Clean, Natural, Organic... What These Beauty Buzzwords Really Mean!

Expert Advice

via Giphy

The skincare industry has blown up in the last decade, to the point that it sometimes feels like you’re learning a whole new language! There are so many terms flying about, but how many of them do we know the true meaning of? With wellness and green living trends on the rise, we consistently see four green buzzwords regularly crop up on our feed – clean, natural, organic, and preservatives. The truth is, these terms are defined differently by brands, retailers, and derms alike, but DW, we’re here to help you decode the labels and cut through the BS.

Buzzword #1: Clean

The DL: The standards for ‘clean’ products vary from brand to retailer, but the general idea is that they consist of only natural, plant-based, and nontoxic ingredients. Large retailers, like Sephora, clearly state what they believe is ‘clean’ and label brands that meet this criterion clearly on their site, making it pretty helpful for consumers. When brands call themselves ‘clean,’ we recommend looking up their definition on their brand website, that way you can check if it aligns with yours.

The dirt: The term ‘clean’ is splashed all over our feed and in beauty campaigns. The #CleanBeautyMovement gained momentum as beauty lovers began questioning what their moisturizer tubs contained. Newsflash: the FDA (the U.S. Food & Drug Association, who determines what is or isn’t skin-friendly) has never stated what ‘clean’ ingredients are. Without a universally accepted set of standards in place, many brands created their own ‘clean’ checklists to set their products apart from the rest.

Founder of Idriss Dermatology, and board-certified derm, Dr. Shereene Idriss, confirms, “There’s no real definition of clean beauty.” She continues, “the conceptions and ideals surrounding clean beauty – although I believe, started from an honest place – has been misconstrued over time purely for its marketing value.” Since the beauty industry is self-regulated, companies can use the ‘clean’ label without any supervision – wild, right?

Tips: Check up on the company’s ‘clean’ manifesto before you spend your coins, since every brand or retailer defines it differently. Double-check that its climate commitments, sourcing, packaging, and planet-giving habits align with your own checklist and move forward from there.

Buzzword#2: Natural


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Lamazi Skin | Australia (@lamaziskin)

The DL: Skincare brands use ‘natural’ on their labels to signify their formulas are made up of naturally-derived ingredients and are free from lab-made ingredients or chemical modifications.

The dirt: The bottom line is… “all-natural” doesn’t always mean better. There are so many beneficial lab-made ingredients, like chemical sunscreens, hyaluronic acid, and retinoids, that aren’t ‘bad’ for your skin. Natural ingredients are sourced from all over the world and come in varying consistencies, but chemists can replicate these natural compounds to create synthetic versions with formulations that remain consistent. The truth is: there are many potent natural ingredients, which when used on the wrong skin type, not preserved properly, or incorrectly formulated with, can trigger irritation.

That said, there are a TON of natural formulas we love, but we aren’t dedicated to only using those.

Tips: Natural formulas are not inherently safer or better than those made with ingredients that are developed in the lab. All-natural products also tend to have a shorter shelf-life due to the lack of preservatives, which some derms say is unsafe. If you love the idea of using products straight from mother nature, then check the brand is in line with what natural means to you and shop accordingly.

Buzzword #3: Preservatives

The DL: Preservatives are antibacterial chemicals that prevent the growth of harmful bacteria inside your skincare formulas. Not only do preservatives ensure that active ingredients (the ingredients that get results) stay potent, but they keep contamination at bay and allow your products to last longer. Check out the video above by Dr. Idriss to see her example.

The dirt: The use of popular preservatives – like parabens – in skincare and cosmetics have been questioned a lot in the past few years. However, as per the EU and FDA regulations, they’re currently safe to use. So, although studies have revealed that a large number of parabens all over your body can disrupt your hormone levels, the amount in your skincare products is not enough to warrant this reaction. Skincare products only contain a very tiny amount, making them advantageous as they allow your products to last longer.

Tips: Although a ‘paraben-free’ formula sounds appealing, Dr. Idriss says, “preservatives prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast, and fungi in your products.” She believes that “this is especially important for skincare products as they tend to be kept in a moist environment (like your bathroom) in which bacteria and fungi can grow.” Without preservatives, your products may get contaminated, and “infections, breakouts, and even other skin reactions can follow.” If you’re adamant about going paraben-free, set reminders on your phone as to the expiry date of your products, as the formulas tend to alter faster.

Buzzword #4: Organic

The DL: Products termed ‘organic,’ contain organically sourced ingredients – this means that they’re grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, and sulfates. This makes them optimum for sensitive skin as they exclude ingredients like dyes and fragrances, which can lead to irritation and redness.

The dirt: Since we’re living in an era of wellness, it’s no surprise that organic-everything has taken over our supermarket and skincare aisles. But take caution: the FDA can label products ‘organic’ if just a certain percentage of their ingredients is organic. If a product contains 95% organic ingredients, it’s certifiably ‘organic,’ as per COSMOS, a leading cosmetic certifier. They also consider 20% organic ingredients (10% if it’s eventually rinsed off) to be labeled ‘made with organic.’

Tips: If you’re big on organic beauty products, always look for seals of approval from reputable organizations like Soil Association, COSMOS, ECOCERT, or USDA. Check out our guide to buying organic beauty here.

Key Takeaways

via Giphy

1. There is no definition of ‘clean’ beauty: Everyone kinda does their own thing in the #CleanBeautyMovement, so it’s key to do your homework and read up on whether ‘clean’ brands meet your clean criteria. And remember, just because it’s clean, doesn’t mean it’s better.

2. Natural isn’t necessarily superior: We love the idea of using natural ingredients, but there are so many effective and skin-transforming lab-made ingredients we don’t want to miss out on. Focus on finding formulas that work for your skin.

3. Reconfirm whether ‘organic’ is truly organic: Whenever you pick up a product labeled ‘organic,’ double-check whether the ingredients are free from animal testing, dyes, and fragrance. You can do this by hunting for the seal of approval from certified organizations.

4. Don’t be afraid of parabens: Though harmful in large quantities, preservatives like parabens keep your products safe. You can do more reading about parabens here. If you prefer to swerve parabens, then just keep an eye on expiry dates.

Do you like reading ingredient labels – what ingredients would you like to learn about?