Ultimate Guide to Going Green: Part 2 - Claims & Labels Decoded

Posted by Courtney MacDougall on

Welcome to Part 2 of our Ultimate Guide to Going Green! In this section, we’re going to get clear on what cosmetic claims really mean, how to read an ingredient label, and what to look out for in both areas. 

COSMETIC CLAIMS

The claims we’re going to talk about here are:

  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Non-toxic
  • Vegan
  • Cruelty-free
  • Sulfate-free or paraben-free
Natural

This is the most commonly misused claim. Generally, people define ‘natural’ as a product that is made without artificial or synthetic ingredients.

When it comes to product labeling, however, this term has no legal definition and is completely unregulated by the FDA. This means that any product or brand can put ‘natural’ in their advertising or even product name without a single natural ingredient in it.

Organic

Another commonly misused term, 'organic' also has no legal definition. Here is where certifications come in – if a product is USDA Certified Organic, then yes, their product has been evaluated by that governing body, and they have certified that 95% or more of their ingredients are organic. Otherwise, there is no way to know whether they are truly organic or not.

Non-toxic

Again, this term has no legal definition in terms of cosmetics. Any brand or product can state this without anything to back it up.

Sulfate-free or Paraben-free

These are just 2 of an unlimited number of potentially harmful or toxic chemicals that a product could include. So while it’s great these two proven harmful ingredients aren’t present, you need to read the rest of the label to determine what else is inside.

Hypoallergenic

In consumers’ eyes, this term generally means the product is less likely to cause reactions in people with allergies or sensitive skin. The FDA however, does not recognize this term nor is there any legal definition for it. It could mean less allergens or it could just be a marketing term.  Your best bet as always: read the ingredient label carefully for any potential allergens.

Noncomedogenic

This term is generally accepted to mean that a product will not clog pores or cause acne. Again, however, this term is not regulated by the FDA or its Canadian equivalent, Health Canada. It could mean it is oil-free or it could mean nothing at all.

Vegan & Cruelty-free

Again, there is no regulation on the use of these terms in product labeling. Any brand/product can claim either of these things with zero truth to them. 

How to be sure: certifications. There are a few governing bodies that certify these statements to be true. Look for the following labels when making your decisions:

Verified Cruelty-Free Symbols

Peta_cruelty_free_logo  Leaping_bunny_cruelty_free_logo

What do these labels mean?

“The company and their ingredient suppliers do not conduct, commission, or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations, or finished products and do not contain any animal ingredients.”

Verified Vegan Symbols

certified_vegan_logo_vegan.org    Certified_vegan_society

What do these labels mean?

“The product is vegan, defined as containing no animal ingredients or by-products, using no animal ingredients or by-products in the manufacturing process, and not tested on animals by any company or independent contractor.” 

One thing to keep in mind with Vegan and Cruelty-free: while we are always 100% cruelty-free (and vegan with the exception of honey in our serum), a vegan or cruelty-free product can still be full of synthetic chemicals and harmful ingredients.

For us, cruelty-free should just be an obvious non-negotiable. There is absolutely no reason to endanger our health, or the health of other creatures to create products that are supposed to enhance our beauty. Toxicity, dangerous chemicals, and animal cruelty is not beauty – that is the opposite of what we are going for. 

Some resources on vegan and cruelty-free products:

To sum up this section on claims - decide what is important to you:

  • If you have a gluten allergy, look for the certified ‘gluten-free’ label.
  • If animal welfare is important to you, look for Peta, Leaping Bunny, or Certified Vegan logos.
  • If organic is important to you, look for USDA certification.
  • And of course, above all else, read the label! You can look up any ingredients that seem questionable and can see right away any ingredients that you may be allergic to.

INGREDIENT LABELS

As we've said, your best bet to cut through all the marketing lingo is to read the ingredient label. Look for ingredients you recognize, and look up any chemical-sounding ones! Or even easier, scan the product in Think Dirty or EWG for a complete breakdown of every ingredient and their effects on the human body.

Common ingredients to look out for & avoid:

  • Anything with ‘sulfate’ in the name: sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate
  • Parabens (Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben)
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
  • Propylene Glycol and Polyethylene Glycol
  • Phthalates – can sometimes be hidden under the mask of ‘fragrance’.
  • Oxybenzone (found in many conventional sunscreens)
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Mineral Oil 

Fragrance

Be careful of the word ‘fragrance’ on an ingredient label: manufacturers can use this word to mask any number of potentially harmful ingredients. They are not required to disclose what makes up a fragrance as to ‘protect trade secrets’. When we see ‘fragrance’ on a label, we will usually avoid that product altogether.  

From the Beauty Heroes ‘Be your own Beauty Hero E-Book’:

"Because the United States does not require cosmetics to have their ingredients reviewed or approved before being sold, the term "fragrance" can technically include anything, barring the only 11 ingredients restricted by the FDA for use in cosmetics. As a reference the European Union has banned over 1,100 cosmetic ingredients. The ingredient listed as 'fragrance' can mask the presence of known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and other health-compromising substances. Without a detailed list of content, there is no way to know what might actually be lurking behind that alluring scent."

For a more comprehensive list of ingredients to avoid, we recommend the following databases:

Ingredient Naming

On beauty and personal care products, ingredients must be listed with their International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) names. This is to ensure that ingredients can be recognized worldwide, and are often written either in Latin or with very complicated, scientific-sounding names.

The ingredient label on our Lash & Brow Enhancing Serum for example:

lash_and_brow_enhancing_serum_box

Something to keep in mind – many natural ingredients actually have chemical-sounding names. Take our ingredient list for example:

  • Tocopheryl Acetate, which sounds a little scary, is actually just Vitamin E.
  • Sucrose Laurate: again, sounds like a chemical doesn’t it? Really it’s just an emulsifier, naturally obtained from the hydrogenation and esterification of sugar cane and vegetable oil.
  • Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate: derived from coconut oil and fermented sugar.  
Ingredient Order

All ingredients that have a concentration higher than 1% must be written from highest concentration to lowest.

So basically, if you look at the first 3-5 ingredients, you'll know what makes up about 95% of the formula. If the first few ingredients are just fillers and the active ingredients aren’t listed until much later, the effects of that product may be limited.

This issue shows up quite a bit in many beauty and skincare products. A product's package/marketing will highlight an ingredient like Shea Butter, for example, to tout its moisturizing effects. What you will find when you read the label however, is that this ingredient is 20th on the ingredient list - meaning there are very trace amounts (less than 1%) within the actual formula.

SYMBOLS

PAO (Period after Opening)

This symbol identifies the useful lifetime of a product after it has been opened. This relates not only to possible bacteria contamination, but also to effectiveness. After a certain period of time, the active ingredients can lose their potency and won’t work as effectively as before.

period-after-opening

Refer to Insert

When a product has this symbol, it is often because it is sold in other countries and needs to include additional information/languages. It’s worthwhile to open up and read the insert as there also may be extra tips, helpful application information, or additional product information.

refer-to-insert-graphic
In Summary

Your best bet when finding safe, effective, and animal-friendly products is to:

  1. Read the ingredient label carefully (look for allergens, toxic chemicals, animal byproducts if you are avoiding those)
  2. Look for reputable certifications that you care about
  3. Check with a trusted third party evaluating body such as Think Dirty, EWG, or Safe Cosmetics.

We hope you enjoyed Part 2 of our Ultimate Guide to Going Green! We'd love to hear your questions or comments below <3 

Look forward to Part 3: Where to find information and inspiration + Tools. 

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