Don’t Get Fooled by Greenwashing: Here’s How to Find Truly Non-Toxic Cosmetics

by Valerie Bisharat

naked poppy greenwashing

You’re perusing the toiletries aisle and a shampoo bottle catches your eye. The front says, “Paraben and sulfate-free,” which sounds promising if you’re looking to cut back on harmful chemicals. Plus it’s got some seriously lovely leafy drawings on the label. It must be better for you than other obviously synthetic choices, right?

Well...maybe. The truth is, plenty of companies make it look like their products are clean and non-toxic, even though they contain unhealthy chemicals. It’s called greenwashing. And it’s a pretty common marketing technique. The goal is to make you believe that what you’re buying is healthy.

In this article, we’ll equip you with tips to detect greenwashing, so you can find truly healthier products for you and your family.

Definition of greenwashing

The term “greenwashing” was coined by an environmentalist named Jay Westerveld in the late 1980s. It means using deceptive practices to make it seem like a product or company is healthy for us and the environment.

Companies use certain phrases, graphic design, and imagery to cue our assumption that the product is clean, non-toxic, healthy, and environmentally-friendly when they’re still using problematic ingredients.

Take the shampoo example above: just because the label says “Paraben and sulfate-free” doesn’t mean it excludes all toxins. It could still contain phthalates, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals suspected of contributing to issues like cancer, endocrine disruption, and skin irritation.

Greenwashing happens in all kinds of industries, including cosmetics, food, cars, and fashion. There are dozens of organizations dedicated to monitoring and pushing back against these deceptive and misleading practices, including Greenpeace and CorpWatch.

How to avoid greenwashed cosmetics 

The simplest way to find truly healthier cosmetics — and steer clear of greenwashed ones — is to rely on clean beauty companies dedicated to screening out products that aren’t good for you. Clean refers to products made without known or suspected toxins, which is better for human health and the environment. The best clean beauty companies filter out the problematic ingredients so you don’t have to.

If you’d like to take matters into your own hands, here are three tips for detecting greenwashed makeup yourself:

1. Remember that packaging doesn’t mean much. Instead, look into which ingredients companies restrict.

The packaging may reference nature or natural ingredients. But when you look up the company, does their “About” page mention it? Do they reinforce their dedication to screening out toxic ingredients? Does their website talk about which ingredients they refuse to use?

2. Google whether the company in question uses greenwashing.

Say you find a mascara you’re interested in, but aren’t sure if the claims are greenwashed. Do a quick search for the company name plus the word “greenwashing,” and see what kinds of blog posts and videos come up. If greenwashing activities surface, check out the concerns. If they don’t (and the company is established), you might not have much to worry about. If the company is new, however, refer back to Tip #1!

3. Read the ingredients label just like with groceries.

No matter how pretty the packaging, the ingredient list will reveal a product’s integrity. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers what’s called the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, which you can use to screen products for harmful chemicals ingredients.

If the product you’re wondering about isn’t in the database, look at the ingredient list yourself. Does it include any toxins you recognize like synthetic fragrance, BHA or BHT, parabens, or phthalates?

Keep in mind that ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration, so the first ones are especially important to vet. Also be aware that sometimes harmful chemicals go by different names, so hand-vetting ingredient lists takes time.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on greenwashing, so leave your reflections or questions in the comments below.

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