My journey into green beauty was quite accidental. In my early- to mid-twenties, I used every product and procedure — from Accutane to laser — to treat my severe acne, but nothing worked. It hit my self-confidence and I was tired of trying to find a solution. Then around 2010, a big beauty chain in Australia (I live in Melbourne), began carrying a new ‘green’ oil-based cleanser that became an instant bestseller. Until then, I’d always believed that I needed to use foaming cleansers that gave that squeaky-clean feeling; it seemed counter-intuitive to use oil to control acne. Green beauty was also in its nascent stages at that point, but the oil cleanser turned out to be unlike anything else I’d ever tried. It didn’t foam or emulsify, and had to be wiped off with a washcloth — and it significantly cleared up my skin.
This made me research its ingredients, and that led me down the green beauty rabbit hole.
So, what is green beauty? To understand this, we need to look at what goes into conventional skincare products. A lot of mainstream items only contain a small amount of active natural extracts; inexpensive fillers like water, mineral oil and silicones usually take up most of the formula. Celestyna Higgins, founder of American green beauty brands MOSS and Ambar, says preservatives are the primary differentiating factors between green beauty and the conventional variety. “Think about it — preservatives are supposed to kill bacteria that could cause the product to go bad. But they don’t discriminate, and go after the good bacteria on your skin too.”
The concentration of actives is one of the main things that inspired me to make the switch to green beauty. These products are vastly different from the ‘herbal’, ‘natural’ or ‘Ayurvedic’ products I grew up using as a teenager in India. Because while a majority of those products contained some natural ingredients, they also had potentially harmful ones like petroleum, phthalates, parabens and sulfates that negate the benefits of the natural ingredients.
Unlike their truly green counterparts, the natural beauty industry in India is vastly unregulated, with no third-party certifications to guarantee their purity. For instance, 100ml of good quality rose essential oil costs around $1,500 (USD) because it is labour intensive, and takes around 5kg of rose petals to produce 1gm of rose oil. It is, therefore, safe to assume that a product priced under Rs 500 will probably not contain the real thing.
These products may be tougher on your wallet, but the pure ingredients also make them more effective. “These [higher quality] formulae are more costly to make. The absence of fillers and chemicals leaves space for the actives that really do the heavy lifting,” says Jeannie Jarnot, founder of US-based green beauty subscription box, Beauty Heroes.
Unlike the natural products of the past, the new ones are not just a jumble of essential oils. They are scientifically formulated to deliver visible results, and can be much more complex than their synthetic counterparts. It is a myth that green products don’t contain any man-made chemicals at all. In fact, many even contain plant-derived chemicals. The difference is that these chemicals aren’t known to pose health risks, unlike parabens, phthalates and glycols that have been banned by the European Union for their possible hazardous nature. Plant-based ingredients are rich in whole nutrients, which means they are often gentler and more effective. The skin absorbs chemicals readily. So, if you watch what goes into your body, shouldn’t you give some thought to what you put on your skin as well?
Yenny Khan, a Washington DC-based green beauty blogger who runs Eco Chic Beauty, recommends avoiding, at a minimum, sulfates, petroleum derivatives and parabens. “Paying attention to labels and ingredient lists is key,” she says. “And resources like Ewg.org/skindeep and the Think Dirty app (available on iOS) make scanning through ingredient lists a breeze. The rule of thumb is that if the product includes more than three toxic ingredients, then it’s best to replace it.”
None of this is to say you should bin all your beauty products right away. In fact, Khan says it’s essential to move at your own pace in order to not feel overwhelmed. “The ‘one out, one in’ rule is a good one: when you finish one conventional product, replace it with a greener version.”
I, too, took baby steps. I started by eliminating products containing sulfates and parabens, and when I noticed a difference, I eliminated the other harmful ingredients. I have only been using green skin, hair, dental and body care (and green perfumes) since 2015, and I rarely have any breakouts anymore. My skin has been the best it’s ever been, and I wish I’d discovered it sooner, so I could have felt better about myself in my twenties! But you know what they say: never too late.
STEER AWAY FROM…
SULFATES The inexpensive foaming agent can make skin dry, upset the acid mantle and cause eczema, acne, dandruff, and other problems, and it can potentially cause cancer.
PETROLEUM and its by-products are known to clog pores and contribute to acne. These carcinogens can cause irritation and systemic toxicity if used on broken skin.
PARABENS Scientific evidence suggests that these preservatives may cause breast cancer by elevating oestrogen levels. It is sometimes linked to hormonal imbalances, including early onset of puberty in young girls.