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Greenwashing in Cosmetics & Personal Care Products

By Pamela Tourigny

It seems as though every day there is a new product claiming to be eco-friendly or natural. Too often these products contain questionable ingredients. “Greenwashing” occurs in numerous industries but is particularly prominent in the personal care and beauty sector where the potential for confusion regarding product claims is greatest.

There are no laws addressing eco-labelling of personal care products. The shelves of many traditional retailers are cluttered with goods labeled with potentially false or misleading claims. How many times have you seen the word “natural” on a lotion that’s anything but?

It’s all too easy to inadvertently grab something that isn’t as green as you’re being led to believe! It’s sad because there are a lot of great product companies out there trying to be more sustainable and eco-conscious. Misleading claims make it hard to distinguish green from greenwash.

Here are some of the industry terms and what they mean, to help you spot when something’s legitimate.

Botanical, Eco-Friendly and Herbal – Like the word “natural” (more on that later) the terms “botanical”, “eco-friendly” and “herbal” have no clear definition or regulation when it comes to skincare products or makeup. Look deeper! Examine the ingredient listing and look for third-party certifications, like USDA Organic or Eco-Cert.

Cruelty-Free/Not Tested on Animals – Who doesn’t want to be kind to animals, so reaching for a product labeled “Cruelty-Free” is a no-brainer. The term is widely used by cosmetic and personal care companies to let us know they do not test the product on animals; however, it does not guarantee that the raw ingredients purchased by the manufacturer were not tested on animals. Likewise, the term Cruelty-Free does not indicate that the product is free of animal ingredients.

Hypoallergenic – As there is no official definition, the only thing that “hypoallergenic” means is that the manufacturer has used ingredients with minimum potential for causing allergy. As well, although a company may have conducted patch tests, everyone is different, and has different reactions to ingredients. If your skin reacts to a product, try switching brands, and avoid ingredients like fragrance and parabens.

Natural – You see the word “natural” on many lotions, shampoos, conditioners and other personal care products; however, there’s no standard definition. Even Health Canada does not provide any suggestions for “natural” ingredients in its guide to cosmetic ingredient labeling. ”Natural” could mean that a product is free of synthetic ingredients or it could also mean that it contains one or two natural ingredients (like an essential oil) along with harmful chemicals. Third-party certifications mean that the product is more likely to be natural, and if you are shopping at Ottawa’s terra20, look for look for the Free of Harmful Chemicals icon. Otherwise, look at the label and steer clear of ingredients like triclosan, BHA or BHT, PEG compounds, DEA/ MEA/TEA (diethanolamine, triethanolamine, monethanolamine), sulfates or ingredients with the letters “eth” (e.g., sodium laurethsulfate), ending in “paraben” (e.g., methylparaben), or “siloxane” (e.g., cyclotetrasiloxane) or “methicone” (e.g. cyclomethicone). Unlabelled toxic ingredients may include p-dioxane, cadmium and lead, and unfortunately with little regulatory testing, manufacturer integrity and trust is important. Smaller companies using high quality ingredients are winning hearts, minds and pocketbooks.

Organic – Yet another tricky marketing word. Labeling for cosmetics is overseen by Health Canada and currently there are no guidelines or rules about when to call cosmetic products “organic.” Look for third-party certification (such as EcoCert, USDA), and when in doubt, call the company and ask what percentage is organic and how they certify their organic ingredients.

Pink Ribbon – Just because a product features a pink ribbon doesn’t mean it is free from toxins or chemicals. Pinkwashing is defined as “the practice of using the colour pink and pink ribbons to indicate a company has joined the search for a breast cancer cure and to invoke breast cancer solidarity, even when the company may be using chemicals linked to cancer.” Check the ingredients or call the manufacturer.

Unscented – This is a bit unintuitive, but if you’re looking for skincare products without any scent, look for shampoos, lotions and cosmetics that are labeled “Fragrance-Free” not “Unscented”. Often fragrances (which can contain phthalates) or agents to block the sense of smell are used to mask unpleasant odours of product ingredients. Products labeled “Fragrance-Free” are free of artificial or synthetic fragrances.

If you think a company is greenwashing, here are a few options:
Write to the manufacturer and express your concerns.
Contact the Competition Bureau and make a complaint.

Additional resources:

Sources: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Canadian Cancer Society, David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Working Group, Health Canada, U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Pamela Tourigny is terra20’s community manager. terra20 is North America’s largest eco retailer, with its first store located in Ottawa. For more information, visit:

Published: October 15th, 2013