“Greenwashing” is the practice of falsely portraying a company as environmentally-friendly, safe and clean (as in “free of harmful chemicals”) for the sake of marketing. This applies especially to perceptions and claims pertaining to being environmentally friendly, natural, safe, organic, etc. Words like “green,” natural,” “eco-friendly,” “family farm” or “contains organic ingredients” are used to persuade the consumer that this is a safer, healthier choice. No testing or certification is required to make these claims on the label or on advertising pieces.
In fact, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) admits on its website:
“Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives.”
Even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recognizes this to be a problem. Their website states:
“A growing number of American consumers are looking to buy environmentally friendly, “green” products, from recycled paper to biodegradable trash bags. Companies have responded with “green” marketing touting the environmental benefits of what they’re selling. But sometimes what companies think their green claims mean and what consumers really understand are two different things.”
A good example of the sin of the hidden trade-off is the “Free from” claim. I’ll explain more below.
The European Union uses a “Free From” document as guidance for making cosmetics claims. There are certain “Free From” claims that aren’t allowed, such as a claim that a perfume is free from preservatives when it contains a high percentage of alcohol. The criteria for making acceptable claims are: legal compliance, truthfulness, evidential support, honesty, fairness, and informed decision-making. That sounds great, and it’s a great start — but it’s not the answer to getting safe and clean skincare.
When shopping for non-toxic or natural versions of our favorite beauty products, you may look for a product that is “Free from” many things such as:
…And others, depending on your sensitivity and preferences.
However, just because a product is free from phthalates doesn’t mean it’s free from talc. “Free from ___” is just that. It doesn’t tell you what else might be hiding in the product (for example, petrochemical-based “mineral oil”) and it doesn’t tell you if it’s going to be effective.
Additionally, some companies will claim their products are free from ingredients that would never be included in the first place (Sin #5 Irrelevance, listed above). The company Arbonne is a prime example of this. It has a list of over 2,000 ingredients that are “NOT ALLOWED” in Arbonne products. That sounds hugely impressive… until you realize that the list includes things like barbiturates, anti-anxiety medications, Warfarin, and MSG—ingredients that shouldn’t be found in skincare products in the first place.
After making sure your beauty products are “free from” all those harmful ingredients, what should be on the label? What types of ingredients should you be looking for? Some ingredients that are actually going to be beneficial for the skin include things like plant extracts and essential oils, good quality “fatty” or carrier oils (jojoba oil, shea butter or avocado oil are good examples), vitamins, minerals, and natural preservatives (such as rosemary essential oil, vitamin E, ethanol). Ingredients should be recognizable, or clearly given in their Latin name.
If you’re seeing a lot of those natural ingredients on a label and you don’t see any offending ingredients, you may think you’ve found a “winning” product. However, critical thinking is required here, because things are not always as they seem…
These brands appear to be natural and/or organic, environmentally-friendly, and may make “free from” claims on their labels. They market themselves as clean and safe, but use untested chemicals that can cause poor reactions when used.
Also known as “The Wellness Company,” Melaleuca is the perfect example of greenwashing. They claim to be all about health and wellness, but the ingredients labels on their products tell another story.
Take Sei Bella Refining Facial Cleanser as an example. Some of the standout ingredients in this particular product include Cocamidopropyl Betaine and parfum. Cocamidopropyl Betaine is a cleansing agent made by combining conventionally raised plant material (not organic) with the petrochemical Amidopropyl Betaine. Cocamidopropyl Betaine was named “Allergen of the Year”in 2004 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
Research since then has uncovered the impurities in the Cocamidopropyl Betaine that cause the allergic reactions. Side effects have included skin irritation, rashes, burning, itching, blistering, and even eye irritation.
Parfum is simply a term for added fragrance and can hide hundreds of synthetic chemicals, including phthalates. Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that are linked to low thyroid, fertility problems, certain cancers, and more. They can even ultimately lead to early menopause.
Offending ingredients: Cocamidopropyl Betaine and parfum
Jason Natural Products are at most natural foods stores. Some of their popular products are their soaps, shampoos, and body washes. Unfortunately, the main cleansing ingredient used in these products is Sodium Myreth Sulfate. The process of making this ingredient involves use of the cancer-causing petrochemical, Ethylene Oxide, which then produces another cancer-causing ingredient, 1,4-Dioxane. This chemical then ends up in your body wash, ready to be absorbed through your skin.
Offending ingredients: Sodium Myreth Sulfate and Parfum
Avalon Organics makes you think they are organic because organic is in the company’s name. However (believe it or not), that doesn’t actually mean anything. “Organic” is allowed to be part of a company’s name without any verification of organic standards. It’s just a “trade name.” The cleansing ingredient that Avalon “Organics” uses in its soaps, body washes, and shampoos is Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Again, this ingredient tends to contain impurities that cause allergic reactions in the skin, as described above.
Offending ingredient: Cocamidopropyl Betaine
Nature’s Gate Organics is another so-called “organic” brand that is contaminated with questionable ingredients. The main cleansing ingredients in their soap and body wash produce lines are Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (ethoxylated) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine –again, inflammation- and/or cancer-causing ingredients.
Offending ingredients: Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (ethoxylated) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine.
Cocamidopropyl Betaine shows up yet again in Kiss My Face “Obsessively Organic” cleansers. Olefin Sulfonate is a petrochemical that has been added to the formulation. If you look up Olefin Sulfonate, you’re not necessarily going to find that it’s unsafe, simply that it’s made from petrochemicals, which, by definition, cannot be organic. That’s what makes this an “Organic cheater” brand.
Offending ingredients: Olefin Sulfonate and Cocamidopropyl Betaine.
And there are more…
In fact, four additional companies that claimed their products were natural were called out by the Federal Trade Commission in 2016. One example is SHIKAI’s “All Natural Hand and Body Lotion” and “All Natural Moisturizing Gel.” The lotion contains dimethicone, ethylhexyl glycerin, and phenoxyethanol. The gel contains phenoxyethanol. These ingredients are not by any means natural, with the most toxic ingredient of the three being phenoxyethanol.
According to the EWG, “Dimethicone (also called polymethylsiloxane) is a silicon-based polymer used as a lubricant and conditioning agent.” Definitely not an “all natural” ingredient. The Ethylhexylglycerin may cause dermatitis. Data is limited for both the dimethicone and the phenoxyethanol. However, we do know that there’s some evidence of phenoxyethanol as a skin irritant and nervous system toxicant.
When “Data is limited” according to the EWG, that doesn’t mean the ingredient is safe. It means that the ingredient is being used without much testing being done beforehand. That makes us the “guinea pigs.” Research may be done later after consumers complain of side effects or take action in the form of a lawsuit. This happens all the time with pharmaceutical drugs. They are released to the consumer and later on, after harm has been done, they are removed from the market.
And back in 2008, the Organic Consumers Association discovered carcinogenic petrochemical based ingredients in over 40 percent of the “natural” products they tested.
Check if your skincare products are tested by a third party to ensure they actually have the ingredients listed. Companies can choose to have their products third party tested by sending the product to an organization like NSF International, MADE SAFE, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), or best yet, a USDA certifying agency.
It’s Quality Assurance International (QAI), a division of NSF® International, that provides the NSF/ANSI certification for personal care products. Label claims are limited to “made with organic ____” with a 70% organic minimum. It does allow for some “nature-identical” synthetic preservatives but prohibits the use of petrochemicals in primary cleaning ingredients. It also allows for some hydrogenation and sulfation of product ingredients.
Another certification is called MADE SAFE®. This organization is committed to ensuring safe ingredients in skincare. It requires its approved skincare companies and products to be free of all harmful ingredients known to cause harm to human health.
According to the website, “The MADE SAFE (Made With Safe Ingredients) seal literally means that a product is made with safe ingredients, without toxic chemicals known to harm our health.” Products that receive the MADE SAFE seal have passed screening for known:
✔ Behavioral toxins ✔ Carcinogens ✔ Developmental toxins ✔ Endocrine disruptors ✔ Fire retardants ✔ Heavy metals ✔ Neurotoxins ✔ High-risk pesticides ✔ Reproductive toxins ✔ Toxic solvents ✔ Harmful VOCs
The Environmental Working Group has a EWG Verified list of products that have been found to be free of harmful chemicals. Its EWG VERIFIED™ mark indicates that the product:
✔ Avoids EWG’s ingredients of concern (EWG’s “Unacceptable” list)
✔ Provides full transparency (meets EWG’s standards for full disclosure, including fragrance ingredients)
✔ Uses good manufacturing practices (follows current good manufacturing practices)
USDA Certified organic is the ultimate third party certification to have. This certification requires all products be:
✔ 95% organic ingredients in order to claim “Organic” and 70% organic ingredients to claim “made with organic ingredients”
✔ Free of synthetic preservatives and petrochemicals
✔ Free of hydrogenation and sulfation
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) strictly enforces compliance with unannounced visits to the manufacturing facility.
You might see certain words on the ingredients list, like fragrance, chamomile, or bentonite clay and feel that you’ve found a clean product. Unfortunately, not all ingredients are created equal.
For example, a “fragrance” included in your skincare product could be completely natural, a proprietary blend of high-quality, organically produced essential oils. (That will usually be clarified). However, if no explanation is given, and either “fragrance” or the French “parfum” is listed, you’re most likely going to be dealing with a blend of synthetic chemicals that are full of toxic constituents, like phthalates.
You may have read up on certain essential oils, like lavender or geranium and their benefits for skin. Many skincare companies and products will highlight those ingredients on the label. However, as always, quality matters. If that particular essential oil is low quality (grown with pesticides, wrong harvest time, improper distillation time and/or pressure, etc) and hasn’t been tested to ensure certain levels of active constituents, you’re not going to get the results you’d hoped for.
According to a paper published on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s website, these are some things to watch for in suppliers when seeking how high quality essential oils:
Again, not all ingredients are equal.
Here’s a printable checklist of what your skincare products should NEVER contain:
If you’d like to learn more about the ingredients in skincare and whether they’re good, bad, or neutral, you may want to invest in this resource: A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter.
Do you know where the ingredients in your beauty/skincare products are sourced? Just like in real estate, it’s all about location. Many products and ingredients now come from overseas – especially China. The problem with that is that many ingredients that come from China have been found to contain high levels of heavy metals. I’ve already written about the dangers of toxic metals in the body.
Part of the issue with the sourcing location of ingredients is not only which country it’s from, but also, where in that country it’s grown. Was the plant grown near an industrial area, or was it grown in pristine forests or in clean mountain air?
It’s also important to know how a plant used for an essential oil or other ingredient was grown. After all, for an ingredient to be effective, it has to have been grown in such a way that the benefits are optimized. In order to get the optimal level of therapeutic constituents in the final product and limit the potential contaminants, the plant has to be given clean water and natural fertilizer, and harvested at the right time of year and the right time of day.
You may already know that in my “past life,” I used to work for an advertising agency, developing strategic plans for clients such as Neutrogena, L’Oreal and Johnson’s Baby. I therefore intimately know the skincare world. Sadly, I saw a lot of its manipulation and ugliness.
Even after leaving the industry, I’ve been disillusioned by the rampant greenwashing and lack of truly natural, quality skincare products.
I know how hard it is to find skincare products that are clean, effective, and most importantly, that you love to use. So, I set out to make my own line. Today, I’m proud to introduce to you Wellena Skincare.
We’re launching with 5 essential products:
As you might have noticed, the rock star of this line is amla, also known as Indian gooseberry. Extremely high in vitamin C, amla offers serious benefits to our skin, including anti-inflammatory effects, cellular repair, collagen synthesis, skin protection from free radicals, and deep moisturization.
Some of the other great ingredients include:
All our products are rooted in science. There’s no BS, just clean and honest ingredients that work. Our products are certified USDA Organic, and we use the cleanest, gentlest ingredients that nourish and repair the skin. These products are suitable for all skin types.
When you use our products, you can expect these benefits:
If you’d like to try our natural product line for yourself (and support us in our new launch), the sample kit is a great option.
In this $14.95 kit, you’ll get a cotton sachet filled with 5 ml. samples of our:
Plus, when you purchase our sample kit (or the complete kit – get the link below), you’ll get a $10 off coupon in your delivery. You can use this coupon on future orders from our store.
We are offering a 30 Day Money-Back Guarantee:
That’s right. You have 30 days from the purchase date to decide if our skincare line works for you. If you’re not happy, please reach out for a refund (on products only, not on shipping).
You can try our Wellena Skincare Sample Kit here.
Or, if you’re interested in purchasing the Complete Kit with all 5 skincare products, you can check it out here.
Start looking at the back of the product label, not just the front. Remember, the front label is there to persuade you to buy that product. The back label (where the ingredients are listed) is there to inform you about what might be in that product, but remember that’s just a starting place. Use our tips above and your own critical thinking to find clean and healthy products to truly nourish your skin.
Dahl, R. Green Washing: Do you know what you’re buying? Environmental Health Perspectives. June, 2010.
TerraChoice. Sins of Greenwashing. UL LLC website. Accessed March 12, 2020.
Eidinger, A. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps Files Lawsuit Against Major ‘Organic’ Cheater Brands.Organic Consumers Association. April 28, 2008.
Federal Trade Commission. “Truth in Advertising: Green Guides.” Accessed March 19, 2020.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved, but Are FDA-Regulated. Accessed March 19, 2020.
The Ultimate Guide to Clean Beauty. Harper’s Bazaar.
Jacob, S.E. & Amini, S. Cocamidopropyl betaine. Dermatitis. May-June, 2008.
NSF. NSF/ANSI 305: Organic Certification for Personal Care Products. Accessed March 15, 2020.
Dallmeier, L. Important 2019 Changes to EU Free From Claims. Formula Botanica website. Accessed March 19, 2020.
Shutes, J. The Quality of Essential Oils Journal. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website. Accessed April 1, 2020.