Toxic, organic, or clean: the truth behind labels on beauty products

Words like ‘harmful’, ‘synthetic’, ‘clean’ and ‘toxic’ are often thrown around without proper clarification as to what they actually mean. We look into the general definitions of beauty’s most used labels so you can shop smarter and decide what’s worth the negative hype.

While the clean and natural beauty movement has yielded a greater understanding of what we’re putting on ourselves, forcing brands to step up their practices and transparency and creating a market for healthy beauty, it’s pretty safe to say that there needs to be more clarification on what terms actually mean to avoid fear and confusion.

There’s a lot of heated discussion on Instagram right now on how scientific words are used to market products to consumers. While we all have the right to adhere to our own beauty ethos – you do you – it’s vital that we’re all on the same page with these definitions to avoid needless scaremongering, leading to drastic decisions and ‘cancelling’ brands. To put it into perspective: the EU has very strict laws around cosmetic ingredients, with 1,300 substances banned, while the US has outlawed only 13. 

One brand at the forefront of clearing up confusion is Sam Farmer. Specialising in personal care for teenagers, the brand strives to educate consumers on matters of ingredients, cosmetic science and sustainability. “I completely understand some consumers’ concern surrounding ingredients,” founder Sam Farmer tells Stylist. “Cosmetic chemistry is complicated and challenging but also endlessly fascinating and creative. However, exploiting consumers knowledge gap in this area using fear, misinformation and exploitative language is duplicitous to say the least. The industry has not helped itself, allowing brands to join in the conversation using this terminology as a sales tactic.”

We searched high and low to get a sense of what the most-used labels in products actually mean, according to government standards where possible. When a brand uses a certain word like ‘synthetic-free’ or ‘organic’, below are the criteria they must adhere to in order to be genuine – even if the jury’s still out on the definition itself. At the end of the day, it’s up to us as consumers to make well-informed decisions and up to brands to be transparent.


According to, “chemical toxicity relates to the quantity as opposed to the nature of the chemical (natural or synthetic).” In plain speak: every substance, be it natural or human-made, has the capability of being toxic to humans depending on the amount ingested, inhaled, or applied. With that logic, some ingredients could be toxic in small doses, but the ones often found in products are only toxic in large amounts.


There’s currently no strict legislation for organic beauty products; brands can label anything as organic, even if the way the product was made or the number of organic ingredients says otherwise. Look for products that are officially certified by organisations such as the Soil Association and Cosmos (which demands that 95% of ingredients must be organic, but allow 20% for leave-on products and 10% for ones that rinse off).

Products that meet standards must also use only natural colour and fragrance, sustainably-sourced ingredients and are cruelty-free. Brands like Neal’s Yard, Pai and Bamford currently hold the largest collections of certified organic products.


The general consensus is that ‘clean’ isn’t a regulated classification, so it’s hard to settle on one definition. Essentially, ‘clean’ products do not contain ingredients that have been evidently linked to harmful side effects to human health, which includes both natural and chemical substances. Safety of ingredients is valued rather than the source, which is how ‘clean’ differs from ‘natural’. 


The debate is ongoing, but products labelled as ‘natural’ generally should be examined. As the market is unregulated for ‘natural’ ingredients, it’s easy for this label to be used as even products with traces of natural items can claim the title. 

If the natural ingredients are at the bottom of the list, then it’s clear that only small amounts have been used. It’s also used to describe something that hasn’t been made in a lab. It’s worth noting that natural products are not always effective, safe or ethically-sourced such as mineral oil. 


First of all, everything is counted as chemical (even water) – so nothing can truly be chemical-free. Generally, ‘synthetic’ is used to describe a naturally derived ingredient (like fruit acids or retinol) that’s been replicated in a laboratory. Synthetic ingredients can be some of the most effective, and shouldn’t be brandished as toxic unless clear evidence can back it up. To change the structure of the skin, good quality synthetic ingredients like vitamins A and C can work wonders that even the most raw natural products can’t.


Claiming that a brand or product is sustainable is a tricky one – as sustainability plays into so many different things. It could be that the brand or product is carbon neutral (more on that below) or that the ingredients are vegan or organic. It could relate to a brand’s packaging. In short, there’s no clear definition of what makes a brand or product sustainable – so it’s definitely one to dig a little deeper into. 

Carbon neutral

Claiming that a brand or product is carbon neutral means that the brand has taken steps to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during its manufacturing. As emitting all carbon dioxide use is (in many cases) almost impossible, brands usually look to offset their carbon footprint by contributing to schemes that help to tackle climate change.

While offsetting isn’t a solution to the problem (many people argue that it’s a way for brands to throw money at a problem without making any systemic change), it is a step in the right direction. The best thing you can do? Head to the brand’s own website and read about what steps they’re taking to reduce their carbon footprint in the first place. 

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