Natural, Organic, Non-toxic, Oh My! Demystifying Skincare Jargon

by Ben Clements . February 28, 2020

***This article is the 1st in a 3-part series about skincare terminology and ingredients. Stay tuned for part 2!***

Here at C3, we get pretty amped about skin. We love to talk about our all-natural, eco-friendly, non-comedogenic, hypo-allergenic, microbiome-friendly ingredients. And about how our formulas are free from phthalates, parabens, BPAs, and SLSs, and preserve the natural micro-ecology of the skin by balancing the acid mantle, the pH level, and the moisture barrier…

...annnd we lost you. 

Unless you’re a fellow skin-nerd, all of this jargon probably has your eyes fogging over.

Let’s simplify things. 

Skincare Terms- Demystified! 

Natural

This term is generally understood to mean derived from plants and free from synthetic (“man-made”) ingredients. There’s absolutely no regulation of the term “natural”. Anyone can throw it on any product. 

It’s also important to note that plant-derived doesn’t necessarily mean “safe”. Poison ivy oils come from a plant, but I would not recommend rubbing those on your face. Many plant-derived ingredients are known irritants, including almond extract, balm mint oil, balsam, basil, cinnamon, grapefruit, peppermint, lemongrass, witch hazel, and thyme among many others.

Organic

The difference between natural and organic is that organic is even more opaque. Skincare products are primarily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who “does not define or regulate the term “organic,” as it applies to cosmetics, bodycare, or personal care products.” Skincare brands can arbitrarily throw the word “organic” onto their label without any oversight by the FDA. 

To further convolute things, the term is regulated for agricultural products by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). So, if a product contains primarily agricultural ingredients that are certified organic by the USDA, then they may use the USDA Organic label. 

To be clear, there is no evidence that organically grown ingredients produce superior skincare products. Joan Shaffer, USDA spokeswoman stated “people should not interpret… any organic seal of approval on cosmetics as proof of health benefits or of efficacy. The National Organic Program is a marketing program, not a safety program.”

Nontoxic 

Similar to “natural”, this term is completely unregulated and nonspecific. It’s used to signify that  a product is free from “toxic ingredients”. There’s no unified criteria for defining which ingredients are toxic.

That being said, many of the ingredients that skincare companies use are known to cause long-term negative health effects. Chemicals like phthalates, parabens, BPAs, and SLSs can accumulate in your body and cause a host of issues including hormone dysregulation, reproductive problems, birth defects, neurological disease, and cancer. 

Hypo-allergenic

Skin is sensitive! It’s constantly patrolled by immune cells that watch for anything suspicious. Many chemicals are known to activate the skin’s immune system and cause an allergic reaction. Hypo-allergenic products are free from hundreds of known allergens and irritants. The FDA does not regulate hypo-allergenic claims. 

Non-comedogenic

Comedogenic describes ingredients that tend to clog pores and cause blackheads. Non-comedogenic products cleanse pores, rather than block them. 

Microbiome-friendly

Your skin is covered with millions of microscopic organisms. These tiny allies protect you from sun, air, and disease-causing pathogens. Unfortunately, many harsh soaps strip away your tiny friends, leaving skin defenseless. Products that promote healthy skin bacteria are considered microbiome-friendly. 

(Want to learn more about your incredible microscopic superbug army? Check out our recent article, “Your Head is Crawling with Bugs! (But Don’t Worry, They’re Friends”).

Cruelty-free

Animal testing is so… dated. By choosing only safe ingredients we avoid inflicting unnecessary harm on animals. Cruelty-free labels indicate that a product was never tested on animals. Cruelty-free claims are not regulated by the FDA, however there are several independent organizations that certify brands as cruelty-free. C3 products are certified under the Leaping Bunny program, the globally-recognisable gold standard for personal care products. 

Eco-friendly 

Today, more than ever, consumers and brands are considering how their choices affect our planet and wildlife. A recent environmental review found that many cosmetic ingredients are not filtered out in water treatment plants, and can bioaccumulate in rivers, lakes, and oceans. The ecological impact of this is not fully understood, but certain compounds such as surfactants are known to have widespread toxic effects on plants, wildlife, and humans. 

Brands that describe their products as eco-friendly (or environmentally-friendly or “green”) are claiming to make decisions that minimize negative impact on the natural environment. This designation is unregulated, and may refer to the ingredients they choose, their packaging, the manufacturing process, and/or distribution.

USDA Bio-based

This relatively new distinction is regulated by the USDA BioPreferred Program. “This label assures a consumer that the product contains a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients”. Biobased products are made from renewable plants and offer an alternative to ecologically-damaging petroleum (oil-based) products. 

So, Which Label Claims Actually Matter?

The short answer? Not many. 

The FDA is uninterested in regulating virtually any label claims. Of course, brands are accountable to their customers, and those that make exaggerated claims tend to find themselves under fire. Ethical brands use these claims only when appropriate. 

Label claims that are regulated by independent third parties do carry more weight than others. Certification programs like Leaping Bunny Cruelty-free and USDA Bio-based are more trustworthy than unregulated claims. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does require companies to include an accurate ingredient panel on products. This regulation gives you, the consumer, a bit of control.

Conscious consumers must take personal responsibility for evaluating the ingredients of products that they put inside of and on top of their bodies. 

Most ingredients are well-studied, and you can use the Cosmetic Ingredient Review search feature to read up on your favorite product’s ingredients. Another option is to bring your skincare arsenal along to see a dermatologist who can evaluate the ingredients and make recommendations. 

C3 Loves Skin!

C3 is dedicated to protecting and preserving your skin. Our products are kind to microbes and wildlife, and free from harsh additives. But most importantly, they’re kind to skin. Head Wash gently cleans away the grit and grime of a hard day's work and leaves your skin feeling fresh, soft, and loved.  Head Hydrate deeply moisturizes skin and provides essential nutrients.

We promise to never compromise on quality ingredients. 

We’re on a mission to protect bald skin everywhere. If you love skin as much as we do, join our email list to get updates on new articles and exclusive offers.

#OwnYourDome

***This article is the 1st in a 3-part series about skincare terminology and ingredients. We’ll send out an email when we publish part 2!***
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