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Beauty Education: The Difference Between Clean, Green, and Natural Beauty Products

by in Beauty & Makeup on 15th March, 2019

 Clean, Green and Natural Beauty

Today’s consumers are savvier than ever. We are no longer impressed with quick fixes, and bright colors we are well aware that all that glistens isn’t gold. Processed, fast foods have been replaced with clean eating. Cheap, sweatshop-made clothing with ethical and sustainable fashion. It was only a matter of time that the beauty industry caught up… Ladies, I present to you the clean, green & natural beauty movement.

A movement that, in the last three years, has gained momentum in the UK and been propelled into the mainstream thanks to celebrity A-listers. We’ll hear buzzwords such as green beauty, natural beauty and clean beauty being used interchangeably by brands, consumers and beauty insiders alike. Misinformation and ‘greenwashing’ has become widespread so it is now more important than ever to educate ourselves and wise up to what clean, green and natural beauty entails and what they have to offer.

In essence when a brand claims to be ‘clean’ its products are non-toxic and considered safe to use but not necessarily natural or green. Their focus will be to formulate products using ingredients which are proven to be safe. You’d think producing safe formulas would be a no-brainer, however, you’ll be surprised by the number of products available in the mainstream beauty sector which contains toxic and carcinogenic ingredients. A clean beauty brand strives to formulate products which are not harmful to your health.

A natural brand will source its ingredients from nature. Such brands make use of botanical oils, extracts and butter, natural salts and everything in between (including resins such as frankincense). Truly natural brands will usually strive to be clean, as often they’ll use carefully selected non-toxic natural ingredients (note – not all-natural ingredients are safe!) and having one natural ingredient amid a list of toxic, synthetic ingredients does not make the brand/product natural!

A green beauty brand will focus on sourcing its ingredients and ensuring its business practices are environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.

Sarita Coren, considered the ‘Godmother of green beauty’, defines it as a “commitment to the earth, guarding its resources and the medicinal properties of plants, herbs, flowers, etc.”

In brief summary, you could say:

  • Natural Beauty – Ingredients sourced from nature.
  • Green Beauty – Sustainable and environmental responsibility towards the planet.
  • Clean Beauty – Products containing non-toxic ingredients both natural and/or synthetic.

Many brands in the sector will adopt two or more of the above principals, which explains why these terms are often used synonymously. But it’s imperative that we, as the consumer, understand the key differences between the three so that we are able to make informed decisions. The matter is complicated when the three principals conflict with one another. For example, you may come across green products that contain toxic ingredients or clean products which aren’t environmentally sustainable.

Baffling, right?

Essentially what this means is as the consumer you have to decide which principals are most important to you when shopping for personal care products. Do you want natural and clean products or is the impact on the planet more of a pressing issue? In an ideal world, I’d want all three but with limited choice and ever-increasing costs, I always strive for clean and natural alternatives and am mindful of trying to select brands that are socially and environmentally responsible.

How do I identify products containing toxic ingredients?

As a rule of thumb, never rely on the bold statements plastered across the front of beauty products. The government, our health services, and clean eating initiatives have been advising consumers to read the ingredients on the food we buy for some time. Why don’t we adopt this practice with our beauty products? Your first port of call when identifying whether a product is safe to use is its ingredients list.

European law governing cosmetics is pretty stringent and all products must be clearly labeled using an INCI format with ingredients listed in order of percentage. The ingredient at the top of the list will constitute the largest percentage of the formulation and so on. INCI is an internationally recognised set of systematic names used to identify cosmetic ingredients, they are often derived from their scientific or Latin roots.

So, if a product claims to be rich in Shea Butter, switch over to the ingredients list, if you don’t see Butyrospermum Parkii (INCI name for Shea Butter) near the top, perhaps it’s the tenth ingredient out of a total of thirteen in the list, you know that the actual percentage of shea butter in the total formulation is relatively low and consequently the properties of shea butter would have little, if any, benefit to the consumer.

It can be overwhelming when first trying to adopt a cleaner beauty ethos, especially when faced with a long list of INCI format ingredients. The most effective thing to do is to acquaint yourself with some of the most toxic ingredients which are commonly used by conventional brands and scan lists for those.

So, products claiming to be free from chemicals are the safest to choose, right?

Wrong. In fact, the opposite couldn’t be truer! Let’s take you back to your GCSE (or equivalent) chemistry lessons – all ingredients, whether natural or synthetic is a chemical. Water, a pure element, is a chemical compound of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom; H2O.

The point I’m trying to make is that brands which make such exaggerated claims should be treated with caution. These bogus claims highlight that the formulators behind these brands either don’t understand basic chemistry or place little importance on accuracy. In my opinion, both instances are a cause for concern. Kirsten Arnett, a celebrity green makeup artist, accentuates this very point; “I immediately discount ‘chemical free’ cosmetics brands untrustworthy.”

Off course, as consumers, we understand that when we see statements and claims of ‘chemical free’ plastered across products, it’s in reference to synthetic or harmful chemicals, but why can’t brands be accurate? Understanding the misnomer of such a common claim is the first step to identifying the truly clean brands.

Natural must be better…

Consumers wrongly assume that all natural ingredients are safe and better for your skin than synthetic ones. It’s a delicate scale to balance. Petroleum jelly and mineral oil are perfect examples of natural ingredients which are harmful.

One cannot deny the healing properties of nature. Essential oils, plants butter and salt crystals are all examples of natural ingredients which have been proven to spiritually uplift, hydrate, protect, regenerate skin and soothe muscles. But nature’s gifts are potent and need to be formulated carefully to create safe, effective formulations. There is an abundance of safe, natural ingredients which can tackle a slew of concerns; anti-aging, pollution & environmental protection, hydration, anti-inflammatory, detoxing – the list is endless. And given much of what you apply on your skin is absorbed into your bloodstream, a natural formulation makes a good alternative. But treat naturally with caution. Those prone to allergies are more likely to react to natural substances. It’s a simple analogy, so many of us are allergic to nuts, pollen and fruits/veg. The same principle would apply to natural beauty products.

Personal preference is to always opt for clean, natural ingredients in my beauty regime – but having extremely sensitive skin, I’m conscious that certain essential oils don’t agree with my skin and so I always do a patch test before committing to any new products. This would be my biggest recommendation to anyone opting to switch to natural formulations. Test before you invest!

Let’s assume you have two clean (non-toxic) products, one containing synthetic ingredients, the other natural ones – which would you opt for?

There really is no right answer, it’s a personal preference and the choice you may depend upon cost, aesthetics, and efficacy of the product in question. Again, the key lies with being familiar with the various ingredients on offer. Different skin types and needs will demand different formulations. Many clean brands offer a ‘fusion’ of the two, selecting both non-toxic natural and synthetic ingredients which work in synergy creating a winning formula.

Ultimately, choices should be made on results and these will vary from person to person. Just be wary of cheap ‘fillers’ which are often used in synthetic formulations to ‘bulk’ the product and have little benefit and purpose! The biggest culprit? Aqua – aka water!!

A little task for you… whip out your favorite moisturizer/body lotion. What’s the first ingredient? Is it Aqua (water)? Although natural and completely harmless, water is one of the cheapest and most commonly used ingredients in personal body care. Let me share with you this, water plays an insignificant role in offering true hydration when applied to your skin. Yes, by all means, drink the stuff – in fact that is imperative for healthy skin. But water in formulations has little actual purpose other than beefing the formula up! True hydration is best found in the form of oils and yes its costly stuff!

Greenwashing – what is it exactly?

The greenwashing index defines greenwashing as, “when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.”

A 2015 Nielson report indicated that consumers are willing to spend 66%-72% more for a product which is environmentally sustainable. It’s no wonder that many mainstream brands have jumped on the clean beauty bandwagon in a desperate attempt to cash in on the rise in popularity of green beauty. The problem ultimately lies in the lack of legal definition for such terms and conventional brands exploiting the absence of legal guidance. Sarita Coren identifies the problem with this eloquently, “There has been a dilution of green beauty and the truly authentic, natural brands pay the price.”

Although greenwashing isn’t a problem exclusive to the beauty industry, its rampant use has meant that consumers are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish the truly ethical and sustainable brands from those greenwashing. As a result, those who have invested in sustainability get lost and pay the price and in turn, so does our environment.

The only real way to avoid being ‘played’ by greenwashing is to ask questions and do your research. Truly green brands will have the environment intertwined into the very core of its business model. They would have formulated their products whilst having a close eye on their carbon footprint and this very ethos will be transparent in the way they perform their business. For example, they’ll not only using recyclable packaging but may look to source packaging locally, reducing the associated impact of fuel pollution and thus reducing their carbon footprint.

Woah – breathe. It’s all a lot to take in.

The clean, green and natural beauty movement has so much to offer, an almost utopian ideal for beauty standards when the three concepts are amalgamated. As consumers, we have to educate ourselves so that we don’t fall victim to overzealous advertising claims and greenwashing campaigns.

It’s about finding an equilibrium that works and this will vary for every individual. Hopefully, this piece will arm you to make better-informed decisions based on your needs. Research the ingredients and question brands.



Mother of three, Rabia lives in a village in SW Hertfordshire. She has a degree in Management Science and returned to ‘work’ (in the formal sense!) four years ago. She is a co-founder of soapNskin, a multi-award winning clean beauty brand. Weekends and evening are spent juggling her Arabic Fus’ha and Tajweed lessons with family affairs. Coffee and Gluten free desserts are a major weakness!