Green Beauty 101: Where to Start and What to Avoid


Once relegated to the shelves of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, green beauty is now big business. The natural personal care market has been growing by double digits for the past six years, and accounts for 13 percent of the global beauty market.

The trend might have you wondering: Are we absorbing toxic chemicals every time we use our daily moisturizer? Should we resolve to use coconut oil instead?

The truth is, you’re probably not going to die from using traditional products. But there is a lot to learn from green beauty, like how to read a label, the importance of good ingredients and which potentially harmful products to cut from your routine. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming; here’s what you need to know.


Green vs. Natural, Clean, Organic or Eco
There isn’t a firm definition for green, natural, clean, organic or eco-friendly beauty. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, and, as a consumer, “it is extremely confusing,” says eco-makeup artist and founder of Green Beauty Team Kristen Arnett.

Green, natural and organic generally mean that products are made with plant-derived ingredients and without the use of synthetic chemicals; clean usually means made without harmful or “toxic” ingredients; and eco generally means vegan or cruelty-free or that ingredients are ethically sourced and packaged.

These products tend to exclude parabens and things like sodium lauryl sulfate, a chemical deemed unsafe and possibly cancer-causing by many green-beauty advocates. Sometimes these words mean gluten-free; free of synthetic fragrance or alcohol; or certified organic, a USDA stamp of approval. But not always.


Why you should switch and what to avoid
While studies are inconclusive, many of our everyday personal care products have nasty ingredients, some of which have been tied to cancer, hormone imbalances and other health risks.

To help consumers, Jeannie Jarnot of Beauty Heroes, a green subscription box, offers an ingredient pocket guide with 24 ingredients to avoid in your skincare and body products. It includes BHA or butylated hydroxyanisole (a preservative), parabens (methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, ethyl-paraben), ceteareth glycol, resorcinol, sodium lauryl sulfate and mineral oil.

Arnett also developed a glossary with her top 10 offenders, including formaldehyde, an EPA-recognized carcinogen found in many nail polishes, and hydroquinone, an ingredient used in topical creams to treat hyper-pigmentation.

“My personal philosophy is that natural is effective, and if someone wants to reduce their exposure to chemicals, natural is worth exploring. There’s only an upside,” Arnett says.

Dermatologist Tanya Kormeili warns against putting too much stock into the potential dangers of our cosmetics, though. “There’s a lot of misinformation around natural beauty,” she says. “There is some data to suggest that certain preservatives and chemicals are bad for you, [like] phthalates and parabens. It is not cause and effect, but there might be correlation.”

Kormeili says products on the market are generally safe to use. “We tend to put a lot of emphasis on skincare because we’re aware of what we’re putting on our faces. But we aren’t walking around with masks all day blocking out air pollution.”


Dermatologist Diane Berson, who says millennials and women with children are coming to her for natural product recommendations, tells me that many high-quality green products can be just as effective as traditional products. Green tea, beeswax, coconut oil, almond oil, aloe and chamomile are all effective and natural, she says.

But let’s say you’re not concerned about your traditional skincare brands or convinced that they’re damaging. Why use green beauty then?

Well, green beauty products tend to be better quality, Jarnot says. “If you look at the ingredients [of traditional brands], the first is water, then chemicals, then a few natural products. The concentration of the active ingredient is much higher in green beauty products, and the efficacy is much better. You’re getting a higher-quality product.”

There’s no denying more people are going green. Last year, a poll found that 73 percent of millennial women seek out cleaner, all-natural products. (Caveat: The Harris Poll survey was administered by Kari Gran, founder of a green-beauty line.)


Where to start
Jarnot recommends starting with body oil because it goes all over. She loves Osmia Organics Night Body Oil, which was included in Beauty Heroes’ February box.

“I tell people to really clean up their hair care. You’re washing your hair everyday or every other day. Hair care can have a lot of fragrance in it, and it goes right into our water systems,” Jarnot says. For hair products, try Josh Rosebrook, SheaMoisture or One Love Organics.

Then, switch out your sunscreen. “Zinc and titanium are the only ingredients I advocate for being in sunscreen. Oxybenzone [found in chemical sunscreens] is terrible,” Jarnot says. “Suntegrity has five shades in its tinted sunscreen so you can find something that works for you. Josh Rosebrook [offers a sunscreen that’s] very sheer and should work for all skin tones.”

On the more affordable side, she likes CocoKind Organic Skincare, a USDA-organic-certified line that’s available at Whole Foods, and Acure Organics, which is available at Target.

If you feel like splurging, try May Lindstrom, Tata Harper or Mahalo Skin Care. “These formulas are designed to create a really special, artisan experience,” Jarnot says. And with green beauty, it may be worth spending a little more. “I really believe that you’re paying for ingredients,” Arnett says. (Like Beauty Heroes, Art of Organics and GoodBeing offer green/clean beauty subscription boxes to try if you want to test before you invest.)

Perhaps the best thing to take from the green beauty craze is the importance of quality ingredients. Next time you’re at a beauty counter, take Jarnot’s advice: look at the label, and decide what you’re okay with.

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist who has been published in Columbia Journalism Review, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and The Development Set. Follow her @JulissaTrevino.

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