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LiveWell — Clean Beauty Shopping Guide

by Organic Spa Magazine

Clean Beauty Shopping Guide

After over a decade of serving as the leading authority in natural beauty and wellness, we at Organic Spa magazine have learned a thing or two about shopping clean. Now, we’re sharing our wisdom to help you discover beauty products you’ll love, with ingredients you can trust. 

Thanks to greenwashing, terms like “natural” and “organic” are everywhere. But how can you tell if a brand backs up its claims? All the information you need is on the ingredient label--as long as you know what you’re looking for. Our quick reference guide will teach you how to find the good stuff in a roiling sea of “natural” and “organic” beauty.


  • Organic. To find the most vetted players in the organic beauty game, look for the USDA Organic certification label or the claim “100% organic.” Brands that  list “made with organic ingredients” may contain up to 70% organic ingredients--but may contain less.

  • Natural. In a marketplace where “natural” products are seen as “trendy,” your best bet is to scan the ingredient list before buying to ensure the product does not contain any sneaky additives. (See below for some examples of ingredients to avoid!)

  • Certified Vegan. Vegan products contain no ingredients derived from animals. Look for third-party certification from the nonprofit Vegan Action and The Vegan Society, or the PETA website. However, some vegan brands don’t carry a third-party certification. The only surefire way to tell if a product is vegan is to check the ingredients list for animal byproducts, which can sometimes be surprising! 

  • Cruelty-Free. Similar to certified vegan products, products containing the cruelty-free logo do not test on animals at any stage of the manufacturing process. Look for the PETA symbol or the Leaping Bunny logo to ensure products have not been tested on animals. However, neither symbol ensures that the product and its ingredients are natural or organic.

  • Gluten-Free. Products claiming to be gluten-free must not contain gluten, which can be found in wheat, barley and rye. Companies may label their products as gluten-free to warn those with allergies to steer clear, but a gluten-free certification does not ensure your product is free of toxins - only that it is free of gluten.

How to Read Beauty Labels

  • Order matters. Pay attention to the order that ingredients are listed on the label. Ingredients are listed in order of amount - so if a problem ingredient appears at the end of the list, it will likely only be found in trace amounts. Only you can decide how strictly to vet your vanity!

  • Check the expiration date. Your beauty products can expire just like the food in your fridge can. Using skincare and makeup past its expiration date may seem like no big deal, but it may lead to eye infections and other nasty consequences, if the product has been contaminated by mold or bacteria. 

  • When in Rome…. You may be surprised to find that the old adage “avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce” doesn’t necessarily hold true! Often, botanical ingredients appear as their Latin names, which - although potential tongue-twisters - pose little harm to you or your skin.

  • Stop and smell the roses. More people have sensitivities to fragrances than you might think, yet it’s not always easy to spot this ingredient on a label. If this is you, then beware: scents could appear as “parfum,” “perfume” or simply “fragrance.” Keep in mind that the higher up on the ingredient label, the more fragrance a product contains, potentially increasing the risk of irritation. 

Red Flag Ingredients

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate. This sulfate may wreak havoc on your skin by contributing to irritation and acne. Though the ingredient has been approved for use in the United States, other countries - such as Canada - identify it as a human health hazard and environmental toxin.

  • Parabens. Labeled as methyl-, butyl-, ethyl- and propylparaben, these mimic estrogen, presenting a risk of hormone imbalance. One study showed these factors may increase the risk of reproductive health problems, including breast cancer. 

  • -siloxanes & -methicones. Like parabens, siloxanes & methicones may act as endocrine disruptors, inducing potential reproductive cancers. Further risks may include immunotoxicity and allergic reactions.

  • DEA, TEA, MEA & ETA. Ending in -olamine, these chemical ingredients function as emulsifiers and wetting agents in products like facial cleansers and shampoos. The problem isn’t the ingredients themselves, but rather that they may produce carcinogenic nitrosamines in the manufacturing process.

  • PEG & Ethylene Glycol. These -glycols pose little risk on their own, but may be contaminated with harmful substances such as lead, nickel and arsenic. These contaminants may be carcinogenic and, especially when applied to damaged skin, may pose an increased risk.

  • Toluene. Found in some nail polish (and paint thinners!), toluene acts as a solvent. Internationally, it is considered unsafe for use in cosmetics, and is widely considered a human developmental, reproductive and respiratory toxicant.

  • Petrochemicals. Many common ingredients found in moisturizers, self-tanners and hair dyes --such as mineral oil, paraffin wax and -propyls-- are derived from petroleum, a potentially harmful fossil fuel. What’s more, these ingredients may be contaminated by carcinogens that are readily absorbed by our skin after application.

  • Aluminum. Listed as any number of ingredients beginning with “aluminum,” these derivatives - often found as active ingredients in antiperspirant deodorants - accumulate in fat cells, which may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.