Skin Care FAQ

Just a phrase? Understanding Top Beauty Terms

Beauty terms abound in this day and age; so many phrases crossing bottles and vials and tubes, often reminiscent of products at the grocery store. These terms are important, and can be significant, depending on your own needs and values. But what do these phrases actually mean, and what is simply a marketing ploy?

We’ve outlined some of the top phrases you might see at the beauty counter, helping you sort fact from fiction.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that packaging is designed to highlight the very best that a product might have to offer. There are also varying levels of legality when it comes to marketing and advertising beauty products, so a lip balm or shampoo labeled “organic,” might be all 100% organic, or contain one or more organic ingredients in the formulation.

Likewise, some of the commonly used terms (detailed below) might utilize phrases like “natural” when it contains some natural ingredients. Read your labels carefully, aware that all might not be as it seems.

Beauty Terms

  • Clean Beauty

    “Clean” is one of the hottest terms of today. Our culture is obsessed with clean eating, clean chemicals, clean energy, and now clean beauty. But what does clean mean, in this context?

    Typically, a product listed as clean, or utilizing clean ingredients, will shy away from artificial waxes and oils (such as mineral or palm oil) in favor of a more popular, or less problematic alternative.

    Clean as a descriptor can be one of the more deceiving terms, as might be applied broadly to a product, with no need for any type of certification to hold the title. Items usually listed as clean will have other contributing labels, such as organic, cruelty-free, and all natural, which we also outline below!

  • All Natural

    This can be another catch-all phrase, though one with a bit more of a set guideline. Natural as a descriptor implies that all the ingredients in your product are free from artificially created or modified substances, though this can be incredibly hard to achieve.

    This is another term, like “clean,” which warrants further investigation. Many products will list the percentage of natural or organic ingredients, boasting higher and higher percentages when possible.

    It’s worth adding that science has helped us discover a myriad of incredibly useful substances, both derived from natural sources, or generated in a lab. Many of these substances are not “natural,” but that does not make them inherently harmful or dangerous. Again, read your ingredient labels with a microscope.

  • Natural vs Clean

    These two phrases can be pitted against each other, or used alongside, on the same label. In general, a natural product utilizes ingredients found in nature, whereas a clean product might not be fully naturally derived, but it will likely not contain substances which have been known to be potentially harmful.

    It is entirely possible to have one and not the other, as well as a product labeled clean and natural at the same time. The key is in the ingredients used, and the definition of clean and natural set by the product manufacturer.

  • Paraben-free

    Parabens are a type of preservative, designed to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria in many substances. They’ve been commonly used for years, and are still generally approved by the FDA, though many have raised concerns about the risks of spreading chemical preservatives over the body in large amounts.

    One of the greatest concerns with parabens, is the believed impact on regular bodily hormones, potentially blocking or binding to estrogen receptors. There are studies still being completed on a wider scale to test these concerns, though this might be a good phrase to look out for, when making future beauty purchases.

    More and more products are being created without parabens, choosing other types of preservatives instead, and this market is growing rapidly.

  • Cruelty-free

    Cruelty-free products are made and tested without experimenting on animals; often cruelty free products do not contain animal ingredients, either, though this is not required for cruelty-free certification.

    Such compliant products might contain honey, beeswax, or lanolin, all ingredients which are sourced from animals, but may be harvested ethically.

    Leaping Bunny is a collective program formed by a number of animal welfare organizations, seeking to end animal testing. Many of the commonly used ingredients in modern day cosmetics have already been tested and proven safe.

    Further testing is often not required, even for new formulations, so animal testing should all but disappear, functionally.

  • Vegan Beauty

    Vegan beauty items do not contain ingredients sourced from, or containing animal products at all. This will range from commonly known ingredients like beeswax, to lesser understood additives, like colorants made from beetles, or the use of musk in fragrance, which is commonly harvested from animals.

    As with all of these terms, some trade offs are important; a new perfume could be almost completely natural, if not for the artificial musk which was created in a lab, in an effort to keep a product vegan and cruelty free.

    In this circumstance, an “all natural” label might not apply, even if the product is generally healthier, and a better alternative. Peta has a searchable archive of vegan and cruelty free companies on their website.

  • Non-toxic

    There are a host of toxic substances in the world; these can be expansive and broadly defined. When researching a “nontoxic” product, take a look at the ingredients, or what is listed as being excluded.

    This might include preservatives, parabens, artificial substances, fragrances, and a whole host of other substances one might deem “toxic,” though there are also organically grown plants which are toxic to humans. This umbrella term can be misleading.

    When specific substances are not listed, [e.g. paraben free] it is likely that this is a marketing phrase.

  • Green Beauty

    Green beauty products are typically made with eco-friendly choices in mind. Ingredients are generally sourced or harvested sustainably, and packaging is often recyclable, compostable, or as minimal as possible.

    “Green” can be another priority label; a company might prefer to utilize beeswax in their product over petroleum, making it “green” to source, as well as “natural,” “clean,” and “paraben free,” though not vegan.

    There will almost always be a tradeoff when making these decisions, though these tradeoffs do not have to be sacrifices, especially with the range of substances available today.

  • Organic Beauty

    Organic products are either completely comprised of organic ingredients, or they contain an organic ingredient. Organic is a label regulated by the FDA, though it does not necessarily have a set definition.

    Typically organic substances are grown without artificial substances or pesticides, utilizing natural fertilizers.

  • Fragrance-free

    Fragrance is an additive which can disguise a product’s smell, or add a scent, in order to enhance an overall product experience. Many have found fragrances to be overwhelming or even the source of an allergy or sensitivity.

    Fragrance free products do not contain added fragrances to perfume the item in a particular way, though this might not be scent-free, as some ingredients have a natural aroma.

  • Exfoliating

    Exfoliation is the process of removing a later of dead skin cells from the surface of the body. There are two types of exfoliants: physical, made up of small granules (like salt, sugar, or other ingredients) which will rub off these dead cells and leave glowing skin underneath.

    The other type of exfoliant is chemical, designed to remove those cells on a smaller level. There are benefits to each type of exfoliant, depending on need.

    One might prefer to exfoliate the skin with a chemical in order to improve skin’s texture, and use a physical exfoliant on other parts of the body, or when looking for a nice deep clean.