In an oversaturated market like the cosmetics industry, there's a lot of jargon that's often difficult to understand. "Natural" doesn't always mean "organic," and there's a lot of chemicals that aren't required on an ingredients list. Long story short: It's complicated.
"It's not always easy to tell certified organic cosmetics from conventional products," explains Tracy Favre, the director of organic certification programs at Quality Assurance International. "The USDA organic program was not intended for personal care products (such as cosmetics), so a very small number of products qualify to carry the USDA Organic seal. This is why NSF International and Quality Assurance International developed a standard specifically for organic personal care products."
Furthermore, it's about more than simply using organic ingredients. "That's only the first step in creating a product that's not only nontoxic, but that heals and nourishes skin," RMS Beauty's founder, Rose-Marie Swift, writes on the brand's website. "It all comes down to chemistry: When a raw material is processed for use in cosmetics or other beauty products, it typically undergoes a lengthy process. I was surprised to learn that the majority of ingredients used for natural cosmetics are refined, bleached, deodorized, clarified, fractionated, and heated to high temperatures. Complicating matters more, the processes strip away almost all the nutrients that make natural ingredients beneficial to skin."
In order to make things a little less difficult to dissect, I had Favre make a short list of things to look for when seeking out natural makeup. She breaks it down below.
1. Look for the organic seal.
"Products that are truly organic will be labeled 'organic' and carry the QAI, NSF, or USDA organic seal." This, according to Favre, is the only real proof the products you're buying are truly organic. "Products that do not identify an organic certification agency have not been independently verified to a reputable organic standard."
2. Know the difference between natural and organic.
"Beware of products labeled as 'natural.' This doesn't mean much since there is no USDA definition or standard for 'natural' products," says Favre. That being said, not all products with the word 'natural' on their labels are frauds. According to our wellness editor, Victoria, "Your best bet is to study the ingredients. Remember that they're listed from highest percentage to lowest, so aim to pick a product where synthetic ingredients are mainly at the bottom of the list, if included at all."
Still, here's where it gets a little confusing: "The scientific names of some naturally occurring ingredients might sound synthetic," notes Victoria. "Sodium chloride is just sea salt, for example, and citric acid is a compound found in lemons and other citrus fruits. Not to fear—you'll begin to recognize these with practice (in fact, she breaks it down even further here)."
3. Beware of imposters.
We all know the beauty black market exists. According to Gregg Marrazzo, senior vice president, deputy general counsel of Estée Lauder Companies, the current concern stems from online sellers. According to Marrazzo, you can always depend on authorized, in-store retailers like Sephora, Ulta, department stores, and a brand's own retail store. But if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don't buy a seemingly "organic" lipstick for $3 on the internet from someone you don't know. "Some cosmetics look like the real thing but are knockoffs containing potentially harmful ingredients, including lead," warns Favre. "These cosmetics are frequently available online and usually cost a lot less than the real thing."
4. Read the label closely.
"Not all certified organic products have the organic seal on the label," says Favre. Furthermore, "Certified products can be labeled 'organic' if they contain at least 95% organic ingredients. These products must display the organic and nonorganic ingredients on the label and the name of the organic certifier." So the certifier's organic seal may be used on the cosmetic product, but it doesn't need to be used.
5. Decide if mostly organic is good enough.
Certified products can be labeled "made with organic" or "contains organic" if they contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These products must display the organic and nonorganic ingredients on the label and the name of the organic certifier. The certifier's organic seal may be used on the cosmetic product, but it doesn't need to be used. So you need to decide where your priorities lie. For example, one of our absolute favorite natural cosmetic brands is Rituel de Fille, a collection of products known for saturated colors and good ingredients. However, the products are 99% natural and 100% cruelty-free. Each product is handcrafted without parabens, phthalates, synthetic dyes, or synthetic fragrances—but they're not 100% organic.
Want more information? Here's the beginner's guide to natural and organic beauty brands.