Green Beauty 101: Where to Start and What to Avoid

Once relegated to the shelves of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, green beauty is now big business. The natural personal care market has been growing by double digits for the past six years, and accounts for 13 percent of the global beauty market.

The trend might have you wondering: Are we absorbing toxic chemicals every time we use our daily moisturizer? Should we resolve to use coconut oil instead?

The truth is, you’re probably not going to die from using traditional products. But there is a lot to learn from green beauty, like how to read a label, the importance of good ingredients and which potentially harmful products to cut from your routine. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming; here’s what you need to know.


Green vs. Natural, Clean, Organic or Eco
There isn’t a firm definition for green, natural, clean, organic or eco-friendly beauty. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, and, as a consumer, “it is extremely confusing,” says eco-makeup artist and founder of Green Beauty Team Kristen Arnett.

Green, natural and organic generally mean that products are made with plant-derived ingredients and without the use of synthetic chemicals; clean usually means made without harmful or “toxic” ingredients; and eco generally means vegan or cruelty-free or that ingredients are ethically sourced and packaged.

These products tend to exclude parabens and things like sodium lauryl sulfate, a chemical deemed unsafe and possibly cancer-causing by many green-beauty advocates. Sometimes these words mean gluten-free; free of synthetic fragrance or alcohol; or certified organic, a USDA stamp of approval. But not always.


Why you should switch and what to avoid
While studies are inconclusive, many of our everyday personal care products have nasty ingredients, some of which have been tied to cancer, hormone imbalances and other health risks.

To help consumers, Jeannie Jarnot of Beauty Heroes, a green subscription box, offers an ingredient pocket guide with 24 ingredients to avoid in your skincare and body products. It includes BHA or butylated hydroxyanisole (a preservative), parabens (methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, ethyl-paraben), ceteareth glycol, resorcinol, sodium lauryl sulfate and mineral oil.

Arnett also developed a glossary with her top 10 offenders, including formaldehyde, an EPA-recognized carcinogen found in many nail polishes, and hydroquinone, an ingredient used in topical creams to treat hyper-pigmentation.

“My personal philosophy is that natural is effective, and if someone wants to reduce their exposure to chemicals, natural is worth exploring. There’s only an upside,” Arnett says.

Dermatologist Tanya Kormeili warns against putting too much stock into the potential dangers of our cosmetics, though. “There’s a lot of misinformation around natural beauty,” she says. “There is some data to suggest that certain preservatives and chemicals are bad for you, [like] phthalates and parabens. It is not cause and effect, but there might be correlation.”

Kormeili says products on the market are generally safe to use. “We tend to put a lot of emphasis on skincare because we’re aware of what we’re putting on our faces. But we aren’t walking around with masks all day blocking out air pollution.”


Dermatologist Diane Berson, who says millennials and women with children are coming to her for natural product recommendations, tells me that many high-quality green products can be just as effective as traditional products. Green tea, beeswax, coconut oil, almond oil, aloe and chamomile are all effective and natural, she says.

But let’s say you’re not concerned about your traditional skincare brands or convinced that they’re damaging. Why use green beauty then?

Well, green beauty products tend to be better quality, Jarnot says. “If you look at the ingredients [of traditional brands], the first is water, then chemicals, then a few natural products. The concentration of the active ingredient is much higher in green beauty products, and the efficacy is much better. You’re getting a higher-quality product.”

There’s no denying more people are going green. Last year, a poll found that 73 percent of millennial women seek out cleaner, all-natural products. (Caveat: The Harris Poll survey was administered by Kari Gran, founder of a green-beauty line.)


Where to start
Jarnot recommends starting with body oil because it goes all over. She loves Osmia Organics Night Body Oil, which was included in Beauty Heroes’ February box.

“I tell people to really clean up their hair care. You’re washing your hair everyday or every other day. Hair care can have a lot of fragrance in it, and it goes right into our water systems,” Jarnot says. For hair products, try Josh Rosebrook, SheaMoisture or One Love Organics.

Then, switch out your sunscreen. “Zinc and titanium are the only ingredients I advocate for being in sunscreen. Oxybenzone [found in chemical sunscreens] is terrible,” Jarnot says. “Suntegrity has five shades in its tinted sunscreen so you can find something that works for you. Josh Rosebrook [offers a sunscreen that’s] very sheer and should work for all skin tones.”

On the more affordable side, she likes CocoKind Organic Skincare, a USDA-organic-certified line that’s available at Whole Foods, and Acure Organics, which is available at Target.

If you feel like splurging, try May Lindstrom, Tata Harper or Mahalo Skin Care. “These formulas are designed to create a really special, artisan experience,” Jarnot says. And with green beauty, it may be worth spending a little more. “I really believe that you’re paying for ingredients,” Arnett says. (Like Beauty Heroes, Art of Organics and GoodBeing offer green/clean beauty subscription boxes to try if you want to test before you invest.)

Perhaps the best thing to take from the green beauty craze is the importance of quality ingredients. Next time you’re at a beauty counter, take Jarnot’s advice: look at the label, and decide what you’re okay with.

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • Abby

    My fav green beauty find is actually deodorant. North Coast Organics Death by Lavender. I’ve been recommending it to literally everyone.

  • Nia

    There’s just so much misinformation when it comes to “green” beauty. Just one point is the claim that natural products are safer because they don’t contain synthetic chemicals. This is ridiculous because they are formulated with ingredients that are intended to mimic the effects of common synthetic chemicals, and which often are quite similar chemically. For example, willow bark extract (aka salicilin) is a common ingredient in natural anti acne products. But salicilin is just a precursor to salicylic acid and ultimately is metabolized to salicylic acid in the body. Salicylic acid derived from willow bark and synthetic salicylic acid are chemically and functionally the same. Formulating a product using synthetic chemicals is no more dangerous than using the substances from which these chemicals are derived. Plus most of the ingredients on Jarnot’s list to avoid are completely safe and some are even surprising to see. Why include mineral oil? It’s safe, cheap, effective, and generally noncomedogenic.

    • Julissa

      I definitely think there’s misinformation, and part of the problem stems from the fact that cosmetics in general are widely unregulated. So you just have to do your research. If some people feel better about not putting mineral oil on their faces, I’m glad there are options for them (and those options seem to be really good, too). (I personally don’t use mineral oil but not for safety/health reasons.)

    • belle

      I agree. I really am confused by this part too:

      “Well, green beauty products tend to be better quality, Jarnot says. ‘If you look at the ingredients [of traditional brands], the first is water, then chemicals, then a few natural products. The concentration of the active ingredient is much higher in green beauty products, and the efficacy is much better. You’re getting a higher-quality product.’ ”

      I mean, what? I’d love to see an explanation or some evidence of this. In my experience, “natural” products tend to be the least effective, and often have adverse side effects like contributing to breakouts (coconut oil) or irritation (essential oils). Of course on a marketing/social media level i understand why people would rather be moisturizing with a plant oil and using essential oils as a panacea for every ill in their life, but sometimes the best solutions are not the most superficially “feel good” ones.

      Also, one more time for the people in the back, EVERYTHING IS A FUCKING CHEMICAL!

  • Madeline

    I get so frustrated with green beauty products because, as much as these companies care about what goes into your skin, many of them don’t seem to care about what goes into landfills.

    So many “eco-friendly” products are STILL packaged in plastic! PLASTIC! You know, that stuff that emits tons of toxins into the environment when it’s created, then leaches chemicals into whatever products it contains, then is at best recycled into something non-recyclable (carpet, fleece, park benches) OR ends up in a landfill where it will never break down OR ends up in the ocean where it will also never break down, but be consumed by sea creatures who we then consume.

    I really hate plastic.

    • Julissa

      Agreed. Or the packaging is just excessive: huge boxes when the size of the product itself is very small. This is a problem all around.

    • Kelsey Moody

      Plastic is truly the worst! If you dont buy green products, look for “bursting beads” or things similar to that on face wash labels– theyre just microplastics– they do NOT break down over time! Do not buy!

    • Kirby

      I was just about to comment this! What’s the point of buying expensive green products if the plastic they’re packaged in is just going to leach more dangerous chemicals into them? Also, being green/eco-friendly requires you to be conscious about every aspect of what you consume. It isn’t enough to use green products if you’re still leaving trash behind.

      • sally

        neutrogena naturals makes a night cream I love that is in glass and inexpensive, made the switch after being diagnosed w endometriosis

    • Cristina

      Ah, I feel like I hit the jackpot! Twinkle Apothecary is local to me (but she ships for free), she’s a woman, she’s a single mom and she’s awesome. She makes all her products HERSELF and they all come in glass or biodegradable cardboard! Except the samples, which come in a small plastic but I either send those back to her when empty or reuse them for myself!

    • Gabrielle

      I like buying glass-packaged products (but agree, it’s near impossible to find non-plastic packaging). Ideally plastic packaging would be recycled, at least

  • i can never totally decide how i feel about green beauty. i try to use it where i can, because i like the idea of green beauty and it’s often very effective (ily drunk elephant). but i can’t let go of some dermatologist-y products (shoutout to CeraVe)… just a really affordable and hardworking product. As much as I like the idea of using natural beauty products, I don’t know if I buy that exposure levels in a tube of mascara are ever high enough to really wreak havoc. And the talk around “nasties” and detoxing and inflammation seems scaremonger-y and underdeveloped. saying “oxybenzone is terrible” like… ok… but why? i feel like we keep being told something is bad but never really why, or how that was proven. so i’ll use a product if it makes me feel happy and it’s effective and nice, but i think i romanticize the idea of being someone who uses green products and marinates in beautiful smelling oils more than i actually agree w the science.

    • Millie Lammoreaux

      Yeah, I agree with you on all this. Someone saying “this is terrible for you”, but not stating why is just bad reporting.

      To answer the why – oxybenzone is suspected to be a hormone disruptor, and might be linked to things like endometriosis and early puberty in girls. It also is potentially linked to phototoxic allergic reactions. (Don’t worry, your CeraVe AM doesn’t have it!)

      • Kirby

        Not to mention that oxybenzone contributes to coral reef degeneration, so, like bad for you, bad for the environment–better off just avoiding it.

        • aha! good to know! i will avoid — explanation very helpful. i also had not really put together that my shampoo goes down drain and into ocean (which is, you know, quite the oversite, i realize)– so now natural shampoo / conditioner / body wash will be v important to me!

          • Kirby

            Completely understandable! It’s way too easy to forget/not even realize something as commonplace as our skin/haircare products affect the environment. That’s why I love articles like this one! Education and awareness are the foundation of making any kind of change

        • CM

          Only if you wear it in the ocean though, right? (not advocating for it… jw)

          • Kirby

            I’m not sure exactly. I would think it would affect it either way but I don’t know if that’s true for sure.

    • Cristina

      “I romanticize the idea of being someone who uses green beauty products and marinates in beautiful smelling oil” OMG. This is awesome. I think I romanticize that I’m one of those people that can live off kale salads and green juice and acai bowls. But I live in the midwest and I don’t even quite know what the fack an acai bowl is and why would I want to eat my smoothie? It’s SO EASY to be bombarded by scare tactics from all angles, whether it’s green beauty or food etc. Once I hopped on the green beauty train, I wanted to throw out all my makeup then was like “get your life you don’t have a thousand dollars to spend to replace it” so I just buy what I can, when I can. I recently switched to a better mascara, but you won’t catch me mixing like… charcoal and aloe vera together for a truly natural mascara lol! I say everyone just has to draw their own line in the sand!

    • Julissa

      Why not both? I use CeraVe, too, (and Biologique Recherche which is the complete opposite of natural) plus lots of natural/organic skincare.

      • exactly! that’s where i’m at! mostly natural but i fill in some gaps with dermatologist no-frills style stuff. now when i finish a product, i try to replace it with a more conscious choice.

    • ryley

      This book explores some of the worst chemicals we expose ourselves to in cosmetics and other areas of daily life, and gives some scientific basis for why these chemicals are harmful. I found it really helpful, and it’s a good read too.
      Also here is a list of ten ingredients to avoid:

      Hope this helps anyone with doubts or questions!

    • Val

      I think the whole point is for you to decide which products you’re ok with using and to the the research yourself on what ingredients you’d rather not use or you’re fine with. EWG has awesome resource called SkinDeep and you can look up any ingredient and it will break it down for you as to why it’s bad or good.

  • Agree with some of the other comments that since the cosmetic industry is unregulated (what’s up with that anyway??) it can be hard to decipher which brands are better than others or if it’s all just marketing.

    I personally have been slowly switching out my products for more natural ones over the past few years just because I feel better sourcing products from greener brands (or at least doing my best to). But I haven’t gone crazy swapping out absolutely everything I own because frankly that’s expensive and I ain’t got the funds for it.

    If anyone’s on the hunt a few tried and true products I love are:
    Skincare: Big, big fan of the oil cleanser, Love Springs Eternal serum, and eye balm from One Love Organics. They work really well for my combination / acne prone skin. Can vouch for their dry shampoo, too.
    Sunscreen: Josie Maran Argan Daily Moisturizer. Not sure exactly how “natural” it is in the grand scheme of things but it works and is really hydrating.
    Deodorant: Schmidt’s deodorant sticks are awesome and actually get the job done (I had been using Tom’s but after a while started to smell like a middle school boy it was AWFUL). I use the ylang-ylang and calendula because it came Goop recommended (I know) and yes I had to google both scents.

  • Habaloo

    One of my girlfriends is really into “natural” products and talks of “the toxins” a lot. However whenever she’s asked to elaborate on these “toxins” she literally has no answer. Like, fine, believe in what you want. I’m not knocking her for wanting a certain type of beauty routine…but please, please do your research! Like some other readers say, you just have to make your own choices with what you’re comfortable with

  • Shea

    I am a huge proponent of natural beauty and skincare products and have seen great success with them for my own skin. The #1 product that I would recommend to someone just starting to “go green” with their skincare routine is jojoba oil. I have combination, acne prone skin and jojoba oil is the best moisturizer that I have ever used. It is a relatively dry oil (doesn’t stay oily all day), doesn’t clog your pores, and is also inexpensive at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or other health food-type stores.

    • Chelsea

      And Jojoba has a natural SPF of 5! One recommendation with any oil moisturizer: apply to WET skin or skin washed and prepped with a hydrating toner. Your skin is like a sponge!

  • Kattigans

    I recently switched to a natural cleanser and have noticed a difference in my skin. I’m also a long time user of Davines hair care and loooove it. Their stuff is organic and produced in small patches and eco-conscience plus smells divine. Other natural beauty products I’m a fan of are herbivore blue tansy mask – THE BEST MASK EVER!! seriously I’ve tried a lot of them and this one actually makes a noticeable difference plus it smells heavenly. And RMS uncover up & their highlighters. Def worth it and they last especially if you set them with powder or a setting spray like Mac Fix+

    Also when I was in high school my best friend and I were obsessed with Alba Organics shampoos because they smelled so good. We called them the “fancy whole foods shampoos” because $10 for shampoo was a lot to shell out for back when I only had babysitting money. I remember her being gifted the shampoo + conditioner for her bday and being so jealous Lol

  • Ashley Tejada

    It’s such a tricky place to navigate since there is hardly any regulation in this industry. Companies can say whatever they want – natural, organic, etc. They don’t have to list all their ingredients either. It really is sad. And what’s worst is the marketing too. Seeing brands that claim natural, no parabens and then have fragrance & other toxic ingredients.

    I really believe its articles like this and our voices that will help others be in the know. Once you know better hopefully you do better.

    It’s awesome to see that more brands are cleaning up their act and hopefully this will help move this market for stronger regulation. I personally LOVE the following:
    Beautycounter – For those who have never heard of them, ping me! They are transparent, authentic, innovative and effective. I cannot live without their Cleansing Balm, Charcoal Mask, Face Oils, Sunscreen, Foundation and Lip Glosses – the list goes on and on
    RMS: a Great High Lighter
    True Botanicals: Awesome Eye Serum
    Pai: Love their Rosehip Oil
    Primal Pit: Deodorant

    • belle

      Isn’t beauty counter one of those MLMs I see people selling on instagram?

      • Ashley Tejada

        Hi Belle – Beautycounter is a “Direct Retail” brand meaning sold in a few different channels. You can buy directly from their E-commerce website as you would shop most brands, through strategic partnerships like GOOP (Gwyneth Paltrow’s website) or through independent consultants. With education in this space incredibly important, as we all know, this model helps educate consumers who have no idea about this lack of regulation while also partnering with other brands that are helping with this safer clean movement.

        I hope that answers your question:) If you want to know anymore about this brand please ask as I am a representative for the past two years! I also have knowledge about other brands too. As I love safer products and helping others live a clean life.

  • CatMom

    Does anyone have any recommendations for good-smelling natural bug/tick sprays? Whatever goes into the normal stuff makes my skin feel hot and suffocated.

    • If you google it you can find DIY recipes made from natural oils like lavender, thyme, herbs etc. I haven’t tried yet, and the effect varies depending on who use it.

      • CatMom

        I did try this last year, and it was more expensive than just buying it!

        • CatMom

          There was one in particular that someone sprayed on me when I was camping but I can’t remember what it was called.

          • Meg

            Burts Bees for like general being outside with bugs. I also hate bug spray feeling but I’ll use stronger stuff while being outside for reals, like camping, cause I’m terrified of lyme disease.

    • Chelsea

      Look into Neem oil as an afterbath moisturizer into wet skin. It is a natural insect repellant. It also has a natural spf of 15, I believe. If you’re one of those people bugs love, it could be a good moisturizer alternative some days.

  • I like reading about what cosmetic chemists have to say instead of following the scaremonger “these chemicals are bad for you” crowd. Everything in life is made of chemicals, so when someone freaks out over ingredients like parabens, which: I tend to with the actual studies done on the chemicals used in hair care and skincare.

    I’ve read that a lot of these “green beauty” companies aren’t using preservatives, or using the right preservatives, in their products, which can lead to a lot of skin issues as well. Also, a lot of these companies push certain oils like coconut oil for all skin types without letting people with acne prone skin know that it’s highly comedogenic and acnegenic.

    I prefer to do my own research on ingredients and products instead of just buying what articles like these say wholesale.

  • Inaat

    I really like the idea of green cosmetics, but it’s not better for everyone. For haircare I can use green product, and some bodycare. But if I start putting all natural products on my face I break out or worst case my face gets swollen and doubles in size. So medical skincare only for me! I did recently splurge on the new limited edition Tata Harper mask and I have not had a reaction to that yet (after to uses). So I guess I have to mainly stick to non-green skincare, with maybe one natural that does not stay on my skin. But I am thinking about what I am putting on my skin so even though it’s not natural it’s good ingredients!

  • b_rose96

    I love this!! I just switched to a more natural skincare routine (Primally Pure’s cleansing oil and a few of their other products) and started using New Wash for my hair. It’s been about 2 weeks and I seriously noticed a HUGE improvement in my hair and skin. My hair feels way cleaner and healthier than ever before and my face has stopped breaking out and I don’t even need a moisturizer!

  • Erin Koster

    My number one thing is buying cruelty-free and vegan products, so adding in eco/green as a requirement narrows the options down even further. Not saying it isn’t worth doing, just saying it’s hard.

    It’s good to learn more about this stuff–I like knowing more so I can protect myself and the earth. What irritates me is all the people who say they don’t want to put “chemicals” in their bodies. Everything is a chemical. Some are good for you but some really are bad.

    • Erin Koster

      Like even the link to the glossary of harmful products–I would like more information than what is provided. For instance, if hydroquinone is linked to cancer or disease, who says this is the case? Is it based on a thorough/peer-reviewed study? Is it hearsay through someone’s blog? Sources and more details help because I use stuff with these ingredients and I want to know if they really are harmful.

  • gamingnails

    I love when I find a good product that is also organic and works for me. I don’t enjoy the social media blabber from certain brands who focus more on demonizing “chemicals”, “nasties” etc. By all means toot your own horn about your fabulous product but please leave the fear-mongering out of it.

  • Marley Arviso

    Last year I had to get rid of the majority of my skincare, hair care and body products because they contained Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Apparently I have this really cool thing called Perioral dermatitis (it’s not cool, it the worst) which can literally be trigged by anything but one of the main causes of it is SLS. I’ve been able to keep it in check by buying more natural products (for face, body and hair) that do not contain that ingredient, which in turn has been kinda rad. My skin looks and feels much better 🙂 so far so goooooooooood!

  • KTDO

    I always read articles touting how going the natural skincare route is like the best thing you could ever possibly do for your skin, and I buy into it hard. Yet, every.single.time I buy natural/organic products, my skin goes NUTS. Just breakouts, congestion, everything. I’ve wasted SO much money, so many products. I even had an allergic reaction to the organic line, Pai. My eyelid got all puffy and I had to get a steroid cream from my derm! I just don’t understand. So to read Arnett say that, “There is only an upside.” well, in the words of Harry Potter, “THAT’S A LIE.”

  • Many natural/green products that can be bought in Germany are not that expensive. Lavera, Weleda, Sante … they are within my financial reach. And I really like them. I prefer their smell (my absolute favorite is the African black soap, the smell never fails to make me happy), I never get any bad effects and I don’t need much. I could buy more expensive stuff (Dr. Hauschka etc.) but I don’t want/need to.
    That said, all these products do come in plastic containers. 🙁
    Despite my preferance for greener products, I also buy the normal ones: my current make up (L’Oreal) und mascara (essence) get used every once in a while and I am not afraid of them :-).

    • sally

      weleda’s tube is aluminum-ish for skin food, which is an incredible product. probably terrible for the enviro tho. i’ m keeping toxins out of my system becuase of endometriosis and suspected autoimmune disorder

  • Chelsea

    Huge proponent of natural skincare and trying to eliminate all the parabens from my life because why not. One thing though to people saying they are breaking out from natural products. Those with sensitive and acneic skin may need to avoid certain types of oil with larger molecular structure (e.g. coconut). You can google which natural oils are less comedogenic (clogging). Also, skin is like a sponge (think of putting dish soap onto a wet sponge and how it saturates vs dry sponge how it sits on top). Use oils in moderation as you figure out what works for you and apply to wet/hydrated skin (maybe right after your hydrating toner).

  • Engels_Beard

    “My personal philosophy is that natural is effective, and if someone wants to reduce their exposure to chemicals, natural is worth exploring. There’s only an upside.” Every time someone says something like this they should be smacked upside the head–or at the very least the author of the article should point out their absolute stupidity. Best of luck trying to find natural products that don’t contain “chemicals”.

  • tiffanytownsend

    The Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers a number of consumer guides and ratings that will help you make your own decisions about what you’re comfortable with:

  • Sarah Mehmood
  • pencilhugger

    This is a strange article.
    In fact the evidence on carcinogens in beauty products is solid. The phthalates in any individual product is not likely in itself to harm you. But the average American adult uses 9 products a day and the average woman uses 12. That’s everyday. This adds up to significant accumulated exposure.

    Then there’s this paragraph:
    Kormeili says products on the market are generally safe to use. “We tend to put a lot of emphasis on skincare because we’re aware of what we’re putting on our faces. But we aren’t walking around with masks all day blocking out air pollution.”

    Um YES. Skincare goes on our faces, so we may want to avoid toxic products. But …somehow this is foolish because we’re probably dying of air pollution anyhow? The logic escapes me.

    Anyhow, I was hoping this article would be more helpful. I do use natural, green, eco, organic, fair trade etc etc etc products, and enjoy learning what’s working for people

  • Great article. It’s amazing that we actually have to certify skincare when we should be certifying unregulated and untested chemicals that are used with reckless abandon in mainstream personal care products. The correlation between the rise in chemical sensitivities and cancer since the industrial revolution simply can’t be ignored. It’s a relief to know that 73% of millennials will choose healthier options and go beyond green washing to source ethical, veritably organic and natural products that are independently regulated and certified by a reputable third party. You can’t put a price on health.