Image Credit: 100 Percent Pure
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If this post is helpful to you, then check out: To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick — And How We Can Fight Back, by EcoCult founder Alden Wicker.
It’s no secret that the clean beauty movement has exploded in the last few years. Conscious consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of ingredient sourcing and their carbon footprint and packaging, prompting brands to rethink how they approach their business.
But unfortunately, there is no clear definition to describe what “clean beauty” actually means. You often see words like “green,” “natural,” and “non-toxic” plastered on labels with barely any regulation.
In the U.S., there is no mandate on health studies or pre-market testing when it comes to personal care products and cosmetics. That means manufacturers sometimes bring to market products that are later found to be unsafe. In fact, the FDA was just given the authority to demand recalls in 2023—before they could only request recalls, and brands could ignore that request. Our skin is our largest organ—much of what we apply to our skin can be absorbed into the bloodstream, which means the ingredients in what we put on our skin matter.
(By the way, if you’re interested in the topic of toxin-free living, you should get yourself a copy of Alden Wicker’s book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How to Fight Back.)
What to look for in non-toxic, ethical, and affordable makeup
Chemicals are an essential component of our daily lives, but some should be avoided. We recommend you read the ingredients carefully and check if they are safe. While the European Union takes a precautionary approach and has banned or restricted several ingredients such as formaldehyde and parabens from use in cosmetics and personal care products, the U.S. tends to kowtow to the interests of manufacturers and has not banned any chemical for use in three decades, including asbestos. It’s worth mentioning that natural doesn’t always mean better, either. Some natural materials can be over-harvested to extinction, or cause skin irritation. Yes, many synthetic chemicals have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental disorders, and other harmful health impacts. But in some cases, synthetic ingredients may be more sustainable and eco-friendly.
It’s safe to say that there is a subset of known hazardous chemicals we should be avoiding in our cosmetics. Formaldehyde, for example, rears its ugly head in many industries, and makeup is absolutely one of them. Everyday beauty products typically include formaldehyde releasers, a colorless, strong-smelling gas that helps prevent microbes from growing in water-based products. While the EU has long banned levels over 0.2% in finished cosmetics, California became the first state to ban products with this ingredient, among others like parabens and phthalates.
Parabens are also widely used preservatives preventing bacteria or fungus from growing in products to prolong shelf life. These preservatives are easily recognizable on labels due to their typical ending—methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and so on. But familiarity doesn’t equate to safety; parabens, as endocrine disruptors, have long been associated with endocrine disorders, including those that affect fertility in both men and women. A 2021 study in Spain showed women who reported high use of cosmetics including hair spray, face creams, hair dyes, and lipsticks had higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and higher rates of endometriosis.
Phthalates, generally found in everything from children’s toys to hygiene products, are also found in most cosmetics on the market. They’re used as a binding agent in plastics, but two studies from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health labeled these chemicals as hormone disruptors and speculated they could increase the risk of miscarriage and gestational diabetes. These findings were found in animal studies and the researchers suggested an association in humans. Both the U.S. and EU have restricted several phthalates after concerns arose over baby care and toy products, with the EU outright banning a few.
An ingredient often used in eye shadow, powder, and blush, talc is a naturally occurring mineral mined from the earth, composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The mineral has received tons of scrutiny after thousands of women have sued Johnson & Johnson, claiming the talcum in its baby powder contained asbestos, a known human carcinogen with well-documented health risks, and gave them ovarian cancer. Talc and asbestos are in close proximity in the earth, which is why the FDA has been routinely testing talc for possible contamination of asbestos.
The FDA states that some companies promote their products with claims of being “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals,” but the use of these phrases is unrestricted. There are no legal definitions for these terms. It’s possible for some companies to apply such claims solely to their finished product, but their raw material suppliers could perform animal testing. Look for third-party certifications, such as PETA’s Cruelty-Free bunny logo.
To find clean products, search for the USDA Organic “100 Percent Organic label” or the “organic” label, where 95% of the ingredients are organic.
It also helps to check if the brand is transparent and shares its suppliers, including its packaging manufacturer. You can find out if the company is choosing local suppliers, which can reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Speaking of emissions, look for brands that opt for biodegradable, reusable and/or recyclable packaging. Glass bottles and cardboard box packaging are often recyclable, but plastic cellophane and pumps aren’t.
With all that in mind, we researched to find the most affordable, non-toxic makeup brands for when your makeup bag is in need of a revamp. For ease of comparison, we’ve listed the prices for the regular-size foundation (or the closest product) from each brand.
What we love: RMS Beauty creates multitasking products using raw, food-grade, organic ingredients. Its products are certified organic and GMO-free and are never tested on animals. The brand’s packaging is either minimal, recyclable, or reusable.
Our review: Our tester tried out RMS Beauty’s well-known “Un” Cover-up concealer, which proved to be a welcome addition to her clean makeup aesthetic. The product covered mild blemishes and evened out her skin tone for a natural, nearly-flawless finish. The light-shifting particles in the product make for a natural glow without weighing down the product or appearing shiny; in fact, it blends out somewhat matte and sheer.
Foundation price (1oz jar): $58
What we love: W3ll People offers natural, plant-based, organic cosmetics that are made in small batches. The products are cruelty-free and vegan and uses formulations that include botanical complexes, which prevent the products from creasing or fading. W3ll People cosmetics are free from fillers, propylene glycol, petrochemicals and petroleum by-products. The EWG organization has verified 35+ of its products, confirming the brand’s non-toxic promise.
Our review: We tried out W3ll People’s Bio Stick foundation, which comes in a tube that you can retract. This foundation went on smooth, melts into the skin, and gives a natural finish all on its own. It is easier to blend over moisturizer, and we found that a beauty blender works better than a brush. The coverage isn’t quite full, but it does cover blemishes, dark spots, and acne scars well.
Foundation price (0.35oz stick): $27
What we love: 100 Percent Pure creates non-toxic, organic, vegan skincare products and cosmetics using biodegradable formulas. 100 Percent Pure’s products are cruelty-free and naturally pigmented, sourcing its pigments from fruit, vegetables, tea, and cocoa. The brand also gives a portion of its sales to feed shelter dogs and to support the work of Trees for the Future.
Our review: With gorgeous pigments that look luxe and smooth, the brand’s pressed powder blushes and bronzers are so easy to blend that it’s nearly effortless. The eyeshadows bear a perfect shimmery sparkle, and when paired with matte shadows, give any look more dimension. These products are perfect for no-makeup makeup looks, as well as a warm, glowy, and natural finish.
Foundation price (1oz bottle): $48
What we love: Fat and the Moon is a small, handmade-to-order business. It offers lip products, blush, eyeshadows, and highlighters, all of which are handmade with natural, clean ingredients. Founder Rachel Budde experiments with trusted ingredients and recipes from various healing traditions to create simple products that are good for the body and the earth.
Our review: Our editor is a huge fan of the gorgeous, subtle shades of the lip and cheek balms and raves about their unique texture, although they do leave the lips and cheeks feeling a bit tingly. They love the “barely-there pout” that these balms create.
Highlighter Cream Price (0.25oz jar): $7.99 – $23.99
What we love: Following the Sephora Clean Standards, Lys Beauty claims to keep their products 100% gluten-free, talc-free, fragrance-free, mineral oil-free, and SLS-free. All the brand’s products are vegan and cruelty-free. With foundation in 43 shades, Lys Beauty strives for inclusivity for all skin types by using therapeutic ingredients such as turmeric, ashwagandha, and avocado. Its accessibility statement is to ensure that all products are under $30 so that everyone has access to clean, non-toxic cosmetics.
Our review: A longtime fan of Lys Beauty’s bronzer, our editor uses the product daily for a perfect, finished glow that defies oil retention, acne, and eczema flare-ups. With a fairly decent shade range, she is able to find shades that work all year long. The triangular packaging makes it easy to pop into her bag for on-the-go looks.
Foundation price (1oz bottle): $24
What we love: Jones Road Beauty is where makeup meets skincare in every way. The brand offers a wide range of cosmetics from balms to blushes, all of which are formulated without harmful chemicals including phthalates, parabens, and petrolatum, among many others. You can find sparkly eyeshadows, illuminating highlighters and even face pencils from this brand.
Our review: Our tester was especially impressed with What the Foundation. While it reminded her of a souffle, the foundation went on like melted butter and smelled faintly of ginger and other earthy scents that were invigorating first thing in the morning, though the foundation did feel heavy as the day wore on. She loved the lip and cheek stick, which is a sheer, creamy balm perfect for a splash of color on the lips or as a quick blush touch-up throughout the day.
Foundation price (1.14oz jar): $44
What we love: Using sustainably sourced ingredients, WInkly Lux creates cosmetics free of parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and gluten to provide a non-toxic makeup experience. From rose-shaped blushes infused with vitamin E and carnauba to color-changing lip balm, the brand goes for unique, fun, and sustainable products that are plastic-neutral with the help of rePurpose Global.
Our review: A new staple in their routine, our tester absolutely adores the orange exfoliant, which reminds them of a bright summer day. They also love the brand’s tinted moisturizer and under-eye concealer, both of which emit a pleasant floral scent.
Foundation price (0.28oz pan): $22
If this post was helpful to you, then check out: To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick — And How We Can Fight Back, by EcoCult founder Alden Wicker.