While ‘beauty’ is still the main term that comes to mind when we think about cosmetic products, an increasing number of consumers expect to find ‘sustainable’, ‘environmentally friendly’, and ‘clean’ qualities in the cosmetics they purchase. Growing interest on wellbeing and more natural ingredients have boosted a growth of natural and organic cosmetics in the last ten years, and the industry has consolidated its presence in the cosmetics market. However, this growth has exacerbated an existing problem: greenwashing, as some brands use marketing tricks and mislead the consumer. But… Why do they do it? What are the differences between “nature-inspired” and truly natural cosmetics? Are only natural cosmetics safe? What are the benefits of natural cosmetics? In this article, we provide answers to these questions.
What’s the difference between “nature-inspired” and a natural or organic cosmetic?
We all want to make an informed decision, that’s why we have decided to start from the beginning and address the difference between “nature inspired” and natural or organic cosmetics. “Nature-inspired” cosmetics, often rely on the use of ‘green’ marketing elements and highlighted promotion of certain qualities associated to natural and organic cosmetics without offering defined guarantees at formulation level. This means that, while a certified natural and organic product carrying the NATRUE Label guarantees absences of substances such as silicones or those made from mineral oils, and permits only natural fragrances, “nature-inspired” products are often composed of an undefined mix of natural or organic (normally in low concentrations) and conventional petrochemical ingredients. Due to their verifiable requirements with certified natural and organic cosmetics, the evaluation of conformity goes down to the additive level meaning that anything from the preservative (only the use of approved substances) to the solvents (e.g., ensuring the absence of phthalates in fragrances) through to the actives and other functionals is assessed.
Why are such chemicals used if there are equally good natural alternatives?
Reformulating with natural substances has the advantage of the potential for new innovation, improved environmental performance, and improved competitiveness but with every driver there is a constraint. These constraints meaning conventional manufacturers may have not made the switch could include higher production costs, availability of the raw material at scale and/or funds to invest in the necessary production capacity, compatibility with existing formulas requirements or in-house requirements for products, and availability of funds to invest in R&D.
The only unambiguous way for consumers to be sure they are buying a truly natural or organic cosmetic is to look for a certification label
That said, consumers are increasing looking for natural alternatives to synthetics, and to this end raw material suppliers are already increasingly innovating in this space. Moreover, in the coming years it is expected that regulators will increasingly focus on removing more and more hazardous substances from use to protect human health and the environment with the aim to boost the investment and innovative capacity for production and use of chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design, and throughout their life cycle.
So, are natural cosmetics safer than “nature-inspired” cosmetics?
The answer is no. When it comes to our choices for cosmetics, you can be assured that regulation exists to ensure your safety. It’s well-established that safety is paramount for brands and consumer, so all cosmetics are subjected to strict safety assessments required by cosmetics legislation (Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009) in order to be able to be placed in the market. This means that all legally placed cosmetics in the market, both conventional and natural/organic, are safe for use.
What would the consumer have to expect by switching from conventional to organic cosmetic?
Aside from the product itself, buying a natural or organic cosmetic is an investment in more than just face value. For example, one reason to switch to an organic cosmetic is the support can provide to various actors in the supply chain from those who source the plants using sustainable practices, the benefiting to local communities, and the support to SMEs and numerous suppliers downstream. There are ethical considerations about how and where the raw materials are sourced, their environmental impact, packaging, and animal welfare considerations to name a few that are all considered for certified organic cosmetics.
Why do some brands call their products ‘natural’ when they aren’t? Is there no legal definition?
The fast growth and development of the natural and organic cosmetic sector clashes with the lack of tailored regulation for “natural” and “organic” claims in cosmetics, which can leave consumers without adequate protection in the face of greenwashing. In fact, there’s a serious lack of trust from a shopper’s perspective in the beauty industry: a Provenance research study indicated 80% of shoppers had doubts on whether to trust sustainability claims.
Since there are no harmonised criteria (or label) to define the properties of natural and organic cosmetics at international level, it is difficult for producers and consumers to evaluate whether the claims ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ can be considered misleading. Ultimately, this means there is no precise indication of what a natural or organic substance is, what kind of substances are permitted or excluded, or how many natural or organic substances should be in a product to support these claims. Consequently, with no official indication or guidance there is no precise understanding of how the claims natural or organic are applied to cosmetic products without being misleading to the consumer.
The problem remains that conventional and nature-inspired products may make claims (for instance, “made with rose oil”), use images, iconography and other forms of marketing that can draw attention to a limited number of natural ingredients rather than the product as a whole. Such natural ingredients may be present in the finished product, but only in very low concentrations relative to the proportion of non-natural substances used. The net result remains the risk of greenwashing, a phenomenon that can be seen not only in the misleading use of claims such as “natural” or “organic”, but also “environmentally friendly”, “clean” or “green”.
Buying a natural or organic cosmetic is an investment in more than just face value
From a regulatory perspective, there are also actions running parallel to these voluntary schemes. In 2021, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) released its Green Claims Code to help businesses check environmental claims, and in early 2023 the CMA launched an examination of household FMCGs including cosmetics to scrutinise the accuracy of ‘green claims’. In 2022 the European Commission (EC) launched its proposal to amend the existing EU Directives on Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the Consumer Rights to empower consumers for the green transition. In 2023 this work is expected to be complimented by the adoption of a Commission proposal specifically on Green Claims and their substantiation.
How can people be sure they are buying truly natural products?
The only unambiguous way for consumers to be sure they are buying a truly natural or organic cosmetic is to look for a certification label, like NATRUE, on the packaging. Unfortunately, one often finds seals or logos that ‘look like’ certification labels but are in fact self-declared claims in label formats because they do not correspond to any recognised standard and do not include any third-party control process.
The million-dollar question is which label to trust? It’s important to note that there may be notable differences between labels. For this reason, consumers need to learn which certification labels for natural and organic cosmetics are reliable, and how to distinguish independently verified and controlled product characteristics, from self-declaration from the manufacturer without independent control.
Firstly, even if a label’s requirements may vary, the most important point is to choose those linked to certification. Secondly, choose voluntary private label schemes, like NATRUE, that focus on guaranteeing the use of renewable rather than finite ingredients, as well as accountability towards responsible sourcing and promotion of lowered environmental impact and waste reduction. Through its rigorous set of criteria, which includes requirements not only linked to the formulation of products but also to the protection of the environment, sustainability and packaging, the NATRUE Label actively contributes to combatting greenwashing and misleading claims in the cosmetics sector, and helps both reassure consumers and to identify cosmetics that fully meet their expectations of “natural” and “organic”.
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