How to Choose More Environmentally Friendly Cosmetics

Only Frankenstein gets away with green face paint. But green makeup -- as in ecologically sustainable, earth-friendly beauty products -- is a popular new trend with lasting impact. It's a movement towards more ethical and eco-friendly products that beautify your face without damaging the environment. Of course, products that don't contain harsh chemicals or carcinogens are also better for you in the long run.

Unfortunately, life after L'Oreal can get a little complicated. With so many products labeled 'natural' or 'organic,' it's hard to know where to begin. Let's take a look at some of the labels you're likely to see, what they mean, and how you can use them to make greener decisions for both you and the Earth.



Organic crops are produced without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or genetic modification. As the organic industry grows, fewer toxic chemicals are going into our water and air.  But beware products that claim to be organic: unless that claim is USDA Certified Organic, the glossy 'organic' lipstick you're tempted by could contain as few as one organic ingredient. The green and white USDA label guarantees that the ingredients (not including water, naturally) in your product are 95% or more organic. Other organic certifications such as EcoCert are less stringent in their qualifications.

One of the side benefits of buying certified organic products is that they do not contain 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic contaminant found in many foaming products, especially those with the ingredient sodium laureth sulfate.

Vegetarian / Vegan / Cruelty-free

For many people, being green also includes being kind to the other animals that share the planet with us. Vegetarian cosmetics may contain ingredients like beeswax, honey, or milk that were obtained without harming the animal; vegan cosmetics contain no animal products.

Cruelty-free products (look for the Leaping Bunny or PETA symbol) were developed without being tested on animals. A cruelty-free product can still contain animal products. Watch out for ingredients like stearic acid (usually derived from cow or sheep fat), oleyl alcohol (inedible beef fat), and carmine (red dye made from crushed beetles and frequently found in natural lipsticks as an alternative to chemical dyes).

Biodegradable / Recyclable / Minimal Packaging

When in doubt, go for the makeup with the most eco-friendly packaging -- recyclable, recycled, minimal, or biodegradable. Cargo Cosmetics pioneered a lipstick that is not only made with eco-friendly ingredients but also comes in a biodegradable corn-based tube. In most cases, the less packaging, the better.   

Finally, here a few things to avoid on your next cosmetic shopping spree:

  1. Things you can't pronounce (Latin plant names aside). Synthetic chemicals tend to have long, complicated chemical-sounding names. Natural ingredients don't. In general, the shorter the ingredient list and the more things you recognize on it, the better. Many synthetic ingredients, including parabens (preservatives), sodium laureth/ lauryl sulfate (foaming agents), and phthalates (binders) range from mildly irritating to potentially carcinogenic.

  2. Petroleum / petrochemical ingredients. Not only are fossil fuels a non-renewable resource, they are ineffective moisturizers because they don't absorb into your skin. Choose a plant-based oil instead, such as jojoba, shea butter, or sunflower oil.

  3. The labels 'pure' and 'all-natural.' Unless the ingredients and a USDA organic tag back it up, these labels are not regulated and do not guarantee anything. 

How to Choose More Environmentally Friendly Cosmetics

Jennifer Mo is a longtime tree hugger, vegetarian, and proponent of all things that are good for your body and for the planet. She is a staff writer at, where more articles on fashion and beauty can be found.

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