Beauty Products Decoded: What Those Tricky Labels Really Mean

Toxic, anti-earth ingredients abound in our beauty cabinets—here’s how to find the good stuff.

(Illustration by Lauren Wade)

May 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melissa Walker has been the senior features editor at ELLEgirl and the prom editor at Seventeen. She freelances for many magazines including Glamour, Teen Vogue, Fitness, Redbook, Marie Claire and More. She is the author of seven young adult novels, the latest of which is Ashes to Ashes (HarperCollins).

While I’m not a full-makeup girl most days of the week (or really ever), I’d be hard-pressed to abandon my daily lipstick and mascara habit—it really does brighten my face so that I can avoid the dreaded “You look tired” comment. Also, I like moisturizers, facial masks, dry shampoo, and the occasional mani-pedi. The truth is, my bathroom has more products than I’m inclined to admit, and some of them seem fairly silly when I’m not under the influence of a smooth-talking department store salesperson. (Under-eye sunscreen stick and tinted eyebrow powder, I’m looking at you.)

Even though I’m not a heavy cosmetics user, I wonder if there’s a way to green up my beauty routine for both the planet’s and my own benefit. Is there a brand that helps replant rainforests as a side project and also makes a killer mascara wand? What do the eco-warrior women of the world put on their faces in the morning? Should I be making my own shampoo out of lemons and egg whites? This new column will address all that and more.

For our first stroll down the beauty aisle, let’s take a peek at store shelves and find out how to identify which products are best for the environment—and us. Because all those labels and “natural” claims can get confusing, am I right?

Bunny-Friendly Beauty

Vegan and cruelty-free products are somewhat hard to spot because the government does not regulate the labels “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals.” However, the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics ensures that products with the Leaping Bunny Logo are from companies that use no new animal testing in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or its suppliers. (Past animal testing on some ingredients is out of their control.) This doesn’t mean the makeup is organic, necessarily; it does mean that no red-eyed bunnies or mice with extra limbs are hidden in their back labs, and it’s a step in the eco-friendly direction. PETA has a fantastic search feature that lets you input your favorite brands and research their standards.

Here are a few cruelty-free brands that you should be able to find in any big drugstore:

  • NYX. This line offers big hits of color in its eye shadows and lipsticks, usually for less than $7.
  • Jane. Its water-resistant eyeliner pencils are fantastic, and intense-color gloss delivers shiny, bright lips.
  • e.l.f. Cosmetics. In addition to cruelty-free makeup, it offers tools like brushes and eyelash curlers at a super-low cost.

Natural, Organic Products—No, Really!

If you’re looking for eco-friendly products, take note: The word “natural” means almost nothing in the beauty industry. Any brand can use it on its packaging because, again, there is no regulation of the term. The same is true of the word “organic”; it can be thrown around willy-nilly to attract consumers. Side-eyes to those brands.

To shop true green, look for the brown-and-green USDA Organic seal, which indicates that the product contains 95 to 100 percent organically produced agricultural ingredients, meaning they’re grown without synthetic chemicals or pesticides.

Below are some great brands with the USDA Organic seal.

  • Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Use the Pure-Castile soap as a body wash or a shampoo. It comes in eight refreshing scents and lathers like a tingly dream.
  • Aromafloria. From spa salts to body scrubs, Aromafloria products are vegan-based and biodegradable.
  • Origins. Eye cream, face wash, antiaging serums—this company does it all in an eco-friendly way.
  • Juice Beauty. The antioxidant-rich juice base of these products, which range from skin care creams to lip glosses to mascara, brings their organic content to 98 percent.

Don’t see the seal on your favorite products? Look for the phrase “made with organic ingredients,” which can be used on packaging only if the product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Hey, it’s better than nothing. You can also check the list of ingredients in your favorite items and research anything that sounds unfamiliar, or you can download a free app like Think Dirty for your phone—it decodes beauty lingo in seconds.

With a little label reading, you’ll be able to take steps to make your beauty cabinet much more eco-friendly. While not every label ensures a completely planet-friendly experience, these companies are making some effort to green up their brands, and that’s good news.