Decoding Cosmetic Labels: Clean Beauty vs. Green, Natural, Vegan, & More

Decoding Cosmetic Labels: Clean Beauty vs. Green, Natural, Vegan, & More

Ever felt overwhelmed by the myriad of terms on your cosmetics and personal care products? You’re not alone! In a world filled with beauty products boasting labels like clean, pure, natural, and non-toxic, it can be challenging to decipher what this jargon actually means. Let’s break down these commonly used phrases and understand their definitions! (or lack thereof 🫢)

Table of Contents:

No Regulation: What Does This Mean for You?

First, it’s crucial to understand that these terms are NOT regulated! This means any brand can label its products with these terms without meeting any specific standards. When a brand claims to be “natural,” for instance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it truly is.

An example would be the Clean at Sephora program. You might assume that the products in that category are all clean and have gone through some sort of official verification (aside from Sephora’s own criteria). Nope! While there ARE products at Sephora that are indeed clean, there’s also loads of greenwashing to sort through and products that still contain harmful ingredients.

Learn more about greenwashing in this post: “Don’t Be Fooled by Greenwashing (33+ Brands to Watch Out For!)

As a reminder, only 11 ingredients are banned in cosmetics in the United States. Unlike food, cosmetics do NOT need FDA approval before going on the market (it’s estimated that only 11% of the 10,500+ ingredients used in cosmetics have actually been evaluated!). So, it’s not like we really have any organization looking out for us when it comes to what’s in our products before they hit the shelves.

Trust me, I know it’s a hassle that we have to be so proactive as consumers. In an ideal world, we could take a product at face value and believe the marketing claims. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way!

In certain cases, third-party certifications can be obtained, which we’ll cover below!

This post contains affiliate links.

Cosmetic Terminology Guide & How They Differ

That said, these labels can still give you a general idea of what to expect, even though they don’t guarantee anything specific. Many brands also use this terminology interchangeably, and there is some crossover with meanings.

Here’s an overview of what these words usually imply and some drawbacks to consider!

Cosmetic Terminology Guide: Clean, Low Tox, Natural, Organic, Green, Eco, Vegan, Cruelty-Free, Indie, Ethical

Clean, Low-Tox, & Non-Toxic 💄

What it means: Clean beauty products are formulated with ingredients that are considered safe according to toxicology standards. These products aim to avoid controversial and dangerous substances that could cause short and long-term health issues (such as allergic reactions, hormone disruption, and cancer). Non-toxic beauty can use a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients to achieve maximum efficacy and performance. It’s a movement towards transparency and safety, but since there’s no strict definition, one brand’s version of “clean” may differ from another’s.

Example of a clean brand: Saie Beauty (their makeup uses a combo of naturally derived ingredients and synthetics that haven’t been found to have detrimental health effects)

Certifications to look for:

  • EWG Verified®: The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit. The verification ensures that no ingredients of concern are present, and the brand is transparent about disclosing any hidden ingredients. EWG can be a helpful place to start, but they do tend to have data gaps, so sometimes ratings are inaccurate.
  • MADE SAFE®: A non-profit that screens for 6,500+ behavioral toxins, carcinogens, developmental toxins, endocrine disruptors, fire retardants, heavy metals, neurotoxins, high-risk pesticides, reproductive toxins, toxic solvents, and VOCs. This is one of the best credentials you can look for!

For what it’s worth, the majority of content on this blog focuses on low-tox products!

Get the Clean Beauty 101 eBook!

Natural & Botanical 🌼

What it means: Products labeled as natural typically contain ingredients derived from plant or mineral sources rather than being synthetically produced in a lab. This can also include animal-based ingredients like tallow or beeswax. The idea is to use pure ingredients closer to their original state that haven’t been heavily processed.

Keep in mind that “natural” substances can still be potent and do not automatically mean they’re gentle or better! For instance, essential oils can be sensitizing or cause allergic reactions. Another example is mica (a mineral used for shimmer in makeup); the industry is notorious for child labor issues, so some brands opt for synthetic mica instead of its raw form.

Example of a natural brand: Sun & Moo (they have amazing grass-fed tallow balms that are made with plant extracts and oils)

Certifications to look for:

Organic 🌱

What it means: Organic products use ingredients grown without toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The FDA does not regulate the word “organic” for cosmetics, but third-party organizations can verify further. Certifications can offer some assurance, but they don’t necessarily mean the product is completely free of synthetics or chemicals, either.

Example of an organic brand: One Love Organics (skincare made in an ECOCERT® licensed facility)

Certifications to look for:

  • ECOCERT COSMOS Organic: This means at least 95% of ingredients are of natural origin, and 95% of plant-based materials are organic
  • NSF: Certified by the Public Health and Safety Organization, this means a minimum of 70% organic ingredients are used
  • Soil Association Organic
  • USDA Organic: If the product uses agricultural ingredients, this can verify they are at least 95% organic. You might also see a “made with organic ingredients” seal, which means it’s at least 70% organic.

Green & Eco 🌎

What it means: Green or eco-friendly products focus on sustainability. This means the ingredients are sustainably sourced and environmentally friendly. This can also extend to earth-friendly packaging that is easily recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. The emphasis is on reducing the environmental impact during production, use, and disposal of the products. However, it’s essential to note that being green doesn’t always mean the product is non-toxic or safe for personal health!

Example of a green brand: Plaine Products (they have hair and body care products with biodegradable formulas and utilize a refill system for their plastic-free bottles)

Certifications to look for:

  • 1% for the Planet: Members commit to donating at least 1% of their annual sales to environmental organizations (this doesn’t ensure that the products are necessarily “green” though)
  • Green America Certified Business: Recognizes businesses showing leadership in their industry that go beyond product and service quality to set high standards in environmentalism and social justice
  • We Are Neutral: A nonprofit that helps businesses track, reduce, and offset their comprehensive environmental footprints, giving them the opportunity to take responsibility for their environmental impact to work towards carbon neutrality and/or Net Zero

Related post: “12+ Refillable Clean Beauty & Sustainable Skincare Brands (Without the Toxins!)

Vegan 🐰

What it means: Vegan products do not contain any animal-derived ingredients, including honey, beeswax, collagen, gelatin, and carmine. However, a vegan product could still contain synthetic and potentially harmful ingredients. Additionally, vegan does not automatically mean cruelty-free, as the product or its ingredients might still be tested on animals.

Example of a vegan brand: Axiology (multi-use makeup crayons that use zero animal ingredients)

Certifications to look for:

Cruelty-Free 🐇

What it means: Cruelty-free products are those where the ingredients and final products have not been tested on animals at any stage of their development. However, cruelty-free products can still contain animal-derived ingredients.

Example of a cruelty-free brand: Axiology (multi-use makeup crayons with no animal-tested ingredients and are not sold in countries that require animal testing)

Certifications to look for:

  • Leaping Bunny: Ensures a company and its suppliers do not conduct or permit animal testing on finished products, formulations, or ingredients, including by foreign regulatory authorities
  • PETA Cruelty-Free

Indie ✌️

What it means: Indie is sort of a vague one! It can refer to independently owned brands, brands with small teams, brands that haven’t been acquired by a larger corporation, brands that are still run by the original founder or have them as a key stakeholder, brands that haven’t taken outside funding or investments, or ones that simply go against the mainstream system and have a unique way of operating. Think niche, self-starting, personal, and special.

Many indie brands often use better ingredients and practices, but that’s not always the case.

Example of an indie brand: Josh Rosebrook (namesake skin, hair, and body care founded by hairstylist Josh himself! Check out this interview to read more about his choice to remain independent)

Ethical & Conscious 🤝

What it means: This encompasses the well-being of people, animals, and the planet. The products are consciously created and take into account the full spectrum of production, including fair trade ingredients, humane working conditions throughout the supply chain, reasonable wages, socially responsible business practices, and environmental impact. They tend to be cruelty-free and mindful of animal welfare, too.

Conscious beauty products are usually on the natural and clean side, but the emphasis is more on green and eco!

Example of an ethical brand: Elate (cosmetics that are cruelty-free, fair trade, organic, and sustainably packaged—plus Elate donates a portion of their profits!)

Certifications to look for:

A note about certifications…

Certifications can be quite expensive or have lofty requirements, so it’s not always feasible for smaller brands to obtain them. But that doesn’t mean the brand isn’t good or qualified! For instance, something could be organically grown but has not gone through the process to get certified. Food for thought!

Making the Best Choice for YOU!

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is decide what values are most important to YOU and what brands you want to support.

You can look for reputable certifications to help guide your decisions, which can provide some assurance that the products meet certain standards, although they aren’t foolproof.

And always read those ingredient labels to get a clearer picture of what’s really in a product instead of just trusting the marketing claims, which can be misleading ◡̈

By taking the time to learn what these terms mean and aligning your purchases with your values, you can make more informed choices and find products that truly meet your needs. Happy shopping! 🌿✨

You might also enjoy this post:

Organic vs. Natural vs. Non-GMO & More: The ULTIMATE Guide to Deciphering Food Labels

Thanks soooooo much for reading! 💚 I’d love to hear: What’s your number one priority when purchasing personal care products? Let me know in the comments below! (you can drop any questions there, too)

Becca Signature



Decoding Cosmetic Labels: Clean Beauty vs. Green, Natural, Vegan, & More

Written by: Becca

Becca is a blogger, wife, and dog mom living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Having seen firsthand the benefits of switching to a natural lifestyle herself, she's passionate about helping women make the switch to clean beauty products, organic skincare, and a holistic way of life (without the stress of being perfect about it!).

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