothing. Also the idea of upcycling and thrifting. Thankfully this sustainability mindset is starting to take root in the beauty world too.
Think for a moment about the multi-billion dollar beauty industry, well they make those billions with oodles and oodles of products being produced. Think about where all of that packaging ends up? And also, where all of those rare, expensive oils are coming from? We cannot continue to create and consume mindlessly, even with our skincare ritual, it all has an impact. The more awareness we have, the more we see that everything is connected and that our choices matter, both personally and collectively.
A skincare brand may proudly share their production and sustainability efforts. Most often, if they’re not talking about sustainability as one of the brand’s core values, they aren’t investing much attention there. If you’re curious, it’s always your right as a potential customer to send an email to the brand and ask where and how the ingredients are sourced. From a sustainable packaging perspective, I often recommend opting for brands packaged in glass bottles versus plastic and those that use the least amount of packaging possible. (For example the glass jar doesn’t not come inside of an additional plastic or cardboard box and they are shipped with compostable packaging verses wrapped in a sea of plastic or styrofoam.) I believe that we wield power with the choices we make and that we need to do something different to see something different. And every little bit makes a difference collectively.
Even though these terms, Organic, Natural, Widlcrafted, Vegan, Cruelty-Free may still feel a little overwhelming, this understanding will go a long way in ensuring you aren’t duped by marketing on the front of the label. Join me by entering your email at the bottom of this page to get more access to info like this... You can also follow my journey as a Licensed Holistic Esthetician on the 'gram @jessarnaudin.