How to Choose Clean and Green Cosmetics

This advice can help you navigate the beauty aisle.

A woman looks at recyclable packaging on cosmetics in a store.

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When you commit to buying better cosmetics and skincare products, your shopping habits may have to change. No longer is it good enough to peruse the aisles of the local drugstore, looking for fun labels and cheap deals. Instead, you must assess items through a new lens, with a stricter set of criteria. 

Decoding the safe products from the suspicious ones can be a daunting task, which is why I wanted to share my own approach to buying makeup, skin, and hair products. I've had to relearn how to shop for these over the past decade, and while it's an ongoing process, certain behavioral shifts have made it much easier.

1. Rethink Where You Shop

A health food store with exposed brick walls and pipe shelves.

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Head straight to your local health and wellness store (or an online equivalent). Its beauty section will already have passed a basic level of inspection that the drugstore beauty aisle has not. While you can find some 'clean' products in conventional locations, these are few and far between, and often come from bigger brands with generous greenwashing budgets to make products look better than they are.

2. Know What to Avoid

An Asian woman looks at pharmacy beauty products while holding her phone.

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Arm yourself with a list of the most harmful ingredients used in cosmetics. This is simpler than learning to recognize every ingredient in a list. 

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has handy, quick-reference Red Lists that reveal top chemicals of concern for each product category, such as shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, sunscreen, eyeshadows, and more. If you want more detail, check out its Chemicals of Concern section.

MADE SAFE has a lengthy hazard list of the "worst possible toxic offenders across product categories" that you can bookmark on your phone.

The David Suzuki Foundation has a printable Dirty Dozen list of cosmetic chemicals to avoid. Stick it in your wallet or bag for easy reference. 

3. Use an App

A black woman holds her phone and a cosmetic at a pharmacy.

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If you don't want to decipher the ingredient list yourself, there are several good apps that provide rankings for more common products. EWG's Healthy Living app (available for both iPhone and Android) allows you to search for products by name or scan a barcode to see how they score for safety. The app covers more than just cosmetics and skincare; you can also look up cleaning products, sunscreens, and food scores.

Think Dirty is another barcode scanner that allows you to compare products as you shop. It has over 850,000 products from the US and Canada in its database and gives each a "Dirty Meter" reading. The app comes highly reviewed and was recently named Best App by Apple. 

4. Assess the Packaging

A woman shops for cosmetics in a zero waste store.

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How a product is packaged speaks volumes about its company's environmental values. No matter how "green" the ingredients may be, it's hard to take a brand seriously if an item comes swathed in layers of non-recyclable plastic. 

Look for glass, metal, and paper packaging, as these have higher recycling rates than plastic. Look for containers with wide-mouth access that allow you to use up the contents fully and clean the container easily for recycling. Look for brands that offer refills for its reusable packaging. If you're considering plastic, look for fully recycled content. 

5. Be Willing to Try New Formats

Body lotions in glass dispenser jars at a zero waste store.

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As the zero- and low-waste beauty industry expands, innovators are coming up with many new ideas for forming, packaging, and selling the products they make. Some of these might seem strange at first glance, but can be quite amazing. Be open-minded to trying new, cutting-edge product designs like shampoo bars, solid moisturizer bars, dissolvable body wash sheets, crushable conditioner cubes, toothpaste tabs, hair-washing powder, refillable mascara, and more. 

6. Look for Key Labels and Logos

Women reading ingredients at a zero waste store.

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It is understandable that shoppers experience 'label fatigue' when scrutinizing dozens of cosmetic bottles. As Anna Canning of Fair World Project once told Treehugger in an interview: "There are new logos popping up all the time! Anyone who has a graphic designer can put a little seal on their product at this point." 

The best thing is to familiarize yourself with the most well-known and top-respected ones. These are verified by third-party auditors (as opposed to being an in-house standard) and are thus more trustworthy. 

Examples of reliable logos include: USDA Organic, as items must contain 95% organic ingredients to be certified; Leaping Bunny, issued by Cruelty Free International; Ecocert, an organic certifier based in Europe that operates in 80 countries; B-Corp, which means the company undergoes rigorous inspection for ethical and environmental practices; Non-GMO Project Verified, the only organization that tests ingredients thoroughly for cross-contamination; and EWG Verified that confirms a product is free from any concerning chemicals.

Avoid words like natural, clean, sustainable, and green, as these are general terms without formal, regulated definitions. They convey more emotion than any real information.

7. Stick With What You Know

A young woman reads a label on a bottle at an outdoor market.

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When you find something that ticks all your boxes and works well, buy it again... and again. There's really no need to experiment broadly with products once you find something reliable. Show support for companies doing good work by becoming a loyal client. If you start buying refillable cosmetics, you'll become a repeat customer automatically. 

8. Buy Better, Buy Less

A woman pumping body wash into a glass jar at a zero waste store.

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Good quality cosmetics look better, feel better, and go further. They are more effective, which requires you to use less for the same result. You may find you need to replace them less often, which makes the higher upfront investment more worthwhile. Realize that you're paying for sustainable sourcing, ethical production practices, better packaging, and a sense of reassurance that what you're getting won't harm you or your surroundings.