Greenwashing in the natural & organic cosmetics industry

Written by Antje Verluen

Greenwashing is nothing unusual in the skincare industry

With a global market for organic personal care of an estimated $12 billion and good prospects for the future, the future of skincare products seems organic, green and environment- and animal-friendly. Or does it?

The increasing popularity of organic and natural products has certainly been good for the producers of them. Many big brands added a natural or organic shampoo, toothpaste, hand lotion or skincare product to their lines, which in almost all cases, sells well. Other organic-only brands achieved more selling points and are becoming more mainstream.

Cover up the exact opposite

This is all good news, we would think. But upon closer look there is quite a lot of bullshit under the pixie dust. Frequently used terms as natural, herbal, eco, clean, bio and even organic are used to cover up a lot of the opposite. Unlike with food, they are hard to define because regulation in the cosmetics sector is lagging. Producers use the confusion and vagueness about what everything means and will say their product is organic, while adding only a drop of essential oil -at best- to a product that is packed with industrial chemicals: exactly the stuff we’re trying to avoid.

Greenwashing at it’s finest

What do you expect from a product that claims to be organic, or natural, or green? It gets messy quickly, and it depends on what you personally find most important. Most beneficial for your skin or the jojoba cultivation in Mexico? I prefer ingredient lists without alcohol, fragrance and other things that will or can have damaging effects to my skin or health. And if the product is made in an as much environmentally healthy way as possible, that’s great. Animal cruelty-free is a must. And while these seem as separately simple wishes, together they make for quite a complex order. Something most people don’t have time to research, which makes them fall for product that simply added organic, or pure & clean on the package. Greenwashing & marketing at it’s finest.

The Never list

Luckily more of these greenwashed products are being recognized as such by organizations who do the research for you. For those of you who never miss an ingredient list when they plan to buy something, check out Beauty Counter, created by Gregg Renfrew. Like everyone, she too was surprised by the lack of regulation in the cosmetics industry which allow companies to use harmful ingredients and make their own judgements about safety. She created a ‘Never List’ of ingredients you should never find in the products you use. Your skin after all, is your largest organ and roughly 60% of what you slather on, ends up in your body.


Natural does not always equal ‘good for you’

When you really want to dive deep in the ingredients list of your favorite product, check out BeautyPedia, which is created a few years ago by Paula Begoun. As a dermatologist she was shocked to discover the ingredients commonly used by even the most expensive brands. She started reviewing products with a team of experts and created an extensive database, backed up by scientific research and consumers reviews. It’s possible to search for a type of product and brand. Here I learned that even though lavender oil is a good essential oil for aromatherapy purposes, when added to skincare products it poses a risk for irritation*. Skincare companies will focus on the natural aspects of the oil, which makes us feel good, while never mentioning these other effects.

Greenwashed products? Heck em

The skincare industry has always been a place where marketing has a large influence. We’re susceptible to it: who doesn’t want to do good by investing in healthy cultivation of crops while buying an effective skincare product? That’s why it’s important to reward skincare companies that actually do this, and avoid greenwashed products that only suggest they do that.

Which skincare products do you use? Have you come across greenwashed products? There are some hilarious examples out there! Share in the comments below.


* Lavender oil: Research indicates that components of lavender, specifically linalool, can be cytotoxic, which means that topical application causes skin-cell death (Source: Cell Proliferation, June 2004, pages 221–229). Lavender leaves contain camphor, which is a known skin irritant. Because the fragrance constituents in lavender oil oxidize when exposed to air, lavender oil is a pro-oxidant, and this enhanced oxidation increases its irritancy on skin (Source: Contact Dermatitis, September 2008, pages 143–150). Lavender oil is the most potent form, and even small amounts of it (0.25% or less) are problematic. Although it’s fine as an aromatherapy agent for inhalation or relaxation, it is a must to avoid in skin-care products. (Sources: Psychiatry Research, February 2007, pages 89–96; and



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