Thanks to a global focus on sustainability, many products have now started to boast buzzwords like ‘natural’, ‘clean’, or ‘cruelty-free’, but what do they mean? In our ultimate guide below, we’ll decipher some of these phrases and take a deeper look behind the label.
More Than Just Skincare
While natural and organic skincare and food have been hot topics for some time now, many people are taking a closer look at what goes into everything from condoms to household cleaners. Sustainability has been moved from just ‘nice to have’ to a necessity as we are all being urged to be more conscious consumers.
Because of this shift in attitudes, the certified organic and natural sector has grown by 23% in the past year alone. This is the 9th year of consecutive double-digit growth in this sector, as well as being the 3rd biggest growth since 2010.
With Greta Thunberg leading the way, 2019 saw explosive growth of the environmental movement creating a generation of passionate and informed consumers. In a recent poll of over 2,300 people across the UK and USA, 80% of people who bought eco-friendly products said they did so because they care about the environment. What’s more, The Soil Association’s consumer research shows that 64% of consumers are now looking for products with recyclable packing and 55% want more refill points in stores. And, nearly 4 out of 5 people said they would be more likely to buy a product if it said it was organic. 
In EU law, unlike in the case of food and drink, there’s very little legislation surrounding the use of words like ‘natural’, ‘organic’, and even ‘Vegan’ in cosmetics. This means that products labelled as ‘organic’ may actually contain as little as 1% organic ingredients, while the other 99% could be practically anything. The same goes for products described as ‘natural’.
The only legal requirement is that ingredients must be listed from the highest percentage to the lowest. Ingredients under 1% can be listed in any order. However, ingredients may not be listed under their commonly known name. For example, water is usually listed as aqua.
‘Natural’ is a very popular description that you’ve undoubtedly seen before on products. However, as we touched on above, products can contain just 1% naturally-sourced, plant-based, or mineral ingredients to be labelled natural.
Some brands will clearly state their natural percentage, but a good way to tell if a product is actually natural hides in the ingredients list. You would expect to see botanical ingredients at the top and synthetic ingredients at the bottom. Any natural ingredients will be listed under their scientific or Latin name, so you should use an ingredient checker (like this one) if you’re unsure.
Most products require some level of synthetic preservative to extend their shelf life, so a 100% natural product will have a significantly shorter life.
You can also check the packaging for The Soil Association’s Cosmos Natural logo. This guarantees the product doesn’t contain GM ingredients, controversial chemicals, parabens, phthalates, synthetic colours, dyes, or fragrances.
The easiest way to confirm that a product is organic is to look out for The Soil Association’s Cosmos Organic logo. This certifies that the product is sourced and manufactured using sustainable, organically-farmed ingredients, not tested on animals, and free from harsh chemicals, nano particles, parabens, synthetic dyes and artificial fragrances.
The product label may also highlight exactly what percentage of the product is organic or which ingredients are organic by adding asterisks with a footnote to explain.
It’s worth noting that some ingredients can’t be organic, like water, salt, and clay.
Some common ingredients to look out for that are animal-derived include glycerin, collagen, gelatine, and retinol. The Vegan Society also recommends avoiding ingredients like pearl, silk, snail gel, milk protein, cochineal (E120), tallow, and lanolin, unless they are specified as being synthetic.
Once again, another way to check if a product is Vegan is to look for the Vegan Society logo. This logo certifies that the product does not contain any animal extracts or animal by-products in its ingredients or manufacturing process. It also confirms that the product and its ingredients have never been tested on animals.
Another logo to look out for is the Leaping Bunny logo. This guarantees that your products are cruelty-free, and no animal testing was carried out when developing the product. The Leaping Bunny logo is the only internationally recognised logo that signals that a product is cruelty free.
However, products that are labelled as vegan can be tricky. EU Law has strict regulations around animal testing, but China (for example) requires it. This means that, while the product you buy in the UK hasn’t been tested on animals, if the company sells to China they will conduct animal testing and therefore won’t be cruelty-free.
As well as this, you should know that just because a product is vegan doesn’t mean that the animal derived ingredients have been replaced with botanical ingredients. They may be replaced using synthesised ingredients made in a laboratory.
As a general rule, ‘clean’ means that the product is free from sulphates, silicones, phthalates, parabens, pesticides, petroleum derivatives, artificial colouring, and synthetic fragrances.
Within the EU, a label must list any potential allergens that may cause sensitivity. These ingredients are typically in italics at the end of the ingredient list.
The Fairtrade certification logo ensures that ingredients like coconut, argan, apricot, brazil nut oils, and shea butter are brought at a fair price. This ensures that local, small scale farmers who grow the crops have sustainable wages. These products also provide support for community projects like clean drinking water and improving local healthcare.