There are many things I love about my industry, but the one thing that really bugs me is the marketing lies many beauty and skin care manufacturers tell.
My clients know that I am all about education and the actual science behind skin care and cosmetics. Scrolling through social media or walking down the beauty isle, you’re likely to see the words “natural,” “chemical-free,” and “organic” being used on labels or to promote beauty products.
This practice is called “greenwashing,” which is how manufacturers try to pass off products as eco-friendly through their branding, packaging and misleading wording in their marketing and advertising.
I do all I can to help my clients avoid being greenwashed and deceived about cosmetics and skin care products. To make sure I am educating my clients properly, I participate in meetings with the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, a group dedicated to cosmetic science, I also take cosmetic chemistry classes at UCLA.
Here are 5 myths about beauty products, debunked.
Myth: Beauty products made with chemicals are bad for you.
Truth: There’s no such thing as a chemical-free product.
The word “chemical,” applies to anything that is the result of changes to atoms or molecules. Chemicals occur when two or more atoms are held together by a chemical bond – in other words, everything in the world.
This means that all cosmetic ingredients are chemicals. Remember that chemistry class you took in high school? Even something as simple as water is made of multiple molecules: two hydrogens + one oxygen = H2O.
Myth: Natural products are better for your skin and overall health.
Truth: Products made with natural ingredients aren’t necessarily “good.”
The word “natural” simply tells you something about an ingredient’s source. It does not mean chemical-free — or even non-toxic or safe!
Furthermore, “natural” ingredients aren’t tested like synthetic chemicals are… so why do we assume they aren’t harmful?
The truth is that a natural ingredient can be carcinogenic, irritating to your skin, cause an allergic reaction, disrupt your hormones and even have significant neurotoxicity.
Myth: Synthetic ingredients are made in a laboratory and although they may be effective, it’s at the expense of your health and well-being.
Truth: Products made with synthetic ingredients aren’t necessarily “bad.”
A synthetic ingredient is simply something that’s the result of a synthesis, or what happens when two or more elements or simple compounds are combined. This not only occurs in labs, but also in nature. Examples of natural synthetics are proteins, amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, collagen, and hyaluronic acid.
There are also “nature identical” synthetics, including glycolic acid, stearic acid, salicylic acid, retinol and cetyl alcohol.
And of course there are man-made synthetics, too, for example, propylene glycol, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and octinoxate.
These more complex ingredients are no better or worse for you from “natural” ones.
Myth: Organic cosmetics are all-natural and best for your skin.
Truth: “Organic” has a few different meanings, and it’s NOT the same as natural – nor are so-called “organic” products necessarily better for you than others.
Back to your high school chemistry class: remember, organic is merely a chemistry term that describes chemicals that contain carbon. As my UCLA Cosmetic Sciences instructor Irena James points out, of the 11,000,000+ chemicals, 90% are organic.
Carbon is the basis of life, and so it makes sense that it’s a common source for a vast variety of chemicals. Most chemically organic ingredients are sourced from petroleum, so about 65% of organic ingredients are at least partially derived from that oil. This is why petroleum is used in a lot of cosmetic products, and marketers could use the word “organic” in this case… but petroleum-based products aren’t necessarily the healthiest or best for you.
The other way you commonly hear about “certified organic” refers to how an agricultural product is grown and processed.
In 2005, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) defined what certified organic in the context of beauty products means: “There are agricultural products, including personal care products, that, by virtue of their organic agricultural product content, may meet the NOP standards and be labeled as ‘100% organic,’ ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic’ pursuant to NOP regulations.”
In other words, organic certification applies ONLY to agriculturally grown ingredients. And it’s all about what’s not in those ingredients — no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seed, preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, steroids or synthetic wax coatings.
Very few skin care products hold to the NOP’s definition of certified organic. So while you may see “certified organic” as part of the name of an ingredient on a beauty product label (i.e. certified organic lavender extract), you won’t see the NOP’s “USDA Organic” label on those products because of the other ingredients used to create the cosmetic. Also,most organic products are not chemically standardized or subjected to clinical studies, which is part of the certification process.
Myth: If a product says it’s eco-friendly, it is – right?
Truth: There’s very little truth in advertising, and that’s why greenwashing works.
According to a study done by UL, a global safety certification company, an estimated 98% of eco-friendly marketing claims in the United States are misleading, inappropriate or inaccurate.
From vague language to claims about what a company doesn’t do or use – which won’t necessarily tell you what it does use or do – your beauty products are not all good, and not all bad, either.
Now that you understand what words like “chemical-free,” “natural,” and “organic” really mean, can you see how much you’re being greenwashed?
The green that truly motivates many companies is money, so don’t believe the hype — or the myths — when it comes to making choices for your skin care and makeup. If you have questions, let me know in the comments!