Organic, Non-Toxic, & Ethically Sourced: What These Terms & More Really Mean

Clean, non-toxic, all-natural, and other buzzwords are plastered all over beauty products—without actually being regulated. Crazy, right? We think so too, which is why we're breaking down popular beauty buzzwords and giving you tips to spot legitimate, plant-based products.
organic beauty products

For decades, the beauty and personal care industry turned a blind eye to the adverse effects of product ingredients. Now, thanks to consumer demand, brands are forced to clean up their ingredients—or at least pretend to. 
collection of organic and clean beauty profucts
Buzz words like clean, non-toxic, and all-natural are plastered on countless skincare and body products. Unfortunately, regulations for these words don’t exist. This means despite the quality or safety of its ingredients, any company can label its product as clean, non-toxic, or ethically sourced. 


Crazy, right? We think so too, which is why we’re defining ambiguous beauty terms and telling you what to keep an eye on when shopping for plant-based beauty products. 

What’s the Issue With U.S. Beauty Standards?

For starters, federal laws regulating the beauty industry haven’t been updated since WWII. 

No, that’s not a typo or an exaggeration. We’re serious. 1938 was the last time the FDA updated personal care and beauty standards. Sound insane? That’s because it is. 

Since 2020, clean beauty has been the fastest-growing segment in the beauty industry.  Revenues for the clean beauty market are up 19% from 2021, vegan makeup revenue is up 27%, and vegan skincare is up 23%. Meaning, plant-based personal care is top of mind for consumers worldwide, and metrics aren’t showing signs of a drop-off. 

In fact, due to a rise in skin care product awareness, waterless beauty, and zero waste of beauty components, Research Drive projects the global cosmetics market to generate $457.8 Billion in revenue by 2027.

While this is phenomenal news for beauty brands worldwide, it could be problematic for consumers. Companies looking to jump on the clean beauty bandwagon are utilizing marketing to appear clean and ethically sourced. We call this tactic greenwashing. Empowered by a lack of federal regulations, some brands market misleading beauty products.


Non-Regulated Beauty Terms 

Organic, natural, clean, and eco-friendly. The careless (and synonymous) use of these classifications confuses consumers. So, we’ve defined a few of the most popular keywords in the beauty industry. 

Clean

Clean beauty refers to products formulated without harmful ingredients, irritants, or synthetic chemicals. Unfortunately, there are no prohibited ingredients for clean beauty products. 

Ethically Sourced

To some, ethically sourced refers to supply chains focused on supporting sustainable farming practices, diverse ingredients, and innovation. To others, it means ingredients are 100% vegan and cruelty-free.

Non-Toxic

Beauty products claiming to be non-toxic should remove all ingredients known to cause dangerous side effects. 

Toxic ingredients companies are removing from beauty products include

  • Formaldehyde ( in nail polish and hair gel)
  • Petroleum ( in moisturizers and lip balms)
  • Asbestos (aka talc or hydrous magnesium silicate)
  • Lead acetate ( in hair dye and lipstick)
  • Coal tar ( in hair dye and anti-dandruff shampoo)
woman applying skincare

Organic

Think using the term organic is the same in beauty as in the food and drink industry? You’d be right. Products claiming to be organic must abide by the USDA’s National Organic Regulations. Organic is the only regulated term for health and beauty products.

Organic product regulations:

  • No manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilizers
  • No synthetic colors, dyes, or fragrances 
  • No GMOs or growth regulators
  • Plant-based pesticides 
  • No parabens, phthalates, or nanoparticles 

Natural

Not only has the FDA not defined the term natural, but it hasn’t even established a definition for cosmetic labeling. This means any product, with any combination of ingredients, can be labeled natural or all-natural.

Unofficial natural product regulations:

  • Plant, flower, or mineral-based ingredients
  • No genetically modified ingredients
  • No parabens, sulfates, or other harmful substances
  • Manufacturing retains the integrity of natural ingredients
  • Limited or no petrochemical ingredients

Eco-Friendly

Eco-friendly beauty products should have environmentally-friendly formulas and adhere to eco-conscious production and packaging

Unofficial eco-friendly product regulations:

  • Natural, organic ingredients 
  • Developed from renewable, raw materials
  • No controversial chemicals, pesticides, or irritants
  • Recycled and recyclable packaging 

woman taking a selfie with beauty products

What to Look for When Shopping for Beauty Products

Don’t be fooled by marketing. With minimal FDA regulations, it can be challenging to determine which products are what they claim to be. To help you sift through the chaos, we recommend the following tips. 

Tip #1: Research Your Beauty Products

There's nothing like doing your research. It’s the best way to control what goes in and on your body. Third-party certification experts like ECOCERT and EWG test products and ensure they’re free of chemicals and toxins.

Tip #2: Beware of Tricky Claims

There are so many words beauty companies use to mislead consumers. These are the most common

  • Organic
  • Natural
  • Clean
  • Simple
  • Safe
  • Physician-approved
  • Green or eco-friendly
  • Hypoallergenic
  • FDA-approved
  • Non-toxic

Don’t just read the packaging. Review the ingredients and look up those big words! While you’re at it, search for any adverse effects.

Tip #3: Look for Reputable Certifications

usda organic logo

USDA Organic

USDA is very strict when it comes to products and manufacturing practices. Any product claiming to be (80-100%) organic will abide by the USDA’s National Organic Regulations.


Natural Products Certification

The most well-known certification for natural personal care products is the NPA’s Natural Standard. This certification affirms that most product ingredients originate from renewable resources and are biodegradable. Products with this seal also have environmentally sensitive packaging. 

made safe logo

MADE SAFE®

This  501(c)(3) nonprofit organization has an intense scientific screening process. Along with 6,500 prohibited ingredients, MADE SAFE® screens ingredients found on product labels, sub-ingredients, and things such as byproducts of ethoxylstion, preservatives, and synthetic biology. 

Keep In Mind

The cost for small farmers and businesses to obtain organic certification is steep. This is why some of your favorite brands that use organic ingredients may not have the above certifications. So, we’ll say it again for the people in the back: research is essential. 

Use Products That Are Good for You and the Planet

At BLK + GRN, if products aren’t verifiable as sustainably made, plant-based, or cruelty-free, we don’t carry them. Read up on our approval process for high-quality, toxic-free brands. As for beauty ingredients you should avoid? We’ve listed them here

We know it’s hard but don't trust pretty packaging or enticing words. Read the labels and understand how ingredients can impact your body.