Learn to Identify and Avoid Greenwashing in Cosmetics

Greenwashing - Fresh New Routine

I didn’t think anything could be worse than the unregulated cosmetics industry, but then greenwashing came along. It was a natural reaction in marketing trends to the new attention given to natural products. But at the end of the day, it’s just another marketing lie that a lot of people are falling for, unfortunately. I mean, how could they not? That’s the point of marketing. I only wish their campaigns weren’t built on lies and targeting our biggest insecurities.

But now that we need to deal with greenwashing every time we buy a new personal care product, we need to learn how to identify it. It’s not exactly a cut and dry issue, but there are a number of signs to look out for. With a basic understanding of the regulation for cosmetics (which you’ll have by the end of this post), you should be able to spot all the lies.

What is Greenwashing?

If this term is news to you, I can promise the effects of it are not. Consumers have been putting a lot of pressure on the cosmetic industry lately. We want more natural products and companies are beginning to listen to us. But in a market that has next to no regulation for cosmetic products, that means we’re not getting the natural products we deserve. Companies can make claims that their products are natural, hypoallergenic, full of amazing natural ingredients or even organic without having to prove anything. I’m serious. The last legislation passed to regulate cosmetics was over 80 years ago.

Unfortunately for us, companies are aware of this lack of legislation. They make all kind of claims on their packaging knowing there’s no obligation to back those claims up with whats inside the bottle. To illustrate this, I point you to the FDA website about hypoallergenic labeling:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term “hypoallergenic.” The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.

That comes straight from the FDA website. It’s the same for a lot of other natural buzzwords as well, including organic. This means we have to trust that the particular company has our best interests in mind. And not their bottom line. Call me cynical, but there are a LOT of cosmetic companies that I’m unwilling to give that trust to.

Greenwashing is Used to Sell Products

At the end of the day, buzzwords like “organic” and “sulfate free” are intended to convince you to buy a product. Companies know we are looking for natural products. So they use these labels and natural styled branding to sell to you. Now I’m a sucker for beautiful packaging as much as the next person. But you need to stay a little cynical and look for the telling signs of greenwashing.

At the end of the day, buzzwords like 'organic' and 'sulfate free' are intended to convince you to buy a product. Companies know we are looking for natural products. So they use these labels and natural styled branding to sell to you.Click To Tweet

You’re the only person who can control the products you use every day. And the best way to protect yourself is to educate yourself.

How to Spot Greenwashing

Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you all companies are lying to you and leave you to figure it out on your own. There are a lot of ways to tell if a product is full of marketing lies or actually trying to provide you with a quality natural product. You’ll get better at spotting it over time.

Also small disclaimer – At Fresh New Routine, you’ll never find information bashing any brands. I’m not about that negative life. Yes, I have a lot of strong opinions about companies and the lies they’re telling on their packaging. But I’d rather give you the information to form your own opinions. Not to mention I’d much rather highlight the brands I think are doing a good job than bash the brands that aren’t. Focusing on positivity is important to me. But if you’re curious about a brand and want my insight, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Product Labels

I’ve hinted at it before, but there is no regulation for claims made on a product’s label. You can read it clear as day on the FDA’s website. The FDA will only step in when products claim to prevent disease or effect the structure or function of the body. While that is a good time to get involved and regulate things, I think this overall lack of regulation about what can go on the label of cosmetics is dangerous. It’s what allows companies to use these green buzzwords to market their products and convince us to buy them thinking we’ve made a good choice for ourselves.

Unfortunately there’s no black and white answer for what claims you can trust. A lot of times you’re going to have to trust your gut. But if the claims feel especially “salesy” with flowery language meant to appeal to your emotions, they’re probably fake. If a product claims to have shea butter and awesome essential oils but you turn the bottle over and can’t find either on the ingredient list until the very end, then they’re stretching the truth and using buzzwords they know you’ll like. If you’re really concerned about the truth to a companies claims, you should be able to do some research and find more information on their website. Or you can even contact them and ask some questions about their ingredient sourcing. You’ll probably be able to spot the lies in their response a mile away if they’re creating a greenwashed product.

The Ingredient List

The only place where companies aren’t allowed to lie is the ingredient list. Well..almost. They can still hide things under the term “fragrance.” If you’ve not heard about how companies use fragrance to hide ingredients, be sure to read this post. But regardless, this is the one spot on a product’s label where you can find the information that will help you discover if a product is greenwashed.

So there are a lot of bad ingredients out there you should be avoiding. Unfortunately the list of toxic ingredients you should avoid is a long one (and constantly growing longer). I certainly don’t have it memorized and I assume you’re not interested in memorizing it either. But with a little practice reading ingredient lists, you won’t need to have every product memorized to know whether a product is a good choice or not.

The best way to illustrate the difference between natural and greenwashed is to look at ingredient lists. Both of the examples below are for cleansing/clarifying shampoos. As someone with oily hair, this is the kind of shampoo I often use so I have a lot of experience with all the promises and all of the typical ingredients.

Ingredient List One

Product Claims:

  • Silicone Free
  • Paraben Free
  • Mineral Oil Free

Ingredient List:

Greenwashing: Bad Ingredient List - Fresh New Routine

The Problems:

This shampoo is all about the natural food based ingredients. They hope you’ll see familiar fruits being used in the formulation and assume it’s natural. Especially when they point out there’s no silicone, paraben and mineral oil. Unfortunately one glance at the ingredient list tells a completely different story. There’s two forms of sulfates (so so bad) and those amazing fruits aren’t even until the end of the list (ingredients are listed from highest to lowest volume). Not to mention the dyes they use to give it a fun color. And all of those mega long chemical names no one can pronounce? No thank you. There’s a whole lot of yikes in this ingredient list.

Ingredient List Two

Product Claims:

  • Paraben free
  • Sulfate free
  • Phthalate free
  • Mineral oil free
  • Petrolatum free
  • Silicone free
  • Cruelty free

Ingredient List:

Greenwashing: Good Ingredient List - Fresh New Routine

The Lack of Problems:

They make some big claims, but the ingredient list is backing them up! I mean look at those ingredients! The second one after water is aloe leaf juice! Pretty awesome. But another thing they do amazingly is include all of the street names for every ingredient. That way you can tell the difference between some synthetic chemical and the scientific name for an awesome ingredient like pomegranate juice. They also use an asterisk to signify all of the organic ingredients. While this isn’t regulated by the FDA, making these claims means they’re subject to scrutiny. So as a consumer, you should scrutinize if a product lying about being organic is a deal-breaker for you.

How To Spot a True Natural Product

This may sound as elusive as an endangered species. But there are a lot of really awesome natural brands out there with products that you’re going to love. I have a few personal guidelines that I follow when trying to select a new product out in the wild and figured they would help you when you’re on the hunt for some new products of your own!

1. Decide if you feel their green marketing is a little too heavy handed

With my background in design, I’m both a sucker for good design and a complete cynic when it comes to marketing claims. I’ve fallen victim to a lot of really awesome packaging. But I now know there’s no regulation over making claims on labels. So if something is shouting about being organic, hypoallergenic or full of essential oils, I take it with at least a pound of salt. If the claims feel a little heavy handed or gimmicky to you, definitely trust your gut.

2. Spend some quality time with the ingredient list

Honestly with one quick glance you should be able to tell whether something has way too many toxins or not. But I’m a bit of a purist and heavily limit the ingredients in the products I use. If a product consists of one single ingredient (with organic, sustainable sourcing) I’m a happy camper. But you have to figure out what level of “green” you’re comfortable with. Maybe you want to focus on getting rid of the Dirty Dozen (the top 12 worse offenders). Or maybe you want to look at an ingredient list and actually recognize some of the ingredients as plants, even if there’s some synthetic ingredients further down on the list. (There certainly is a place for chemicals made in a lab in the cosmetic industry – I’m all for scientific advancements) Once you’ve established what level of green you want, it will get easier and easier to make product decisions.

3. Research companies and find some you can trust

We live in the age of technology. There is so much information literally at your fingertips. So if you’re serious about establishing a natural skincare routine, a little research into different companies is inevitable. Trust me, if a company is serious about providing safe, clean products to consumers, it will become incredibly apparent. They’re going to go out of their way to prove the sourcing of their materials. Or the advancements they’re making in the formulations of their products. They’ll be a company that stands for something and when you read their marketing you’ll feel good inside. Their mission will align with your values. There are so many amazing natural brands out there, I have no doubt you can find some favorites.

These days there’s more attention than ever on natural beauty, but none of the regulations in place to make sure we’re getting true natural products. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of greenwashing and be able to recognize all of the signs. Marketing teams are hoping we desire green products but have none of the knowledge that keeps us safe from their tricks. Hopefully this post helped you learn some of the tell tale signs.

If you have some favorite greenwashing-free brands I’d love to hear about them down below. Some of my favorite products I use were recommended by a friend!

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Let me guess, you’re a skin care lover like me?

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  • This is super helpful! I always /knew that this was a thing, and yet I always ALWAYS fall for it when I’m at the store lol

  • this is one of my biggest pet peeves. i am sooooo skeptical when it comes to hair and skincare products from large brands and the “claims” they make. it makes me really mad when i pick up a moisturizer and the first ingredient is dimethicone. the biggest new brand that rubbed me the wrong way is “love beauty and planet,” a haircare line by uniliver brand. they use a lot of the buzzwords and are successful at appearing approachable, eco-friendly and natural.. on their website it is really hard to find ingredient lists but when i looked in store the formula is basically just sls, water and fragrance. literally the exact same stuff as every other freaking shampoo. it is so deceptive and shady to me. i am still educating myself and curating a collection of products that i feel good about — some more natural and others not. recently i found a brand from the uk called soaper duper — they seem to keep out a lot of bad stuff in their ingredient list, more so than other brands.

    • Omg yes!!! I so agree. I recently did a post about good clean brands at target and love beauty planet was DEFINITELY not on there. It makes me so angry when companies lie. Especially because people buy their products all excited they’re doing something good for their body. But it’s far from it. I’ll have to check out soaper duper! Always love finding new truly clean brands