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‘Natural’ Beauty: Does It Mean Anything?

The definition of "natural" is at the discretion of a brand's founder, resulting in a confused consumer.

Organic, certified organic, made with organic ingredients, all natural, natural cosmeceuticals, supercharged naturals, eco, green, vegan, edible, clean clinical, advanced clinically clean.

What do they all mean?

The word “natural” in beauty — and the crop of new subcategories popping up in an attempt to elucidate and classify the term even further — have become so grossly overused that they they are starting to mean, well, nothing. With the exception of “organic,” where a strict set of requirements must be met to ascertain organic certification, although even here there are different bodies with varying sets of standards and terms that are open to a range of interpretations. For example, a label that reads “made with organic ingredients” says very little in the way of the other ingredients that are not organic, which are subject to the brand or manufacturer. As for vegan, that just means no ingredients contain animal byproducts and has nothing to do with whether something is plant derived or grown organically.

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“I had always operated under the assumption that beauty products were safe and that the industry would not allow toxic chemicals, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors into the makeup products that women are using every day,” said Gwyneth Paltrow, who is set on “moving the whole clean beauty movement forward.” “Unfortunately the beauty industry does not protect us at all really.”

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Similar to the food industry, it’s a free for all, said experts and founders of beauty firms, who claim that “greenwashing” — when a company markets its products as more environmentally friendly than they are — is sweeping an industry where brands are desperate to be part of an exponentially growing “naturals” trend. And it’s consumers in pursuit of something “natural” who are becoming the victims as an oversaturated market with definitions and claims that vary wildly are doing more to confuse — instead of help — shoppers make educated decisions about what to put on their faces.

“Natural doesn’t have a definition. In cosmetics, there is no definition of naturals, so it means nothing. There is no regulated definition,” stated Nneka Leiba, director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, a nonprofit public health advocacy group that does work in the cosmetic safety and policy space. She stressed that one must always look at the ingredients — not the claim.

EWG is best known for its Skin Deep property, a database with more than 70,000 products that ranks ingredients on a hazard scale of one to 10, with one to two being the least hazardous, or safe, and 10 being the most hazardous.

“The definition of natural is completely up to the company that uses it [the term],” Leiba said.

Karen Behnke, founder and chief executive officer of Juice Beauty, which formulates products with certified organic ingredients, agreed.

“The problem is that there’s no regulation or definition for natural so everyone makes up their own definition, and it’s very hard for the consumer to actually sift through all of that. And that’s probably the issue. Anybody can call themselves natural — and everybody does,” Behnke said. The company set the Internet abuzz two years ago when Paltrow was named creative director of makeup for the brand, which is also the parent of her two-year-old beauty venture, Goop by Juice Beauty.

In Paltrow’s new role with the company, though, there was a learning curve when it came to organic makeup specifically. She stands by the efficacy, but Paltrow admitted that with organic formulas she sometimes has to slightly “finesse” the way she normally would apply the “conventional version” of the product.

She cited the Juice Beauty Ultra-Natural Mascara, which is formulated without carbon black, coal tar, animal glue and petroleum-derived ingredients. Paltrow recommended applying one coat and letting that dry before putting on a second coat to achieve the same results as a conventional mascara.

Behnke said all products in the 12-year-old line meet the “most strict regulation in the U.S.,” the California Organic Products Act, or COPA. Juice Beauty has a “food grade” organic products rating, meaning at least 95 percent organic content, but the executive said the brand’s minimum standard is at least 70 percent organic content.

“We follow the national standards of ‘made with organic ingredients,’ which we can use anywhere on our labels or products due to the high organic content. Therefore, Juice Beauty can freely use the term ‘organic,’ whereas most companies cannot,” Behnke stated.

This is why, unlike the definition of “natural,” which remains at the discretion of the brand, claiming a product is “organic” faces more hurdles. But even in that category, the myriad certification bodies and their different standards can create confusion. There is COPA, as well as Ecocert, Europe’s leading certification body for cosmetics based in France with subsidiaries in 25 countries, and Australian Certified Organic, or ACO, a leading organic certification body in Australia. The ACO has two clear classifications: certified organic, which requires at least 95 percent organic ingredients (the remaining 5 percent must also meet sustainability guidelines), and “made with organic ingredients,” which requires only 70 percent organic ingredients to be able to state “made with organic ingredients” on packaging.

Then it gets even trickier.

Gwendolyn Wyard, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs of the Organic Trade Association, explained that “organic” is a federally regulated term and the USDA regulates and enforces all organic claims made on U.S. agricultural products.

But personal-care products and cosmetics are ultimately regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not the USDA, although they do come under the USDA’s jurisdiction once the USDA organic seal or term “certified organic” comes into play.

Wyard expounded on the three claims that can be made on a USDA-certified product: A “made with” claim can be made if a product contains 70 percent organic-certified ingredients; an “organic” label where use of the USDA seal is permitted requires at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients, and the 100 percent organic category is self-explanatory.

“We really support third-party certification of a product, and when it comes to cosmetics it’s very challenging for many of these personal-care products to meet that USDA organic standard, which was written for food,” Wyard said. “The next place to go is to a private standard and organic certification designed for personal-care products. It’s not the same as USDA organic, which we view as the gold standard, but it’s still third-party certification, which we support. Third-party certification verifies the claim on the product so consumers can trust what they are buying.”

She then mirrored a sentiment that was expressed across the board, from firms that regulate organic activity and certification bodies to retailers and brands themselves: There are a number of beauty products that will make an organic claim that isn’t certified.

According to Valérie Lemaire, greenlife general manager at Ecocert, there are two levels of certification defined by Ecocert’s COSMetic Organic Standard, or COSMOS. One is for a COSMOS Organic certification, where at least 20 percent of the overall ingredient content has to come from organic farming (for non-rinsed-off products), 10 percent from organic farming for rinsed-off products and at least 95 percent of the ingredients from vegetable origin must be organic. In order to obtain a COSMOS Natural label, all of the ingredients can be from natural origin with a maximum of 2 percent of synthetic ingredients.

Tata Harper, founder of her skin-care and makeup range, said her brand meets the Ecocert standards for COSMOS Natural and Organic certifications.

Harper is also among the most stringent when it comes to use of natural ingredients in the formulation of her products. For her, it’s less about whether something is organic and more about whether the raw ingredient was grown or “started in the earth” (excluding petroleum, which might be found under the earth but is definitely not a “desirable ingredient that any woman wants to lather on her skin,” she said).

She abides by a 100 percent non-artificial, 100 percent nontoxic, 100 percent naturally derived ingredient (organic content in ingredients fluctuates from 30 to 98 percent), “nothing synthetic” code when creating each of her products, and takes issue with the way “clean beauty” has been defined by many brands in the market.

“It is subjective to the founders to figure out which are the “nastys,” what are considered the bad ingredients and say, ‘Let’s remove those from the table.’ That doesn’t mean that everything else is clean or natural. It just means that they are cleaner…[and the] synthetics aren’t on any list that is alarming. It means they’ve taken all the really bad stuff out that we know about, but they still have artificial ingredients that aren’t on any list right now and mix it with naturals,” Harper said.

Instead of embracing “simplicity,” she seeks “complexity” in her range by developing formulas that are “fully loaded” with multiple active ingredients. She said the brand has even been able to master emulsification and stability systems that are 100 percent synthetic free and robust enough to handle multiple active ingredients that yield multiple benefits. For her, more is really more when it comes to skin care. Her motto is “more ingredients, more results.”

But all natural isn’t always better, some experts contend.

Leiba pointed out that just because a product is 100 percent plant-based, or “true and natural in every sense of the word,” that still does not ensure that it’s a safe product. She declined to list brands that might fall into that category. (A quick search on Skin Deep showed that the majority of the ingredients in Harper’s products are rated ones and twos and are thus considered very safe.)

“Some of them [100 percent plant-based ingredients] are not effective. If you want a really good preservative, you may have to delve into the synthetic world – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are many synthetic ingredients that have not been associated with harm, and there are some naturals that have been,” Leiba said.

This is exactly the position that Paltrow’s editorial property, Goop, has taken when deciding what to sell in the beauty section of its Goop Shop — which is surprisingly a very different stance than most would think. Blair Lawson, head merchant for Goop, was clear that it’s not an “all-natural shop.”

Instead, what the site deems “Goop clean” is less about whether an ingredient is plant derived and more about its safety — and safe ingredients can be synthetic or natural. Lawson said the approach to building out the site’s beauty offerings, where the current brand count is around 100, is to make sure that none of the ingredients in any of the products in any of the brands is linked to any harmful health effects. Here, safety is paramount and the source of the ingredient less so.

“There are a lot of brands and retailers who are really trying to do the right thing, and we don’t have exactly the same position. Some people like to avoid essential oils because they can be irritating to the skin…and that’s a completely fair position, but it’s not the position we have taken at Goop. We’re more about [avoiding] dangerous health and safety concerns,” Lawson explained. “If you put something on your skin and it irritates it, you can stop using it. If you put something on your skin that has a carcinogen or is disrupting your endocrine system you have no way of knowing that, so you aren’t going to stop using it.”

She pointed to silicone, where a common position for brands is not including anything petroleum-derived in their products. She called it a “great position,” but was quick to point out that there are petroleum-derived ingredients that have been “linked to cancer, and there are natural ingredients like arsenic, mercury or lead that are really bad for you.”

Goop has compiled a lengthy list internally that the team uses to screen every product under consideration that is comprised of “easily 50 [ingredients], probably much more than that” since certain families of ingredients contain 10 to 15 variations within a single category. She said avoiding parabens and phthalates are table stakes at this stage, but Goop takes it a step further. Lawson cited PEGs, or polyethylene glycols — commonly used to maintain stability, as an emulsifier or even a moisturizing agent — as an example, where there is PEG-10, PEG-30 and so on. The same holds true for polysorbates.

Then there’s Jessica Alba, who has also been vocal about her passion for creating nontoxic, ethically sourced products and cosmetics that are “made without potentially health-compromising chemicals or compounds,” according to the web site for her Honest Co. brand. But the company has gotten into hot water over its use of some ingredients in detergents and baby sunscreen that were said to be harmful.

Meanwhile, Honest Beauty, Alba’s skin-care and cosmetics range that launched in 2015, four years after she founded Honest Co., is described as a “clean” beauty alternative by the brand. Alba doesn’t claim that Honest Beauty is an organic line, and only one of her products, a $55 Everything Organic Facial Oil, is USDA-certified organic.

Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant, believes the key for a brand is to do your research.

“There are some synthetics that the clean category sort of rejects in general, [like] polysorbate 20 or laureth-23. But you can’t just say ‘no polysorbates’ — you have to look at the amount, the source,” said Masterson, who added that she indeed formulates with polysorbates. “We’re flexible in doing the leg work on some of these ingredients that get a bad rap.”

Many spices are “literally toxic” at a large enough dose, and many vegetables contain naturally occurring substances, which are carcinogens — but both are harmless in the amount that people are exposed to, Masterson said, adding that water is also “100 percent” fatal in “high doses.”

“Consider that in the development of any natural or synthetic chemical, there will usually be a corresponding byproduct. For example, plants produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct of photosynthesis,” Masterson said. “Laureth 23 and polysorbate 60 are important ingredients that help blend oils — vitamin E, for example — into a water-based formula. These are super mild and there isn’t a reason to avoid them, which is why we use them in some of our products.”

Masterson has built her entire brand on the notion of “clean clinical,” which in and of itself is fast becoming a new subcategory of skin care. She even owns the trademark for “Our Own Category: Clean-Clinical.”

She went on to list six ingredients she avoids in all of her products — essential oils, silicones, fragrance and dyes, sodium lauryl sulfates, chemical screens and drying alcohols — because she believes they disrupt the function and health of the skin. Masterson has even named them the “suspicious six” because she suspects “they are at the root of almost every skin issue we see.”

“Nontoxic started becoming overused and was confusing to the consumer, because my definition of nontoxic is not the same as when an ‘all-natural brand’ says something is nontoxic. [For me] it’s not only nontoxic for your internal body, but it’s nontoxic externally. Essential oils, to me, are not nontoxic. They fall under the toxic umbrella, in my definition,” she said.

In Masterson’s world, “clean” does not include essential oils, because to her, if something irritates or sensitizes the skin — and in her opinion, essential oils do — they can’t be called “nontoxic.”

Her ethos of embracing safe naturals and safe synthetics is similar to that of Blue Mercury, which earlier this year started to roll out its naturals program. The pilot kicked off in March with 22 doors, has expanded to about 30 and by year’s end will roll out to about 50 doors, according to Barry Beck, founder and chief operating officer of Bluemercury.

“We scan the universe of brands that say they’re natural. Then we bring them in — there’s an inordinate amount of inbound brands — and quickly narrow the field to just a handful, then check the ingredients again, check and narrow it down even further and test the efficiency and then go back to ingredients to understand a bunch of things,” Beck said.

He listed the four guidelines the retailer uses to determine acceptance into its naturals section: effectiveness; whether or not the product is “clean” (“It not does it have to have mud from the earth. Natural is, ‘Have we screened for banned ingredients?'”); high concentrations of “power-packed” naturals, including vitamin A, vitamin C, tamarind or aloe, and lastly, whether the brand has a “long innovation runway.”

There is also Bluemercury’s proprietary, in-house, skin-care range, M-61, which Beck described as a “natural cosmeceutical brand” due to the combination of “doctor-loved” ingredients (salicylic and glycolic acid and peptides, among them) and the removal of harmful ingredients (sulphates, parabens and phthalates), combined with high concentrations of natural, power-packed ingredients.

There are even multibrand retailers popping up dedicated to selling safe, clean, eco-friendly, cruelty free, nontoxic and/or organic skin care and makeup, including Credo Beauty, which will open its sixth store in Boston this weekend, and Follain, which operates two Boston stores and a seasonal location in Nantucket, Mass.

The two leading beauty retailers that specialize in clean beauty, Credo and Follain, have their own sets of guidelines, albeit similar, used to determine what brands make the cut into their stores and corresponding e-commerce sites.

Tara Foley, founder of Follain, contended that she has a “strict vetting matrix” for safety and efficacy, which she detailed in a phone interview. Safe ingredients matter, she believes, but product efficacy is equally as important.

“People are competing on different claims, and at the end of the day that’s not what the consumer wants….There are 4,000 certifications, and that’s why we created Follain. We are doing the homework for customers. We make sure products don’t have any of the bad ingredients, and at the end of the day that’s what women are looking for. Is this safe and does it work?” Foley said, adding that her team uses a “Restricted Substance List” to determine what ingredients are and aren’t safe.

On Thursday, the retailer introduced its first capsule collection of cobranded products created in partnership with existing ranges sold at the store, including Farmaesthetics, Organic Bath Co. and Rica. Additionally, a pop-up shop on Manhattan Upper East Side boutique Fivestory’s fourth floor will be open from Oct. 19 through mid-January. The space will launch exclusive collaborations.

At Credo, the definition of clean beauty mirrors that of Masterson’s, Beck’s and Goop’s. According to Annie Jackson, chief operating officer at Credo, every product from the 100-plus brands in the store is vetted to ensure that there are no harmful, toxic or dirty ingredients from the store’s “Dirty Ingredient List.”

Jackson was clear that Credo is a “clean beauty,” not a natural beauty, store. She thinks brands that call themselves “100 percent natural” are “misunderstanding of brand positioning.” Yes, they might use natural plant ingredients, but there still has to be a chemical process to get the formula in a bottle, to make it efficacious and even in some cases, smell good.

“If you look natural up in the dictionary, it’s animal, minerals and plants. Natural means you should be able to dig it out of the ground and eat it, and a beautiful cleanser in a bottle, yes it can be comprised of all natural ingredients, but once you start the formulation process that then transfers from the plant to a different chemical compound, it can no longer be linked back to plants, animal or minerals,” Jackson said.

Her hope is that brands become more transparent that synthetics have to be involved in the development process to take a product from raw ingredient to the shelf.

Allies of Skin, which this week released three new products — purifying and brightening cleansers as well as a $120 Promise Keeper Blemish Facial billed as a “preventative treatment for hormonal and stress breakouts” — has its own interpretation of “natural,” too.

“Natural to me means choosing ingredients that are biologically similar to the skin, that biologically support the skin’s natural ability to heal itself,” said Nicolas Travis, founder of Allies of Skin.

If he had to classify his collection in a specific family, he indicated it would be “clean clinical,” but even that isn’t specific enough. He coined another subcategory to specify where exactly his products fall in the natural spectrum: “supercharged naturals.”

Then there is Edible Beauty, which maintains that every product is safe to eat.

Not that you would want to. But according to founder Anna Mitosis, who is also a nutritionist, you can. For her, edible ingredients could be derived from botanicals, a vitamin, mineral or actual food. A $50 pink clay sleeping mask that came out in August, for instance, contains avocado oil.

Edible Beauty was founded in December 2014 in Australia, where it’s sold at 15 Sephora doors. Mitosis recently entered a few doors in Asia, including Lane Crawford, and in early 2018 will launch in the U.S. with a key retail partner. The 14-product line ranges in price from $24 for Goddess on the Go Beauty Balm to $76 for an eye cream with pieces of edible gold leaf.

Edible, natural, organic, eco — it appears there is no immediate end in sight to the confusing use of all these terms by beauty brands, even those who are following the regulations to meet the standards of official bodies. In the end, how is a consumer to know that a brand saying it’s “organic” is any different from one claiming to be “natural?”  What does “organic” even mean?

As the Organic Trade Association’s Wyard said, “We don’t think consumers should need a law degree to understand a label. If there’s an organic claim being made on the front label than that label should be certified. My beef is when you start making organic claims about the product on the front panel…when it just contains organic ingredients. It gets very confusing, because there is no regulation or oversight for the processing of the product and the nonorganic portion, unlike certified ‘organic’ and ‘made with’ food products.”