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The Truth About Greenwashing

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

The government doesn't regulate terms like natural, green, and nontoxic when it comes to product labels; consequently, there are no rules to differentiate which ingredients or procedures qualify under this term, which often leads to greenwashing.

Greenwashing is an expression often used to describe situations where companies mislead consumers by claiming to be eco-friendly, sustainable, or cleaner than they legitimately are as a marketing scheme rather than as a core principle of their business model (1). According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG):

Lax federal regulations mean that claims like “natural,” “nontoxic,” “plant-based” and “free of” have no legal basis in the personal care industry. With so many different claims on packages, consumers are often left confused, or even misled, about what’s really in their products (2).

Common Greenwashing Terms

Ingredients to Avoid

Clean Brand Recommendations

 

Common Greenwashing Terms


Natural

According to a survey conducted by Green Beauty Barometer, 74 percent of women with children at home, and 60 percent of women without kids at home, claimed that purchasing green or natural beauty products was crucial to them (3). These results have encouraged companies to use this term on their product packaging as a marketing technique to lure consumers into investing in their products. Unfortunately, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has never legally defined this term, which means there are no regulations on its use for product packaging. Despite the common misconception that natural ingredients are safer than synthetic, that isn't always the case, considering naturally occurring substances aren't always safe. A great example of that is citric acid. Citric acid, which is naturally occurring in oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits, is perfectly safe, which also naturally occurs in Aspergillus niger, also known as black mold (4). Health problems associated with this type of mold include respiratory infections, allergic reactions, and inflamed lungs (5).


All-Natural

This term is often misleading but is regulated and defined by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). To be precise, the Natural Products Association (NPA) states that the essence of the NPA natural standard includes:

Natural Ingredients: A product labeled “natural” should be made up of only, or at least almost only, natural ingredients and be manufactured with appropriate processes to maintain ingredient purity.
Safety: A product labeled “natural” should avoid any ingredient with a suspected human health risk.
Responsibility: A product labeled “natural” should use no animal testing in its development.
Sustainability: A product labeled “natural” should use biodegradable ingredients and the most environmentally sensitive packaging (6).

Of course, this is needed for the NPA seal of approval to be on a product, but unfortunately, any company can claim to be all-natural without that seal; while falsely advertising this claim. Not to mention, the first part of the NPA natural standard states, "AT LEAST ALMOST ONLY, NATURAL INGREDIENTS," meaning they don't have to be all-natural, and chemicals can still be in the products.

Organic

When it comes to food, we often see the USDA Organic label, which is a certification that happens after a company has had an on-site inspection by a certifying agent, which entails a comprehensive top-to-bottom inspection that may differ in scope, depending on the farm or facility. Then the inspector presents findings to the certifying agent following observation of practices on the farm or facility while presenting an assessment risk of contamination from prohibited materials and might even take soil, tissue, or product samples as needed. Finally, after two different certifying agents have analyzed their findings, the company applying for certification will receive a report of their findings (7). Organic means their product:

  • contains fewer pesticides

  • is often fresher

  • tends to be better for the environment

  • animals are NOT given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts

  • meat and milk can be richer in certain nutrients

  • is GMO-free (8)

Unfortunately, when it comes to the personal care products we buy, they're not as straightforward because the term organic applies to agricultural products, not personal-care products(9). Personal-care products that say organic on their bottle only need to be 95 percent organic, but to be 100% organic, it needs to be entirely organic. However, they don't have to get USDA Organic Certification and are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)(10).


Made With Organic Ingredients

This term is very misleading to some as this term means that only 70% of the product is organic and can have a slew of toxins, preservatives, and other garbage ingredients. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service:

Made with organic ingredients”-- Products contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and product label can list up to three of the organic ingredients or “food” groups on the principal display panel. For example, body lotion made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients (excluding water and salt) and only organic herbs may be labeled either “body lotion made with organic lavender, rosemary, and chamomile,” or “body lotion made with organic herbs.” Products may not display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address (9).

Non-toxic

Realistically speaking, this is an impossible claim for any product because even water, an essential to life, can be harmful in large doses. That said, non-toxic is another term that shockingly isn't regulated. According to Force of Nature:

The only written regulation around the term comes from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) who is the governing body that administers the Federal Hazardous Substance Act. They define a toxic product as one that ‘can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.’
The CPSC act details that a product must kill half or more of a group of lab rats to be considered toxic. There is a lot of very specific and confusing language in the section that indicates what the dosage and exposure time has to be in order to be considered toxic. For example, if a toxic substance kills 49% of its test subjects, it can still legally label itself non-toxic!
The bottom line on “non-toxic”: the term in and of itself doesn’t tell us that much. However, products labeled non-toxic are a great place to start your research. The burden is on us, as consumers, to educate ourselves on the ingredients in our products and to select brands who are making responsible decisions in the space (11).

Free Of _____________

One of the absolute worst blanket terms is free of or free from _____. Most often, you'll hear terms like free of parabens, free of sulfates, free of synthetics, free of fragrance, free of preservatives, and so much more. But just because a product is free from parabens doesn't mean it doesn't have other toxins such as sulfates, sulfates, synthetics, fragrance, or preservatives. Terms like this lead you to believe you're buying a more natural product, but in reality, they often have other toxins that aren't healthy. Actually, in the European Union (EU), terms like this aren't legal because they regulate their personal-care products, unlike the United States (12).


Hypoallergenic

This is another term that isn't regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), allowing companies to claim their products produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products (13). According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA):

Consumers concerned about allergic reactions from cosmetics should understand one basic fact: there is no such thing as a "nonallergenic" cosmetic--that is, a cosmetic that can be guaranteed never to produce an allergic reaction (13).

Ingredients to Avoid

If you're unsure where to start when trying to figure out if a product is greenwashed, I highly recommend using a site like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an entire online guide database for cosmetics and personal care products. It was launched in 2004 to help people find safer products with fewer hazardous ingredients or that haven't been thoroughly assessed for safety. Skin Deep® combines product ingredient lists with information from more than 60 standard toxicity and regulatory databases. Skin Deep® provides easy-to-navigate safety ratings for tens of thousands of personal care products. You may be wondering how they review it. What they do is evaluate all the ingredients in each product and give it a hazard score. The hazard score, a 1-10 scale, reflects known and suspected hazards from low to high hazards. A product's hazard rating can be higher than the sum of its parts if, for example, the product contains chemicals called "penetration enhancers" that increase the number of ingredients that soak through the skin. Sites like this are a great reference until you independently learn what to avoid. The following list may be overwhelming, especially for those new to the hidden reality of toxins. That's absolutely normal; feel free to join my Facebook Group, where I discuss one ingredient per week from the following list in-depth:

  • Acetone, sometimes called Dimethyl Ketone, 2-Propanone, Propanone, or Beta-Ketopropaneis, is a colorless solvent that can break down or dissolve other materials often found in paint thinner or nail polish (14). According to Delaware Health and Social Services, Division of Public Health, "Breathing moderate to high amounts of acetone for a short amount of time can irritate your nose, throat, lungs, and eyes. It can also cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, a faster pulse, nausea, vomiting, effects on the blood, passing out and possible coma, and a shorter menstrual cycle in women (15)."

  • Allantoin is a topical medication with side effects such as burning, stinging, redness, or irritation, unusual changes in the skin, skin infection, serious allergic reaction, severe dizziness, and trouble breathing (16). This ingredient has over 1,000 studies done and is considered a chemical with implicit safe concentration limits and restrictions on concentration, impurities, product types, or manufacturing methods in terms of the proper safety of this chemical (17).

  • Aluminum Chlorohydrate (in roll-ons and aerosols) and Aluminum Zirconium Tetrachlorohydrex GLY (in solids) are compounds that plug the sweat glands, temporarily preventing perspiration. You may like how that sounds; no sweat means no stink, right? Well, no sweat also means no way for your sweat glands to filter toxins out of the body. When your body sweats, this is your body's way of detoxing heavy metals, eliminating chemicals, and bacterial cleansing (18). Some research suggests that deodorants containing aluminum, which are applied frequently and left on the skin near the breast, may be absorbed by the skin and affect the hormone estrogen (19).

  • Aminomethyl Propanol and Aminomethyl Propanediol are substituted aliphatic alcohols that function as pH adjusters in cosmetic products, and both are considered a fragrance (20). This fragrance has 250 studies available in PubMed Science Library, and although there aren’t many alarming concerns, there is a specified concentration limit that shouldn’t be exceeded (21). To learn more regarding The Truth About Fragrance, click here.

  • Ascorbyl Palmitate is a highly bioavailable, fat-soluble form of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Ascorbyl Palmitate is processed as a nanosuspension using an HPH (20 cycles at 1500bar) technique Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate and Polysorbate 80 as a stabilizer to enhance its chemical stability. This highly processed ingredient only has 219 studies done on it. Although there aren’t any vast concerns regarding Ascorbyl Palmitate, there are implicit safe concentration limits and restrictions on concentration, impurities, product types, or manufacturing methods (22).

  • Behenyl Alcohol is straight-chain alcohol widely used in cosmetics and personal care products (23). Although the data is pretty limited regarding this ingredient, there is concern regarding contact dermatitis and potential respiratory irritation. This substance is also harmful to the non-reproductive organ system, and contact with the skin may cause drowsiness or dizziness (24).

  • Benzene is a highly flammable chemical that is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature. Benzene is formed from natural and artificial processes and is widely used in the United States (25). According to the American Cancer Society, " benzene is known to cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and lab animals. The link between benzene and cancer has largely focused on leukemia and other cancers of blood cells (26)." One article named benzene a group 1 carcinogen found in common beauty products.

  • Boron Nitride is a chemical compound that is isoelectronic and isostructural to carbon. This chemical has a similar composition to boron and nitrogen atoms (27). According to their Material Safety Data Sheet, this chemical compound may irritate the skin, and abrasive action may cause damage to the outer surface of the eye (28).

  • Butylene Glycol is a chemical ingredient made from distilled corn to make alcohol. The purpose of this chemical is to prevent the product's ingredients, dyes, and pigments from clumping up inside of a solution (29). With over 300 studies in PubMed Science Library, this chemical has strong evidence of human irritation. There are also restrictions on concentration impurities, product types, or manufacturing methods (30).

  • Caprylyl Glycol is an alcohol derived from a fatty acid. It is a humectant that pulls water into the skin and helps to hold moisture into the skin. It can irritate some skin types, particularly those already sensitized or irritated (31).

  • Carbomer is an acid-based polymer commonly used as an emulsifier in creams, ointments, and gels (32). Although there are quite a few studies on this ingredient, there are still restrictions on concentration, impurities, product types, and manufacturing methods when using this ingredient (33).

  • Ceresin is a white/yellow wax used as a thickening agent that just so happens to keep the oil and liquid parts of an emulsion from separating (34). With limited studies on this ingredient (only 11 on PubMed Science Library), evidence links moderate non-reproductive organ system toxicity to this ingredient (35).

  • Ceteareth-20 enhances the skin’s absorption rate, then enhances the ability of the other toxic ingredients in this product to penetrate the skin and absorb into the body. Although in the three studies done on this ingredient, this ingredient by itself may not be considered toxic, the ability to enhance absorption of the other toxins should be alarming when seeing this ingredient listed on a product (36).

  • Cetearyl Nonanoate is a fatty acid used as a binger in personal-care products and an herbicide to prevent the growth of weeds both indoors and outdoors (37). This ingredient has zero studies done, with no known benefits or risks (38).

  • Chlorphenesin is a synthetic preservative found in cosmetics and personal care. Although not considered as toxic as ingredients such as parabens, it's still not an ingredient you should want in your personal care products (39). This ingredient has over 100 studies in PubMed Science Library, with several reasons of concern. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) says this substance is harmful if swallowed or inhaled, is a skin irritant, and may cause respiratory irritation. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review says skin irritation was reported, even at low concentrations in human patch testing, and is a weak eye irritant (40).

  • Dicetyldimonium Chloride is classified as an antistatic, emulsifying, hair conditioning, surfactant normally in hair-care products (41). Although this ingredient has limited data, only 15 studies are available in the PubMed Science Library. The available data may or may not include information on this ingredient's toxicity, but we know that there is an asthmagen sensitizer concern (42).

  • Dimethicone is an ingredient ending in "cone," meaning it's a silicone-based ingredient. Silicone-based products will form a barrier on top of your skin that can trap dirt, sweat, bacteria, sebum, dead skin cells, and other debris - it can dehydrate your skin and interfere with cell renewal and other things (43). This ingredient is also toxic or harmful to the non-reproductive organ system and is a suspected environmental toxin (44).

  • Disteardimonium Hectorite is a modified clay compound in which some components have been replaced with stearyldimonium groups (45). This ingredient has zero studies available in PubMed Science Library or anywhere else, so there is no way to know if it’s safe or beneficial (46).

  • Emulsifying Wax is a chemical mixture that has not been fully disclosed to the public. This likely means something is hidden in the chemical compound they don’t want us to know about. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website, this chemical is rated a 4 in safety and has very few studies (47).

  • Ethylhexylglycerin is derived from synthetic raw materials (48) and used for its surfactant, emollient, skin-conditioning, and antimicrobial properties despite reports of being a contact allergen (49). This ingredient has quite a few studies available, which has led to concerns about this ingredient's safety. There is limited evidence of eye toxicity. In low doses, in rats, liver effects were observed. In several human studies, dermal sensitization had been reported - as well as mild skin irritation and severe eye damage found in animal tests and studies (50).

  • Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable chemical used to embalm dead bodies and is often used in household cleaners, glues, fungicides, germicides, disinfectants, and preservatives. Still, it is not allowed to be added to our food as a preservative. Short-term, formaldehyde can cause watery eyes, burning sensation in the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, wheezing, skin irritation, and nausea. Long-term, they aren't too sure but believe it may cause an increased risk of cancer (51).

  • Fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. These chemicals include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, and many other known toxins capable of causing cancer, congenital disabilities, nervous-system disorders, and allergies. These chemicals could contain any number of the 3,100 or so stock chemical ingredients used by the fragrance industry (52). To learn more regarding The Truth About Fragrance, click here.

  • Gluconolactone is a white crystalline powder derived from gluconic acid, a substance naturally produced by mammals and corn (53). According to its Material Safety Data Sheet, “the material is not thought to produce adverse health effects or skin irritation following contact (as classified using animal models). Nevertheless, good hygiene practice requires that exposure be kept to a minimum and that suitable gloves be used in an occupational setting (54).”

  • Hexylene Glycol is a glycol, a class of alcohols containing two hydroxyl groups called diols, often used as solvents and viscosity-decreasing agents in cosmetics and personal care products (55). However, this ingredient has a decent amount of research with over 2,000 studies in PubMed Science Library on this chemical leading to concern regarding skin, eyes, or lungs irritation and evidence of immune system toxicity and allergies (56).

  • Hydrogenated Polyisobutene is a synthetic saturated hydrocarbon from the polymerization of isobutene (57). With only two studies in PubMed Science Library, there isn’t much data backing the safety of this ingredient, so it’s best to stay away from it. If there is no data and limited studies, it’s hard to believe there are many benefits to it, either (58).

  • Hydroxyphenyl Propamidobenzoic Acid is a synthetic ingredient that mimics oats, a popular ingredient found in skin-care products due to its soothing properties (59). This ingredient has zero data available; until research has been done, I’d stay clear of this ingredient (60).

  • Isododecane is a colorless liquid used as an emollient in mascara, eyeliner, lip gloss, and hair spray (61). This ingredient has minimal data available, with only nine studies in PubMed Science Library. There is still concern regarding the non-productive organ system, including being fatal if swallowed and entering the airway. It also may cause drowsiness or dizziness and may cause long-lasting harmful effects on aquatic life (62).

  • Isoeicosane is a hydrocarbon emollient that is often used to replace mineral oil in "oil-free" products (63). This ingredient has zero studies available in PubMed Science Library and has no data available, so there is no way to know if it is safe to use honestly (64).

  • Isononyl Isononanoate is a skin-conditioning emollient with minimal studies done on it, leaving room for a lot of data gaps (65). There is enough information to publish a study regarding the issue of contact dermatitis (66). Only five studies in the PubMed Science Library may include information regarding the toxicity of this chemical. There are some restrictions and limitations to using this chemical, so avoiding this ingredient is best (67).

  • Laureth-23 is a high HLB emulsifier used in oil-in-water emulsions found in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products as a surfactant, emulsifier, and solubilizer (68). This ingredient shows strong evidence of irritation and is classified as “expected to be toxic or harmful” while classified as a medium human health priority and is suspected to be an environmental toxin (69).

  • Magnesium Sulfate is a naturally occurring mineral, but using too much can cause severe and life-threatening side effects (70). Although plenty of studies have been on this ingredient, there is still a warning for irritation, being harmful when swallowed, in contact with skin, or inhaled (71).

  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate is a water-soluble derivative of Vitamin C (L-Ascorbic Acid, Mono-Dihydrogen Phosphate, Magnesium Salt) (72). This ingredient is also quite limited to data, with only 26 studies in the PubMed Science Library that may include information on its toxicity (73). The Cosmetic Ingredient Review did their safety assessment based on a related chemical, not the actual ingredient in question, which isn't very comforting.

  • Manganese Violet (CI 77742) is a violet pigment used to formulate makeup, hair coloring, bath, nail polish, and skin-care products (74). This ingredient is quite limited in data and has zero studies available in the PubMed Science Library but is still classified as expected to be toxic or harmful to the non-reproductive organ system and is also suspected to be an environmental toxin (75).

  • Methicone is another ingredient ending in "cone," meaning it's a silicone-based ingredient. Silicone-based products will form a barrier on top of your skin that can trap dirt, sweat, bacteria, sebum, dead skin cells, and other debris - it can dehydrate your skin and interfere with cell renewal and other things (43). This ingredient has limited data available; only five studies in the PubMed Science Library may include information on its toxicity. Remember that ingredients that end with "cone" are silicones and are best to be avoided (76).

  • Methylpropanediol is a synthetic ingredient that functions as a solvent and enhances the absorption of other ingredients into the skin (77). Although there is limited data regarding this ingredient, 36 studies available in the PubMed Science Library may include information on its toxicity. Even with limited data, there is a concern for mild skin irritation, severe eye irritation, and sensitization observed in human patch testing (78). This ingredient by itself may not be a significant toxin concern. Still, the ability to enhance absorption of the other toxins should be alarming when seeing this ingredient listed on a product.

  • Microcrystalline Wax is a specific type of wax produced by de-oiling Petroleum as a viscosity agent, binder, and emollient (79). This ingredient has limited data available, but their 20 studies in PubMed Science Library may include information on its toxicity. One thing we do know is, according to the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List, this is classified as expected to be toxic or harmful to the non-reproductive organ system (80).

  • Mono-Dihydrogen Phosphate, also known as Potassium Dihydrogen Phosphate, is a colorless crystal or white crystalline powder that has health effects of irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract producing toxic gases (81).

  • Octyldodecanol is long-chain fatty alcohol that helps form emulsions and prevents an emulsion from separating into its oil and liquid components (82). This ingredient has limited data, leaving many gaps. There are 24 studies in the PubMed Science Library that may include information on the toxicity of this chemical. Still, one thing is for sure, according to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, their assessment found there is strong evidence concerning irritants for humans (83).

  • Octyldodecyl Oleate is a rare cosmetic ingredient used as an emollient (84). This ingredient has a lot of data gaps because there is absolutely zero data or studies done on this ingredient; until research has been done, it's best to stay clear of this ingredient (85).

  • Octyldodecyl Stearoyl Stearate is a naturally occurring fatty acid, stearic acid, found in animal and vegetable fat and is used in skin-care products (86). Although this ingredient has some data gaps, two studies in the PubMed Science Library may include information on its toxicity; there is strong evidence of a human irritant by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review's assessment (87).

  • Ozokerite is a solid yellow-to-brown wax composed primarily of paraffinic hydrocarbons and commonly used in lipsticks and other color cosmetics, moisturizers, and deodorants (88). This ingredient has many data gaps, with only 69 studies in the PubMed Science Library that may include information on the toxicity of this chemical (89).

  • Parabens often listed on ingredient lists as Butylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben have been found in the breast tissues of 19 out of 20 women with breast cancer in a 2004 study (90). This doesn't necessarily mean parabens cause cancer, but they do penetrate the skin, so their other harmful effects may be doing even more than studies have learned so far. The main concern with this chemical is that studies have suggested that parabens can disrupt hormones in the body, harm fertility and reproductive organs, affect birth outcomes and increase the risk of cancer (91).

  • Paraffin Wax is derived from Petroleum, coal, and shared oil; this wax has been found to contain known carcinogens, including Acetone, Benzene, and Toluene – when burnt, releasing them into the air (92). Exposure to carcinogens like this may cause headaches, kidney damage, congenital disabilities, bone marrow damage, respiratory issues, nausea, and cancer (93).

  • PEG-100 Stearate is a Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) ester of Stearic Acid that functions as an effective emollient, emulsifier, and surfactant and is commonly used in facial cleansers, creams, lotions, shampoos (94). This ingredient has limited studies on it that they aren’t sure if it causes organ toxicity, but they suspect it to be an environmental toxin. It is also recommended to use restrictions on concentration, impurities, product types, and manufacturing methods due to the lack of information available (95).

  • Pentylene Glycol is a clear, viscous liquid with no odor, often used as an emulsifier and thickener (96). This ingredient only has 23 studies in the PubMed Science Library that include information on its toxicity of this ingredient (97). Until more research has been done, it's best to stay clear of this ingredient.

  • Petroleum clogs pores and often causes acne breakouts as well as rashes. Petroleum has also been linked to estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance is a common condition in which sufferers have a high ratio of estrogen, with little to no progesterone to balance its effects in the body (98).

  • Phenoxyethanol is synthetic ether alcohol and a petrochemical preservative, which can cause contact dermatitis, and damage reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. This ingredient has been banned in certified organic skin-care products by COSMOS, Ecocert, and the new EU Organic Certification Standard (99).

  • Phytic Acid, sometimes referred to as Inositol Hexaphosphate and IP6 is a substance found in many plant-based foods and skin-care products known as an anti-nutrient because it blocks the absorption of certain minerals into the body (100). According to human and animal testing, this ingredient absorbs into the skin and is classified as a severe skin irritant/possible skin corrosive based on an in vitro assay (101).

  • Polybutene is the polymer formed by polymerizing a mixture of Isobutene and normal Butenes that functions as a