Image Credit: Lily Lolo
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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, carbon footprint and packaging, prompting brands to rethink how they approach their business.
But unfortunately, there is no clear definition for 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 and recalled. 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.
Since the year 2000, global chemical production has outpaced the global human population. Not all these chemicals are bad, of course. But that’s a lot of different substances to keep track of and clear for safe use.
What to look for in non-toxic, ethical and affordable makeup
Non-Toxic Ingredients: 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. And the Consumer Protection and Safety Bureau has no power to compel a company to pull a product off the market, even if thousands of consumers are reporting side effects.
While we’re hesitant to recommend a certain popular product ingredient database — we’ve found it to be somewhat inaccurate and it Can veer into fear lingering — you can install the Clearya browser extension to help you shop on sites like Sephora and Amazon.
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.
Here’s a short list of ingredients to avoid:
Everyday beauty products typically include formaldehyde-releasers, a colorless, strong-smelling gas that helps prevent microbes from growing in water-based products. They are usually labeled as diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, and imidazolidinyl urea. Studies have shown that along with irritation. Currently, the EU only allows up to 0.2% of formaldehyde in finished cosmetic products and any product with more than .05% must come with a warning. And California became the first state to ban products with this ingredient, among others like parabens and phthalates.
Parabens are widely used preservatives preventing bacteria or fungus from growing in products, therefore prolonging shelf life. These preservatives are easily recognizable on labels due to their typical ending—methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, etc.
They are a group of colorless and odorless chemicals used in hundreds of products ranging from toys to personal care products. Its primary function is to soften plastics that would otherwise be breakable, and in the case of makeup, it acts as a binding agent. 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. According to the FDA, “it is not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health.” But, 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 was 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 the possible contamination of asbestos.
Certifications: 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. And search for the USDA Organic “100 Percent Organic label” or the “organic” label, where 95% of the ingredients are organic.
Ethical manufacturing: 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.
Sustainable Packaging: You are looking for biodegradable, reusable and/or recyclable packaging. Glass bottles and cardboard box packaging are often recyclable, but plastic cellophane and pumps aren’t.
With that in mind, we researched to find the most affordable, non-toxic makeup brands for when your makeup bag is in need of a refresher.
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.
Price range: $12.00 – $78.00
Using cruelty-free, ethical practices Elate Cosmetics offers a full line of clean, vegan beauty products that are sustainably packaged and gluten-free. Elate’s ingredients are 90% organic and 100% fair-trade and palm oil-free. Elate’s sustainable values also extend to their product packaging as the brand uses bamboo to make all compacts, tools and palettes.
Price range: $12.99 – $61.99
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.
Price range: $7.99 – $23.99
Lily Lolo is a vegan, mineral makeup brand from London that focuses on clean, naturally-derived ingredients. Every product is free from harsh chemicals, dyes, fillers, parabens, fragrances, talc, and dyes. Its mineral foundation does not contain bismuth oxychloride, a common ingredient in mineral foundations that can cause skin irritation.
Price range: $15.00 – $26.00
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.
Price range: $12.00 – $29.00
Juice Beauty’s cruelty-free, vegan, and certified organic products are made with antioxidant-rich ingredients. It formulates its cosmetics and personal care products without using parabens, petroleum, propylene or butylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfates, pesticides, phthalates, artificial dyes or synthetic fragrances. Approximately 40% of Juice Beauty’s products are in glass containers. It is still working on converting its plastic bottles to recycled plastic.
Price range: $14.00 – $45.00
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.
Price range: $22.00 – $55.00
Gabriel Cosmetics focuses on offering organic, vegan, and gluten-free products. There are no synthetics, chemicals, parabens, or animal by-products in any of the company’s products, and all the cosmetics are lead-free as well. The brand also offers a range of nail polishes that are 10-free, meaning the polishes are free from formaldehyde releasers, toluene, DPB, camphor, formaldehyde resin, xylene, parabens, fragrances, and animal ingredients.
Price range: $14.00 – $29.00
Founded in 1996, Pacifica is a 100% vegan and cruelty-free brand that uses all-natural ingredients in its lipsticks, mascaras, eyeshadows and liners, foundations and highlighters. Pacifica also has a recycling program, allowing customers to send empty and rinsed out product packaging to be given new life through its Preserve partnership.
Price range: $8.50 – $45.00
Founded by beauty YouTuber Marlena Stell, all Makeup Geek products are cruelty-free, and most are vegan. Its products that are not considered vegan may contain animal byproducts (milk, lanolin, carmine, honey or royal jelly). For each product, a full list of ingredients is available on the website.
Price range: $11.99 – $1499
Mented carries a wide range of cosmetics—from brow pencils and blush to lipstick and setting powder—all of which come in a variety of beautiful nude tones. Everything is vegan and free of toxins.
Price range: $12.00 – $30.00
Vapour Beauty chooses organically farmed, naturally derived, and minimally processed ingredients to create its wide range of makeup products. They are also free of a long list of chemicals, including harsh preservatives, fillers, nanoparticles and synthetic perfume. Vapour Beauty is an expert in waterless formulation, as it only uses water when it’s best for product performance and never as a base or filler. The brand uses solar energy at its headquarters, manufacturing, warehouse and research facilities in Taos, New Mexico.
Price range: $18.00 – $50.00
Saie uses ethically sourced ingredients to formulate its cruelty-free makeup products. It does its best to minimize its waste, water, and energy footprint, calculating its environmental footprint in terms of gallons of water, pounds of CO2e, and pounds of waste. Saie’s mailer boxes are made with a combination of post-consumer recycled and virgin cardboard sourced from sustainable forests (SFI-certified) and wrapped in paper tape that can be recycled along with the box. The brand also favors UV ink for its boxes, which are better for the planet because they don’t contain any toxic solvents and they don’t release any harmful gasses.
Price range: $20.00 – $34.00
Tower 28’s products, including a tinted balm, tinted SPF, lip gloss, and bronzer, are non-toxic, free of sensitizing irritants, and full of nourishing ingredients. Its makeup selection is also vegan, cruelty-free and made in California.
Price range: $12.00 – $30.00