What Exactly Is Green-Washing—and Why Is It a Problem?

Experts weigh in on the state of the clean beauty industry.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, you'd have to visit a mom & pop health food store if you wanted to shop for "natural" beauty products (which largely consisted of gunky creams that smelled like patchouli). We may be exaggerating slightly, but there's no denying that "natural" beauty—more on why the quotes are required in a moment—has come a long way in recent years.

No longer relegated to health food stores, natural or green beauty has hit the mainstream—in a big way. (There's also a blue beauty movement that's focused on protecting the oceans.) Whether you're shopping at a drugstore or Sephora, the sheer volume of products labeled as clean, green, natural, non-toxic (you get the picture) can be dizzying.

Sure, this might make the shopping process a little more daunting, but isn't it a good thing that everyone has hopped on the natural beauty bandwagon? According to the experts we spoke with, not necessarily, because "green-washing" is rampant.

What Is Green-Washing?

"Green-washing is when a product makes claims to be natural, eco-friendly, organic or environmentally conscious—when they aren't any of those things—as a sales tactic," says clean beauty expert Jenny Duranski, owner and founder of Lena Rose Beauty in Chicago. "This can be done through the products' descriptions or even the company name, or the use of images or packaging design that would make consumers believe the product is green."

She gives the example of a box with flowers or herbs on it, something that would make a consumer believe at first glance that it contains these kinds of natural ingredients...when, in many cases, it doesn't. To our point on natural beauty's meteoric rise in popularity, brands are doing this because it sells, says Duranski.

Why Is It Happening?

The beauty industry is almost entirely unregulated, and the natural sector even more so—it's the wild, wild west where pretty much anyone can do as they please. "The U.S. skincare and beauty industry is worth about $100 billion, yet is remarkably under-regulated. Brands regulate themselves, for the most part,'' says Annie Jackson, co-founder and COO of Credo Beauty.

More specifically, "There are no legal definitions for natural, naturally derived, renewable, sustainable, synthetic, and the like, and there's a lack of oversight to hold brands accountable for backing up these claims," she adds.

In other words, anyone could throw the word "natural" on their bottle of moisturizer and call it a day. Green-washing makes it harder for consumers to trust brands, points out Jackson. Duranski adds that it's a serious issue for consumer protection, "a deceptive marketing practice that is putting people and the integrity of the industry at risk."

What Can You Do?

So, as you try to make your beauty routine more sustainable, how can you avoid being duped by green-washing? Given that federal regulations are largely lacking (case in point, the EU has a list of over 1300 chemicals that are banned from personal care products, whereas only 11 are prohibited in the U.S.), it boils down to being an educated, savvy consumer and doing your due diligence.

Fortunately, more and more brands and retailers now have clearly defined and written standards. The Credo Clean Standard bans over 2,700 ingredients (among other criteria), Sephora has its own 'clean' criteria, as does Target. Jackson advises seeking out companies and stores like this, which also make this information easily accessible.

Rather than being swayed by overly "green" language, look for external certifications, such as the USDA-certified organic or EcoCert seal, adds Duranski. There are also helpful apps (for example, Skin Deep, created by the Environmental Working Group, and ThinkDirty) that allow you to quickly and easily access complete ingredient information about a product.

The bottom line: Cutting through the green-washing hype requires some time and research. That being said, there are more legitimately clean, green beauty products and brands out there than ever before, making it well worth your time and effort to filter out the genuine ones.

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