how to spot and avoid greenwashing in skincare

What if I told you that your plant-based serums and antioxidants-packed oils are full of synthetic chemicals?

Go check the labels if you don’t believe me. Most natural skincare products out there are all but natural. They use a few natural plants and oils to hook you in and, while you’re not looking, fill the bottle with all kinds of stuff that shouldn’t be there.

FYI, I’m not hating on chemicals here. If you’ve paid attention in science class, you know everything is a chemical. Even water.

But if you’re buying a bottle of Argan oil, I think it’s safe to say you don’t want mineral oil in there, too. So why is it there anyway?

Greenwashing. It’s a new marketing scam that capitalises on the popularity of natural skincare to sell you more traditional lotions and potions.

Here’s how to spot greenwashing in skincare so you can avoid it and get the natural skincare routine your skin craves:

Greenwashing Definition: What Is It?

If you see a beautiful bottle of Argan oil on the shelves at Sephora, you have every right to assume that’s what you’re gonna get. I mean, what else could possible be in there?!

Problem is, Argan oil is expensive. To cut down the price and make a bigger profit, brands usually put only a few drops of Argan oil in the bottle and fill the rest up with all kinds of cheaper stuff.

It’s just one of the many examples of greenwashing (yep, it doesn’t happen only with Argan oil).

Greenwashing is a marketing technique that labels a skincare products as natural, when the majority of its ingredients have no natural origin at all!

Yep, it’s a scam.

Related: 7 Misleading Skincare Claims You Need To Stop Believing Now

boots ingredients hemp seed oil

Greenwashing Examples: How To Read A Skincare Label

Instead of telling you what a product that’s been through greenwashing looks like, I’ll show you an example.

Let’s take Boots Ingredients Hemp Seed Oil. With a name like that, you’d think this bottle only contains hemp seed oil, right?

Wrong. A closer look at the ingredient list reveals the truth:

Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Paraffinum Liquidum (Mineral Oil), Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil, Tocopherol.

Yep, there’s more Mineral oil than Hemp seed oil here. And Ethylhexyl Palmitate isn’t that natural either…

Compare it to Kiki Health CBD Oil 5%:

Hemp seed oil (60%), CBD (Cannabidiol) full plant extract (40%) Contains CBD, CBN, CBC, Terpenes 

Now we’re talking!

FYI, Boots isn’t even the worst example. At least, it never claimed to be an all-natural brand. You can’t say the same for Origins Clear Improvement Oil-Free Moisturizer With Bamboo Charcoal.

You can be forgiven for thinking it’s a natural product:

  • Origin has a reputation for being “natural”
  • The green jar features an image of a tree
  • It clearly states on the jar “with Bamboo Charcoal”

Then, you take a look at the ingredient list:

water\aqua\eau • ethylhexyl palmitate • ppg-14 butyl ether • hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel) water • dimethicone • ammonium acryloyldimethyltaurate/vp copolymer • peg-7 glyceryl cocoate • silica • steareth-21 • lavandula angustifolia (lavender) oil*, citrus limon (lemon) peel oil*, mentha viridis (spearmint) leaf oil*, gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) leaf oil*, cananga odorata (ylang ylang) flower oil*, eugenia caryophyllus (clove) bud oil*, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf oil*, citral, geraniol, eugenol, linalool, limonene, benzyl benzoate • salicylic acid • eugenia caryophyllus (clove) flower extract • charcoal powder • porphyra yezoensis (algae) extract • sucrose** • glycine • algae extract • avena sativa (oat) kernel extract • caffeine • glucosamine hcl • sodium hyaluronate • laminaria saccharina extract • glycine soja (soybean) seed extract • butylene glycol • steareth-2 • zinc pca • quaternium-22 • menthol • alcohol • disodium edta • phenoxyethanol * essential oil ** organic sucrose (brown sugar) 

As a rule, ingredients are listed in order of concentration. The higher the place on the list, the higher the concentration in the jar.

These top ingredients are those that really do the job. As I’ve highlighted above, they’re all synthetic. Heck, there are even a few silicones in here!

It’s official: you’ve been greenwashed.

P.S. To add insult to injury, most of the natural ingredients in the Origins cream are bad for skin. Lavender, lemon, spearmint and other essential oils often cause allergies and irritations, especially in sensitive skin!

Related: How To Read An Ingredient List (Even If You Hate Science)

Want to know what ingredients you really need to avoid in your skincare products? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Skincare Ingredients To Avoid” cheatsheet:

Is Greenwashing Bad For You?

Greenwashing isn’t dangerous. It’s just misleading.

Ok, I wouldn’t touch the Origins cream above with a 10 foot pole. Way too many irritants in there for my taste. But the Boots oil is fine.

Sure, it contains mineral oil, but contrary to popular opinion, that’s not bad for skin. Believe it or not, mineral oil is a lot gentler on the skin than most essential oils (like lavender and lemon).

Here’s the deal: Natural doesn’t equal good. Synthetic doesn’t equal bad. The origin of an ingredient doesn’t tell you anything about its beneficial properties or irritating potential.

Simply put, there are plenty of natural ingredients that are good for you (shea butter, anyone?) and others that are bad (lemon oil, anyone? Yes, I’m picking on it – it has NO place in skincare).

The same can be said for synthetic ingredients. Some are good and others not so much. It all depends on what your skin needs and what it can tolerate.

My problem with greenwashing is that it lies to you. It promises you one thing and gives you another. And that doesn’t sit well with me.

Related: What Makes An Ingredient Better Than Another?

nivea urban skin detox night gel cream

How To Spot (And Avoid) Greenwashing In Skincare

Want to make sure that natural moisturiser you’re eyeing is the real deal before splurging on it? Here’s how to tell if a skincare product has been greenwashed:

1. Look For Any Well-Known Synthetic Ingredients

No one expects you to know all synthetic ingredients used in skincare by heart. By you can probably recognise some common faces in skincare. Things like:

  • Cyclomethicone
  • Dimethicone
  • Isopropyl Palmitate
  • Mineral oil
  • Petrolatum

If you spot these in your lotions and potions, chances are they’re not as natural as they claim to be.

Related: 7 Skincare Ingredients With An Undeserved Bad Reputation

2. Check Out The First Five Ingredients

I’ll tell you a secret: it’s the first 5 ingredients that make the product work.

With the exception of a few actives like retinol and salicylic acid that work even at 1% or lower concentrations, most skincare ingredients don’t really do much when they’re present in tiny amounts. And after n.5, the concentration of an active is likely to drop to 1% or lower.

So, if all the synthetic ingredients are at the top and the natural ones at the bottom – like in the Origins cream above – you’ve been greenwashed, my friend.

Related: How Do You Figure Out The Concentration Of An Ingredient In A Skincare Product?

inlight beauty face oil

3. Don’t Trust Labels

If you shop in the natural beauty aisle and you spot a serum that claims to be organic and contains rosehip oil, you may trust that’s exactly what you’re getting without double checking the labels.

Brands count on it. That’s why they spend more money on making a product look natural than making it natural in the first place.

They create tubes and bottles that remind you of nature. They highlight one plant on the front label and slather its picture everywhere. They pay millions to advertisers and influencers to spread and reinforce the false message.

And they love to use words like:

  • Clean
  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Chemical-free

that imply one thing but actually mean nothing. That’s right. These terms aren’t regulated in any way. You could put a drop of olive oil in an all-synthetic formula and call it natural.

Who’s gonna hold them accountable? They’re not exactly breaking the law if there’s no law in the first place…

Chemical-free is even worse. It’s a downright lie. Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. Argan oil is made up of chemicals. To say that a serum is chemical-free, it means you’re buying an empty bottle. Oh, wait! The bottle is made up of chemicals too.

So how can you defend yourself and avoid greenwashing? It doesn’t matter how natural a skincare product looks, always check the ingredient list to make sure it’s the real deal.

The Bottom Line

Just because a skincare product claims to be natural, it doesn’t mean it is. Truth is, it’s easier to put a natural label on an old product than create a new natural formula that’s both aesthetically pleasant and effective. Always check the label to make sure you’re not being greenwashed!