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Have you heard of green washing?

Guide | 2019-04-12 13:32:30

Have you heard of green washing?

Today more than ever, consumers are on the lookout for sustainable, ecological and natural products. Many brands want in on this trend, even though the products they develop contradict the whole philosophy. So they use green washing to give themselves an “eco-friendly” image and entice consumers with their clever marketing rather than the true make-up of their products, their manufacturing processes and their values.

green washing

Green washing is a marketing tool through which a company communicates with the public from an environmental standpoint. The aim of green washing is to give the company an eco-friendly image; however far it may be from the truth. This practice is misleading and may even be considered false advertising. Certain players on the cosmetics market saw an opportunity and took on a communication method that subtly misleads consumers.
In the cosmetics industry, « whitewashing » the composition of products is common.

We can’t all be scientists, so it’s difficult to recognise the exact origin and purpose of the ingredients in the cosmetics we use every day. The aim of this article is to help you better understand, and to be able to identify what can be implied and what can be hidden behind a (now commonplace) marketing slogan.

How are you supposed to know what you’re buying when you’re not a biologist, a biochemist or a chemist? For us a cream is a cream, and if we’re told that it’s organic, why look any further?

Signs that don’t lie

Having confidence in a brand is one thing, being educated to understand the components used in its products and knowing the real truth of what they tell you about them is another. When you’re looking at a cosmetic product, don’t hesitate to be sceptical, be aware of certain terms widely used on the market, be curious, and inform yourself by doing your own research. Taking an active role in your own consumption is the first and best commitment you can make, for yourself and for the environment.

Simply making claims based on the absence of one or more families of ingredients, i.e. when you see « X-free », is not always synonymous with an ethical (depending on how you define the word) product, an ecological product, a healthier product or even an official certification by an independent body that’s subject to strict, precise specifications that consumers can check online.

On the other hand, a cosmetic product officially certified by ECOCERT® for the COSMEBIO® label, for example, implies and guarantees the complete absence of the following ingredients:

  • Sun filters from organic sources (= « chemical »)
  • Parabens
  • Phénoxyéthanol
  • MIT (Methylisothiazolinone)
  • Mineral oil and derivatives
  • Silicones and derivatives
  • PEG (Polyethylene glycol), PPG (Polypropylene glycol) and other ethoxylates
  • SLS (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) et autres sulfates
  • SLS (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) and other sulfates
  • …the list is non-exhaustive and can be found on the COSMEBIO label website and the Ecocert (certifying body) website 


Let’s take parabens as an example. The term ‘parabens’ refers to a family of synthetic preservatives strongly suspected of being carcinogenic endocrine disruptors. Since they first became a subject of controversy, more than 10 years ago now, a number of them have ended up being removed from the list of authorised cosmetic preservatives. The few still permitted are still used completely legally in some products, as they’re very effective against the development of micro-organisms such as fungi and bacteria… Parabens have been the first ingredients to be widely-removed by a huge number of companies, and consumers are instantly reassured when they read ‘paraben-free’. But without evidence to the contrary, the claim of their absence implies nothing more than that; the absence of parabens. A product simply being advertised as « paraben-free » is often a smokescreen hiding other ingredients that are potentially just as harmful, but perhaps less known to the general public and less vilified by consumers and the media.

The use of sulfates is equally interesting and raises other questions. Since not all sulfates are prohibited by the COSMEBIO label, if you’re trying to avoid them, be sure to check the list of ingredients well; you may find that Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate has been used, as it’s permitted by the label and included to create the foamy lather we expect in our hygiene products. As green washing can be happening anywhere, and even if a certification is always better than nothing, it’s important to know how to decipher the ingredients list on your products. In this rather particular case, which could be stretched to a few other examples, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the temptation for a brand to use ALS will be even stronger now, because market demand and therefore consumer demand call for certain characteristics in hygiene products, such as that foamy lather we all expect, which, technically speaking, is complicated or even impossible to replicate without the ingredient in question. It’s up to us, as enlightened consumers, to match our requirements with our expectations, because cosmetic brands often strive to meet their customers’ main demands in order to satisfy them as best they can.

Another, more explicit way companies use green washing is by claiming their products are “organic”, “natural” or that they’ve been developed “in accordance with the official specifications of organic cosmetics ». Without a way to ensure that all these claims are indeed true, and if they are, to what extent; an official certification by an independent body clearly communicated by the brand remains the best way to make a judgement. These qualities don’t always make sense and are rarely guaranteed to the extent that you might like, (even though they may be in some cases) and they’re often difficult for the consumer to identify.



Visually speaking, green is the obvious choice to represent « organic » and « natural ». It’s easy to understand why; when we see green, we automatically think of nature. It may therefore be used for good reasons, as well as for reasons that go far beyond simple aesthetics.
A few examples of claims that have yet to be verified:

  • Plant-based/from plant extract
  • Organic
  • Natural
  • Naturally scented
  • Non-toxic to oceans

A cosmetic can only claim to be « organic » in its name, without any further clarification, if its composition includes a minimum of 95% of ingredients derived from organic agriculture. In other words, there aren’t actually many of these on the market, as water is often one of the main components, and water cannot be considered as an ingredient eligible for “organic” status. Oils and balms mainly containing butters, waxes and oils, possibly of vegetable origin, will be proportionately more capable of calling themselves organic. A cosmetic certified organic by ECOCERT® for the COSMEBIO® label will give a very clear definition of the implications of these points: at least 95% of the total ingredients of the formula must be of natural origin, 10% of the total ingredients of the formula must be organic, and 95% of the ingredients eligible for organic status must come from organic agriculture. In addition, organic ingredients are identified by an asterisk*, and the first two percentages required for the certification must be stated on the packaging.

If we take the example of sun protection products, another way to sidestep the issue would be to talk only about the presence of mineral solar filters in the formula, while failing to mention that they also include (chemical) filters ‘from organic origin’, which allow for easy application: chemical molecules improve the liquidity of cream and avoid the white marks that mineral filters may leave on the skin. There are many reasons why sun cream brands formulate their products with chemical filters, and one of them is the strong market demand for products that are very liquid, sprayable, and colourless on your skin. Meeting this consumer demand is also the reason why mineral filters have been found in some products in the form of nanoparticles, as these particles are so small that they reduce the likelihood of leaving white marks on the skin, much to the detriment of other aspects that are likely to be considered more essential.


How can I avoid it? EQ smart tips in the face of green washing

  • 1. Look out for eco-labels, and don’t forget to check what they mean! Quite often, it’s not just a question of the composition of the product, but also the packaging, the manufacturing conditions and ethical communication with consumers. The approach is therefore comprehensive and is based on annual audits, validations and checks.


  • 2. Have a good look at the list of ingredients on the back of the product.


  • 3. Make use of the various websites available to you to find out how to better understand the meaning of certain ingredient names that are required to be declared on a company’s INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) form.


  • 4. The longer the list, the more incomprehensible the names of the components will be, and the more reason you have to be suspicious in the first place, even if your research reassures you in the end.


  • 5. As a precaution, the presence of silicones, glycols, organic (chemical) filters, artificial colouring, etc. should ring alarm bells for the possible use of green washing tactics.

Become an alert consumer and learn about the main components to avoid in cosmetics.
Examples of chemical sun filters include:

  • Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate (or Octinoxate)
  • Octocrylene
  • Bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol Methoxyphenyl Triazine
  • Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane (or Avobenzone)
  • Ethylhexyl Triazone
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor
  • Homosalate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Ethylhexyl Salicylate (ou Octisalate)
  • Terephtalydene Dicamphor Sulfonic Acid



Anyone can have access to the relevant information and make their own decision on a product by going to the following page:

This website will inform you about each component of your cosmetic products; simply enter the name of an ingredient in the search bar, and you’ll get the information you’re looking for.
These findings and advice do not call into question the dermatological quality or the effectiveness of uncertified cosmetic products and/or their use of green washing. The purpose of this article is to denounce certain prohibited or dubious practices used to deceive consumers who are increasingly environmentally aware and are seeking to buy products that have the smallest possible environmental impact.
Don’t be fooled by big brands’ slogans; take a stand against green washing today!



“It’s Not Easy Being Green, easier to listen good music »




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