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Sustainable Skincare: What Does The Term Actually Mean?

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Want to make your skincare routine more eco-friendly?

We dive into what sustainable skincare really means to help you spot brands that are genuine from those that are plain greenwashing.

Francesca Brooking

Thu 17 Jun 2021

The purpose of sustainable skincare is to choose products that meet our beauty needs without having a negative impact on people or the environment.

It’s about supporting brands that are making an effort to do the right thing from where they source their ingredients to the packaging they use.

But what makes a brand truly ethical and sustainable?

In reality, sustainable skincare is a little harder to define as there are so many terms a brand can use that are unregulated so they can mean just about anything.

Beauty brands might claim they are sustainable or ethical but they might not practice what they preach. Instead, the term ‘sustainability’ gets used as a marketing campaign and results in greenwashing.

The good news is that there are ways to spot a truly sustainable skincare brand and we’re here to help you get clued up.

Bowl of minerals on a wooden board

Although sustainability is uregulated in the industry, there are ways to spot a truly sustainable skincare brand

What makes skincare sustainable?

Sustainability is a broad term so you could end up writing down a whole list of sustainability factors to test brands against.

The problem is most brands won’t tick every box. Sustainable skincare is a spectrum and each brand falls somewhere on that line.

Sustainability and ethics come down to personal choice too. For example, a brand might say they’re cruelty free but their products contain beeswax making them non-vegan.

It’s up to you to decide whether you consider that factor ethical.

To make it easier, we’ve narrowed the factors down into four categories which we’ve listed below:

  • Environment
  • Animal welfare
  • Ethics
  • Health

Now let’s break each of these down a bit more.

Fruit and herbs on a marble counter

Sustainability is a spectrum and each skincare brand falls somewhere on that line

The environment

Sustainable skincare brands should be doing everything they can to make sure their environmental impact is a positive one.

Accreditations

Accreditations are good proof that brands are being held accountable for their claims. It means their actions are being judged against certain criteria by objective organisations.

Look out for accreditations like:

  • Certified Organic
  • Soil Association
  • Ecocert

There’s also:

  • B Corporation
  • 1% For The Planet
  • COSMOS
  • Fairtrade
  • Natrue-Label

Don’t miss the country-specific accreditations too like the Organic Farmers & Growers label for skincare in the UK!

Herbs in a pot surrounded by lemons

Accreditations prove that brands are being held accountable for their actions

Palm oil free

Brands that are palm oil free contain no environmentally devastating palm oil or any of its derivatives which is good. But it’s not always as simple. Palm oil is a huge topic in the environmental debate.

On the one hand, palm oil plantations are responsible for a huge amount of destruction to rainforests and the displacement of thousands of species.

On the other hand, palm oil has the highest oil yield of any oil crop making it ironically more economical and less destructive.

Using other oils like coconut oil doesn’t necessarily make a product more sustainable. In fact, if the world’s dependency on oils switched to something like coconut oil, environmental destruction could be much worse.

The solution is to look for brands that use responsibly sourced oils from sustainable plantations. That doesn’t actually rule out the use of palm oil if it’s sourced sustainably!

Path over water through forest

Look for brands that use sustainably sourced oils

Non-toxic ingredients

Non-toxic refers to products that don’t contain any manufactured herbicides, GMOs, artificial fertilisers, preservatives, parabens or other toxic ingredients.

Brands that market their products as non-toxic often identify themselves as part of the clean beauty movement.

However, the term ‘non-toxic’ is a bit of a greenwashing buzzword in the skincare industry, alongside ‘natural’ and even ‘sustainable’.

Brands might say they use non-toxic ingredients in their products as a marketing ploy but that doesn’t mean they don’t test on animals or source their ingredients through unsustainable means.

Our advice is to look at the bigger picture. What else is the skincare brand doing to be more ethical and sustainable?

Bathtub and a roud window

Skincare brands that say they're products are non-toxic are often part of the clean beauty movement

Packaging

An increasing number of skincare brands are considering the environmental impact of their packaging which is great news!

The brands that do well on packaging are those that allow you to reuse existing packaging or use compostable packaging.

Look for skincare brands that use post-consumer recycled materials or packaging that can be easily recycled like aluminium or glass.

Other brands have developed recycling schemes for difficult recyclables like plastics which saves them from ending up in landfill or polluting the ocean.

Waste management

Brands that truly care about the environment consider all areas of their impact, including waste management. Their policies should be but aren’t limited to:

  • Water and energy management
  • Being as zero waste as possible
  • Using sustainable energy sources like renewables
  • Office recycling programmes
A glass bottle on a wooden stand

Look for brands that have recyclable packaging or use recycling schemes for empties

Animal welfare

Animal welfare is a huge problem in the skincare industry. Many brands test on animals or use animal derivatives.

Ethical and sustainable beauty brands should not.

Cruelty free

When brands say their products are cruelty free, it means that they were not tested on animals in any part of their development.

Surprisingly, there’s still some vagueness around this term. Brands that claim to be cruelty free might still put animal derivatives in their products.

They might not directly test on animals themselves but they could still use third-party organisations and ingredient suppliers that do or even fund animal testing. Other brands won’t even say either way - which is worse!

The best way around this is to look for cruelty free skincare brands with accreditations like Leaping Bunny or PETA approved.

Use sources like Cruelty Free Kitty or check out our list of vegan and organic skincare brands that don’t test on animals.

Waater pouring from a tap in the bathroom

Ethical brands shouldn't test on animals or have unsustainable animal derivatives

Vegan

Vegan products contain no animal derived ingredients such as collagen or beeswax.

Sustainable skincare shouldn’t contain any animal derivatives. Some of them may contain sustainably sourced beeswax but again that’s down to personal preference.

Shockingly, many products that are labelled vegan are still tested on animals.

You would think vegan products are automatically cruelty free given the ethos behind veganism, but sadly not!

When finding vegan skincare products, look at the bigger picture again.

Does the brand in question have a cruelty free certification? Is it taking other steps to be ethical and sustainable?

Alternatively, check out our guide to vegan-friendly skincare brands here.

Two towels and brushes hanging on hooks

Not all vegan skincare products are cruelty free!

Ethics

Another important category that defines sustainable skincare is ethics.

How their ingredients are sourced to ensuring all workers throughout the supply chain are treated fairly.

Fair trade

Fair working rights or fair trade essentially means that all workers are treated fairly throughout the supply chain no matter where they are in the world.

Selling and buying products support and improve the quality of life of the workers and prioritise people and planet over profit.

People are paid and treated fairly for their work, child labour is not involved and communities aren’t suffering as a result of diminishing resources.

The best way to make sure that skincare brands support workers’ rights, look for brands that have been audited by a third party like the Fairtrade Foundation.

Another option is to see how they talk about their workers on their website and where they get their ingredients from. Can they back up their claims?

Woman floating in the water

Think about where the ingredients come from and who is sourcing them

Transparency

Ethical ingredient sourcing and transparency are two of the most important signs of a sustainable skincare brand.

Brands that are transparent about where their ingredients come from consider all ethical and sustainable ways of sourcing them.

This means thinking beyond the ingredients to the people involved in obtaining them and whether or not they were treated fairly.

It’s also about considering the social implications linked to the supply chain. Issues like whether or not the resources are disempowering communities.

They should be paying a fair price for raw materials so that suppliers are committed to ensuring safe and ethical conditions for their workers.

Ethical ingredient sourcing also focuses on environmental impact.

This might be choosing easily grown ingredients instead of ingredients that take a long time, water and energy before they’re ready to harvest.

Or choosing ingredients that aren’t rare or exploited.

Sustainable brands work with suppliers who implement sustainable and conservation practices so as not to reduce natural resources.

They might also grow their own or recreate synthetic versions in the lab.

Giving to charity

It’s increasingly common to see sustainable skincare brands with a dedicated giving policy.

Typical ways of giving to look out for include B Corporations and 1% For The Planet members who give 1% of their earnings to charity.

Others work with partner charities or set up their own for causes they’re passionate about to drive social change and impactful environmental work.

Peaches and mint display

An ethical skincare brand must be transparent about ingredient sourcing

Health and safety

Of course, a skincare brand can tick all the sustainability boxes but it still needs to adhere to health and safety regulations to make sure the products are safe to put on our skin.

The skincare industry for, the large part, is unregulated. What ingredients are deemed safe is up for debate and depends on where you are in the world.

For example, the EU has banned 1300 ingredients whereas the FDA in the US has only banned 11.

Just because ingredients are natural or botanical doesn’t mean they’re safe. Plenty of botanical ingredients have been known to cause skin irritation and allergies.

Some of the biggest offenders are cucumber, ginkgo, lavender oil, peppermint, rosemary, chamomile and tea tree oil.

To make sure your skincare isn’t doing you any harm, it’s always a good idea to read the ingredients list and patch test new products.

If you’re unsure, apps like Skin Deep by the Environmental Working Group and Think Dirty can help.

Hot tub with plants surrounding it

Use apps to check the safety of ingredients on your skin

Dermatologically tested

Another way to make sure that your sustainable skincare is safe is to check if the product has been dermatologically tested.

This means that the product was by or in consultation with a dermatologist for signs of severe skin irritation, reactions and allergies.

You’re not completely safe from skin irritations and reactions so you may also need to do your own testing, particularly if you have sensitive skin.

If you’re particularly worried, go for products that say they’re hypoallergenic or fragrance free.

Two soaps, eco toothbrushes and bottle

Go for hypoallergenic skincare products if you have particularly sensitive skin

Our verdict

As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into a brand’s sustainability claim and not everything is straightforward or clear cut.

You also have to consider your own preferences. Whether you are happy to have beeswax or sustainably sourced palm oil in your skincare if it comes in glass for instance, rather than plastic?

If you want more skincare advice, we've summarised everything you need to know in a free skincare guide. Sustainable Skincare: Everything You Need To Know In One Handy Free Ebook!

Download, read, enjoy and change the world!

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