Greenwashing in beauty – How to avoid it

There is nothing more frustrating than thinking you are doing the right thing but then realising that you have just been hood winked….This is the way I see greenwashing in beauty.

Greenwashing basically means giving the impression to consumers through branding and marketing that the product is something that it is not. In this case most commonly – natural, organic or eco-friendly.

Starting this blog and talking about what I am doing, people immediately reel off brands that they think are green – it is very rare to find someone who mentions a brand that is really clean. This is because brands with big budgets have been riding the natural wave for years and consumers trusted them. But that is changing – people are becoming more informed, asking more questions, and doing more thorough research.

Greenwashing in beauty really frustrates me – consumers want to make the right choice for their families but are constantly bombarded with natural, organic, botanical claims. So how can you avoid being green washed?

Beauty regulation needs an overhaul

Firstly, ingredient regulation

Government regulation of the cosmetics industry varies from country to country. But overall it is not a good barometer of safety – certainly not when it comes to the long-term effects of some of these chemicals on your health.

The EU has the strictest regulation with over 1300 banned ingredients but they are still missing some big ones like many Parabens – they have banned 5 though so it is a good start.

The US has only banned 30 ingredients in total!

Asia….it differs from market to market, some don’t have any restrictions where as others like Japan and South Korea have a negative list of ingredients that are banned or restricted.

Hong Kong has basically no restrictions – the only requirement is that the product is able to be sold in at least one other developed country – e.g.: China or USA

Government regulation does not guarantee safe cosmetics products – there are a lot of brands and independent organisations lobbying for stricter laws in the USA. However, it is unlikely governments will ever go far enough – ultimately the consumers like you and I have to make the choices for ourselves.

Claims regulations

This is a little video explaining greenwashing and it’s possible consequences for brands

Seeing claims on advertising or packaging saying natural, organic, no harmful chemicals draws us in, especially if you are in the process of detoxing your bathroom cabinet but please don’t be fooled.

Claims about natural, organic, dermatologically tested, botanical are very loosely regulated.

In the US (and therefore Hong Kong) you can claim a product is natural even if only 1% of the ingredients are natural!

An example I saw today is Malin + Goetz who just opened in Hong Kong and their advertising tag line is Natural ingredients, advanced technology but their products contain very few natural ingredients at all and are full of ingredients like synthetic Fragrance, Sodium Benzoate, Pegs, Phenoxyethanol etc.


Don’t be fooled by the ‘free from’ claims

Another way for consumers to get sucked in is by seeing claims that a product is “free from…sulfates, parabens, SLS, gluten….” This is great if you are just trying to avoid one thing because of a specific problem but most of us are looking for safer products in general. We might not have a specific problem now, but we want to minimise our potential risk for now or for the future.

So, for me “free from” claims are completely useless – I still need to look at what is IN the product – to see if there is anything else that I don’t want to expose my family to.

What beauty certifications are there?

If governments are not regulating claims or ingredients fully then can we look for an independent certification that we can trust? Ideally yes but this is also not straight forward – I need to do a separate post on this! But here is a summary:

The main certifications for cosmetics globally are USDA Organic, Eco cert and Soil association.

USDA Organic– U.S. Department of Agriculture seal of approval. They have 3 levels 100% organic, which is only organically produced ingredients other than water and salt; organic, usda-organic-logowhich is 95%; and “made with organic ingredients,” which is 70% approved ingredients. The first 2 levels can display the certification seal, but the last level can say it is USDA certified but is not allowed to show the seal – how complicated!!

Also, importantly the remaining ingredients don’t have many restrictions meaning that your product could be 95% organic but have 5% which is made up of some nasty potentially harmful ingredients.

Ecocert – this is the EU counterpart to USDA. They cover food and textiles as well as cosmetics.ecocert-logo

The basic principles are:

  • Manufactured in an environmentally friendly process – whatever that means
  • Biodegradable packaging
  • No GMOs, Parabens, Phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicones, PEG, synthetic fragrances and dyes
  • No animal derived ingredients except if produced by them e.g.: milk, honey
  • Different levels: gets quite complicated…
    • Standard: 95% ingredients from natural source
    • Natural & Organic: 95% of plant-based ingredients and 10% of all ingredients by weight must be from Organic farming
    • Natural:  50% of plant-based ingredients and 5% of all ingredients by weight must be from Organic farming

Soil Association – this certification body in the UK actually does yearly independent audits. They also test the soil that the ingredients are grown in to check it is organic.


They have two main levels of certification for products – Natural and Organic. Both of these levels have the below basic requirements:

  • No: Animal testing, GMOs, Parabens, Phthalates, synthetic colours, fragrances and dyes
  • Yes: Sustainably sourced ingredients, biodegradable ingredients, minimal packaging with maximum recycled content

They allow some non-organic ingredients to be used if there’s currently no organic alternative…they do list out what they allow on their site.

For Beauty Organic doesn’t mean safe – it is more complicated. It is quite different from food.

If you want the safest products for your family, then EWG verified products is a good option as they look at the chemical toxicity of all the ingredients and the potential impact on your health. Only problem is they only have 1300 products verified.

Green washing offenders beware

There are many brands who are associated with being clean, green and safe. And some have certain products that are ok, but they also have other products that contain ingredients that are widely not considered to be very safe.

My barometer for safe is linked to the Environmental Working Group. They look at ingredient studies and give ingredients a score based their link to various health concerns from Cancer, endocrine disruption, to skin irritation.

These brands are ones that people have recently asked me about. They are definitely not the only brands who are green washing. Below I have put just some of the questionable ingredients they are using.

AvedaFragrance, Retinyl Palmitate, Proplparaben, Amylcinnamaldehyde, Benzyl Salicylate

Bare minerals – Retinyl Palmitate, Methylisothiazolinone

Origins– PEGs, Benzyl Salicylate, Phenoxyethanol

Avene – Fragrance, Sodium Hydroxide, PEGs, Methylparaben, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Mustela – Fragrance, PEGs, Petrolatum in their baby products!

Body shop – Fragrance, Parabens, BHT, Benzyl Benzoate, Ceteareth-12

Lush (not in EWG but can still look up ingredients) – Fragrance, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide DEA, Parabens

Many of these brands have been around a long time and some of them stand for very admirable causes like Body shop’s force for good being one of the earliest advocators for animal rights and Lush’s commitment to plastic free but I just wanted to highlight that some of their products do contain some nasty chemicals – just because it is cruelty free or zero waste packaging doesn’t mean it is clean and safe for your skin.


Please do not get sucked into green washing in beauty – there is nothing worse than trying to buy a safe, clean product and getting it wrong. I often hear stories from people like this even when they have done some research.

So I really hope that this won’t happen to you! Here are my key tips to avoid being green washed:

1. Do not assume the government has done the work for you

2. Beware of claims on the packaging or advertising e.g.: natural etc – it is rarely reliable

3. Free from is useless unless you want to avoid one thing in particular

4. Organic and natural from does not mean the product is 100% natural or organic so check what else is in it.

5. Use EWG skin-deep database or think dirty app to check your ingredients/products – you want the ingredients to rate 0-2.

6. As a cheat sheet see my key ingredients to avoid

7. Find a source you trust to help you identify  great products.  That is the aim of this blog – see my latest researched, tried and tested favourites here. Also if you want a safe environment to try products you can check out beauty heroes – healthy beauty subscription box or if you are in the USA retailers like Credo & Follain have strict criteria for the products they sell & finally you can look for the EWG verified products.

Of course, everyone’s priorities are different – safe for your health or no animal testing or environmentally friendly sourcing and packaging – not all brands will meet every requirement but increasingly there are more and more brands who do meet the above 3, and their products are fabulous too – no compromises needed!

I am here to help uncover these better beauty brands for you – please let me know if you have questions.











  • Russell

    July 13, 2018

    Depending on governments to keep us safe can only go so far. As you emphasized, people are doing their own research now and that is great. What needs to come with it is the decision not to use products from those who greenwash. It is better to use a good substitute with no well known brand name and secure your health, than to use that which endangers it. Otherwise, we can chose not to use the item at all.

    • Allie

      July 14, 2018

      Indeed, education is the best option for everyone but it is amazing what people are willing to take on face value. This is changing which is a good thing for all of us.

  • Norman

    July 13, 2018

    What is so sad is how many people hype up there product and it is not what it claims to be. Many over the years have had to deal with the fact that the products just did not live up to its name. Thanks so much for a well put together post that I am sure that will help so many people who have questions and want them to be answered.

    • Allie

      July 14, 2018

      Thanks Norman for stopping by. 


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