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What is greenwashing and how to spot it?

September 25, 2019

As any conscious cosmetic consumer knows well, navigating between greenwashing and what is really natural can be very difficult.

Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the trend to shop ‘green’ and their marketing teams take advantage of this through greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies mislead consumers by claiming that their products are safe, non-toxic, eco-friendly, and natural, when in reality they are NOT.

How to avoid greenwashing

Become wary of words like 'natural' or 'organic' when paired with unpronounceable ingredients. Do your research and always check the ingredient list. Beauty companies often use the colour green, or pictures of leaves on their label to mislead people about their brand or product being natural.

The following ingredients are still very commonly found in greenwashed skincare products:

-Sulfates: Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, Sodium Laureth sulfate

-Silicones: Dimethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane

-Preservatives: Phenoxyethanol

-BHA/BHT, PEGs, parabens…

Support brands that have high ethical values. These brands are more likely to be green, organic and natural. Basically, the more pronounceable, plant-based ingredients, the better!

What does ‘natural’ mean?

The main issue is that there is no legislation about what exactly natural means. There are many different interpretations of the meaning of natural.

If you are interested to know more about the different shades of natural, the Formula Botanica podcast “What does natural skincare mean?” is very informative.

What to look out for on labels

References to ‘single’ ingredients in bold in the front of the label mean they’re trying to reel you in by one ingredient’s benefits. With ‘vegan’ ingredients this doesn’t mean the whole product is vegan.

Ingredient lists are always in descending order of ingredient quantity. Unfortunately it is very common for brands to put for example ‘enriched with Argan Oil’ on the front of the label, when in actual fact if you check the ingredient list Argan Oil will be one of the last ingredients on the list - meaning it’s only a tiny percentage of the whole formula.

Look for brands with trusted certifications and trademarks such as the International Palm Oil Free Certification Program, Soil Association Organic and Leaping Bunny.

It is very easy for companies to greenwash their products

There is no regulation for what a company is allowed to claim on their label. Unbelievable but true!

In fact, companies are even allowed to use the words ‘natural product’ when it is not, thanks to ISO16128, which is a standard of guidelines set out to create harmonisation between different countries.

A company can state that their product is ‘natural’ if the percentage of natural ingredients is 95% or above. Water is classed as a natural ingredient and since water is often the main ingredient in a product, this 95% natural ingredients could very possibly consist mostly of water. So, in actual fact, a 'natural' product could contain 95% water and 5% synthetic ingredients!

You can see how easy it is to fall into the greenwashing trap. I hope that this article can help you in some way to differentiate between authentic green brands and greenwashing.

Natural skincare brand Amaranthine's founder, Sarah Rueger.

Sarah Rueger

About the author

Sarah is the founder of certified palm oil free natural skincare brand Amaranthine. She is a qualified organic skincare formulator and has diplomas in Beauty Therapy and Clinical Aromatherapy.