Many of the terms associated with skin care and makeup options can be very confusing. The majority of the terminology isn’t regulated, so having an understanding of what brands are trying to communicate while learning to critically read ingredient lists is the best way to make an informed decision. It’s also a great feeling when you find brands that align with your values and who you trust - this can take away a lot of the guess work! Based on my experience and personal understanding, I have some of the most common terms I come across in my work explained below to help you navigate the grey areas.


Not a regulated term. Used to imply that all ingredients in the formulation are from natural sources and not synthetically created in a lab. This often exists on a spectrum, meaning that a lot of brands who make this claim are *mostly* natural and might have a small percentage of something synthetic, such as a preservative or pigment that can’t be found in nature, or isn't permitted to be used in its natural state (based on government regulations), making synthetic the only option.


Not a regulated term. In general, implies that there are zero ingredients in the formulation that are associated with health risks and toxicity and sometimes even environmental impact. Each brand’s definition of “clean” can vary, so reading ingredients or inquiring about which ingredients they exclude and why can be helpful. 

One of the most popular references for seeing what each ingredient rates in terms of safety is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (EWG can be controversial. Some people believe that it's not a reliable resource and doesn't provide adequate scientific evidence to validate its rating system. I find that it's a good starting point to get a definition of what certain ingredients are, become aware of potential concerns, and pursue further research from there.) 

Another resource that can be helpful when trying to determine if a product is "clean" or not is Think Dirty.


Not a regulated term. Very similar to “clean”. Might have a larger focus on environmental impact if it has this label, but, in general, will not contain ingredients that have associated health and toxicity risks.


There are vegan certifications, but the majority of the time this claim appears on skin care and makeup lines without a certification. “Vegan” means that there are zero ingredients in the formula that are derived from an animal, including byproducts, bee and insect-related ingredients. (Ex. Carmine is a popular red dye used in cosmetics that is derived from beetles). Vegan DOES NOT necessarily mean the product is cruelty-free. For example, many conventional makeup brands have products that happen to be vegan (either deliberately or by default), but they might still partake in animal testing, have other products that aren’t vegan, are owned by a larger corporation that tests on animals, or choose to sell their products in countries where animal testing is mandatory.


Not a regulated term. Implies that all of the ingredients were grown and handled in a way that did not involve chemical fertilizer or pesticides and that farming practices are sustainable (this is a very loose definition and there are many other details that come into play). Oftentimes, products are only a certain percentage organic, but if it’s above a certain percent, brands will put the claim on their label. The ingredient list usually clearly indicates what’s organic and what’s not. 


This is a regulated term and should be accompanied by a crest on the label from the certifying body. Every country has different regulations and certifying bodies, but, in general, certified organic means ingredients weren’t grown with the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, has not encountered contamination from neighbouring crops and that the product itself exceeds a certain percentage of organic ingredients as a whole. "Certified Organic" often doesn't mean that a product is 100% organic. If wanting to know the exact requirements, look up the certifying body on the label and they will have a full list, or contact the brand for more information.



Not regulated terms. Brands use these to indicate that this one specific ingredient of concern is not present in the product. There can often be a misunderstanding that if a product has one of these labels that it’s also free of other potentially harmful ingredients or that it's "clean" or "natural" or "vegan" overall. This is rarely true. There are also instances of brands claiming “paraben-free” but then another paraben-related ingredient is in the formulation but under another name. Once again, the truth lies in the actual ingredient list. Read this before the claim and you’ll get a clearer understanding of if it’s something you want to try or not.


Not a regulated term. Implies that the ingredients were grown and harvested in ways that support the environment around them and does not result in depletion, devastation, or exploitation of any land or populations that are involved. Can also refer to packaging, shipping methods and production facility operations. A broad term, for sure. Inquiring directly to find out what exactly a brand is doing to support this claim is often the best way to go.


Not a regulated term. Similar to above - implies that there is no or minimal negative impact as a result of ingredient sourcing. Could also refer to compostable or recyclable packaging or the product itself is biodegradable. It essentially means anything, so once again, inquiring with the brand will give you an accurate answer.

As you can see, the majority of these terms are unregulated and can mean a variety of things based on the individual brand and their intention and perspective. Being familiar with certifications, reading ingredient lists and taking the time to go to brand websites or contacting them directly is the most ideal way to get a clear and transparent picture. Certifications can require a long application process and be quite costly, so the absence of a certification doesn't necessarily mean that a brand is poor quality or what they are claiming is dishonest. I find that many brands that associate themselves with being clean, natural, sustainable, etc. are a lot more accessible and are willing to have a conversation based on their mission and formulations. I've had many great conversations in my many pursuits to find answers! As always, I am happy to guide you through the process and help you sort through the options in order to find what you love the most. If interested, you can find my Clean Beauty Services here.

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