Your Cheat Sheet of Clean Beauty Terms

by Valerie Bisharat

naked poppy glossary of clean beauty


Many of us have heard about non-toxic makeup. But what exactly does “natural” mean? Is it healthier to go “green?” Is there a difference between “vegan” and “cruelty-free?”

Turns out, the world of clean beauty is pretty nuanced. We created this cheat sheet of terms to help break it down for you. We’ve also gathered a list of third-party certification logos to look for while shopping for beauty products in the future.

A quick word on definitions

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lightly regulates makeup products, it doesn’t regulate any makeup-related terms like “clean,” “natural,” or “non-toxic.” This means there’s no piece of legislation that clearly specifies what health-oriented makeup terms mean. And there’s no common guide for companies or people to follow.

As a result, our definitions are not pulled from an FDA dictionary. They’re informed by hundreds of hours of research, and speaking with scientists, makeup formulators, and industry vets. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Cheat sheet of terms

What it means: Products that are free of known or suspected toxins.
Why you might care: You might prefer to reduce your exposure to known or suspected toxins when possible.
Action step: Download the Think Dirty app (pictured below), which rates makeup and skincare products on a scale of 1-10, from safer to toxic. Look up products before you buy them to ensure they satisfy your safety standards.

Think Dirty App

What it means: Products that are not tested on animals, and don’t involve animal testing at any point in the production process. Cruelty-free products can be (but aren’t always) vegan. Cruelty-free generally speaks to the process by which a product is created, while vegan refers to product ingredients. Some animal rights advocates argue that a product can’t be cruelty-free without being vegan and vice versa.
Why you might care: You might believe animal testing is wrong.
Action step: Look for the Leaping Bunny logo, PETA’s cruelty-free or cruelty-free and vegan logo, or the Choose Cruelty-Free logo when shopping (shown respectively below).


What it means: Products made with ingredients that have not been genetically modified.
Why you might care: You might prefer to steer clear of genetically modified organisms.
Action step: When you’re shopping, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal (shown below). Keep in mind that any certified organic ingredients are by definition non-GMO.


What it means: Products made in an environmentally friendly way. This might include using ingredients that won't pollute the ecosystem when disposed of, using recycled materials to make packaging, or powering a company's factory with solar.
Why you might care: You might like to support green companies.
Action step: Check out Kristen Arnett’s blog, Green Beauty Team, for green beauty product inspiration.

What it means: Products excluding ingredients that commonly cause allergic reactions in susceptible people. Note that hypoallergenic products are not guaranteed to not cause an allergic reaction.
Why you might care: You might have sensitive skin or allergies, and try to avoid aggravating ingredients.
Action step: If you suspect that you have an allergy to a makeup ingredient or particular product, perform a patch test. Apply the makeup to a small area of forearm skin, and wait for 48 hours to notice signs of irritation like redness, itching, swelling, dryness, hives, stinging, or blistering.

What it means: Companies use this term in different ways, so the definition of “natural” isn’t totally clear. Some use “natural” to describe products made exclusively from botanicals. Others use it to promote products that contain a percentage of plant-derived ingredients, while also including suspected toxic ingredients like phthalates. There’s an industry term called “greenwashing,” which refers to techniques to make “natural” claims with minimal effort. So, make sure to read the ingredients to get a better sense of what’s really in every “natural” product! Also, know that “natural” by itself isn’t by definition a good thing – for example, ethanol is natural, but using a large quantity in skincare can have a strong drying effect on the skin. There are also botanicals out there that wouldn’t be good for the skin, as they could cause an allergic response. In essence, “natural” isn’t the most useful or descriptive word when it comes to cosmetics. Refer to the other terms in this cheat sheet for more definitive terms.
Why you might care: You might like to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins and/or prefer ingredients like jojoba oil, beeswax, and shea butter.
Action step: Ignore the word “natural” and look for the other terms in this cheat sheet for more clarity.

What it means: Products that are formulated without known or suspected toxins. “Non-toxic” means the same thing as “clean.”
Why you might care: When possible, you might choose to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins.
Action step: Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database as a starting point to learn how the products and brands you’re curious about stack up.  

What it means: Products that contain agricultural ingredients, which are certified organic. The term “organic” by itself isn’t very informative when talking about cosmetics, because it only relates to agricultural or food ingredients. Cosmetics – due to dye and pigmentation, among other things – typically contain non-agricultural ingredients. 
Why you might care: You might want to make sure that if you’re buying a product that contains agricultural ingredients, like a lotion or lip balm, those products haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Organic makeup also ensures that any agricultural ingredients are non-GMO.
Action step: Look for the USDA Organic seal (shown below) or mention of organic ingredients on the ingredients label.

USDA Organic Seal

What it means: Products that are made without any animal ingredients or animal-derived ingredients. Examples of makeup ingredients that come from animals include beeswax, carmine, and tallow. Vegan products can be but are not always cruelty-free. “Vegan” generally refers to where ingredients are derived, while cruelty-free speaks to the process by which a product is created. Some animal rights advocates will argue that a product can’t be vegan without being cruelty-free and vice versa.
Why you might care: You might prefer to use products that don’t disturb animals or animal populations.
Action step: Look for the PETA Cruelty Free and Vegan, Vegan Action or The Vegan Society logos when shopping (shown below respectively).

Cruelty-FreeCertified VeganCertified Vegan

This article has been reviewed for accuracy by Tim McCraw, PhD chemist and CEO of Skin Science Advisors.

Looking for more definitions? List the terms you’d like defined in the comments below, and we’ll do the research for you. And if you have any insights to share, we’d love to hear about them.

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