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What Green Means: Decoding Natural Skincare Labels

Our comprehensive guide to green beauty products.

natural bars of soap
Photography by: Ted Cavanaugh

The days of finding natural beauty goods only at the health-food store are ancient history. Today, ingredients like raw honey and coconut oil are mainstream, and it’s a cinch to get products free of questionable additions like sulfates (foaming agents), parabens (preservatives), and phthalates (chemicals that keep nail polish and hair spray pliable, among other uses). But beware of misleading lingo and labeling. A cream might claim to be “natural,” “nontoxic,” “clean,” or “safe,” but those terms are neither defined nor policed by the FDA (though the FTC did recently crack down on five companies making false claims of this nature). The designation “organic” is regulated by the USDA, but only with respect to the percentage of organically grown ingredients in the formula -- not its safety or efficacy.


To cut through the confusion, we used five hallmarks to determine what green products to test for this story: Plant-based ingredients should be high-performing and sustainably sourced. Formulations had to be cruelty-free, and pack- aging minimal, using recycled or reusable materials. And last, the production process had to be energy-efficient, carbon neutral, or off-set by wind credits. Some of these products tick off all the boxes; others an important few (though, all this information should be available on a company’s website)! Regardless, rest easy. “You don’t need to be a fanatic,” says NYC derma- tologist Cybele Fishman. “A few small things, like getting rid of sulfates, or having fewer preser- vatives in your products, make a difference in your regimen.”


See what made the cut with our picks for the best all-natural: soaps, makeup, and hair and skin products


A Greener Beauty Routine: Facts and Figures


The number of grooming products the typical woman uses each day, from toothpaste and shampoo to concealer and lip color.


The average number of ingredients in your makeup, hair, skin, and oral-care products combined.


The number of chemicals the European Union bans from use in cosmetics. (Only 11 ingredients are restricted in the U.S.)


The number of times each day the word natural is searched on Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s personal-care database.