Sustainable Beauty Is a Confusing Game – Here’s a Guide to the Terms You Need to Know

Getty / Carol Yepes

Beauty consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the ingredients in some of their go-to products, as well as the effects said products and packaging might have on the environment. Over the last few years, terms under the sustainable-beauty umbrella like “zero waste,” “waterless,” “clean,” “vegan,” and “eco-friendly” have been used to describe tons of beauty products, but because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate them in the context of cosmetics labelling or ingredients, it can be hard to understand what each one means.

Now, as experts make greater attempts to stop the spread of misinformation (and as more of the aforementioned terms are written off as being fear-mongering marketing jargon), the world of sustainable beauty has gained a reputation for being quite complicated and difficult to decipher. To cut through all the noise, we’ve put together a breakdown of the most commonly used buzzwords and phrases in the world of sustainable beauty. Check out what they all mean ahead.

“Waterless” Beauty

Waterless beauty products are exactly what they sound like: formulas that don’t include water. There are a handful of reasons a brand may choose to release a product free of this valuable resource, a major one being that it helps minimize the use of plastic packaging (of which there’s something like 42.1 billion bottles used to ship products of mostly water).

According to a Whole Foods trend report from earlier this year, “When a product isn’t in liquid form, brands can use materials such as recyclable boxes or metal tins, and the product is generally smaller, reducing the amount of packaging needed and the shipping weight. Expect to see shampoo and conditioner bars that leave hair fresh and clean with less packaging, and toothpaste tablets that whiten, brush away plaque and do some good for the environment.”

To add to that, products that only feature key ingredients are often more efficacious. “Most skin-care formulas are roughly 70 to 80 percent water, so if you remove the water, then you are left with mainly your active ingredients, which are going to have a greater impact on your skin,” Shea Amiruddin, Heyday’s director of skin education, previously told POPSUGAR. “This also means less filler [ingredients] and sometimes even preservatives so your products are just full of the good stuff that will change and treat your skin.”

“Zero-Waste” Beauty

According to Ashlene Nand of Vaycay Beauty, zero-waste can be defined in a handful of ways. “Generally, what I look for as a consumer and beauty founder are products that aren’t contributing to our landfill crisis,” she told POPSUGAR. “The less waste you have to throw out, the better. Aside from cardboard, which is generally compostable and biodegradable, many zero-waste beauty products use reusable tins or glass mason jars to hold the actual product instead of plastic.”

As stated in a report from Zero Waste Week, the beauty industry alone produces over 120 billion units of packaging a year, which makes the idea of switching to a zero-waste routine sound slightly intimidating. Most people might think this would call for a complete overhaul of your beauty routine, but even the smallest changes can make a difference. “Similar to the approach of eating one vegan meal a day, if we try to switch out two or more of our core products, collectively, we can make a difference to our planet,” Nand said.

Additionally, a handful of companies have popped up in recent years with zero-waste missions and others that offer incentives for customers to recycle and drop off empty packaging.

“Upcycled” or “Circular” Beauty

Brands are now beginning to repurpose would-be food waste into skin-care products. According to an earlier trend report from Whole Foods, this includes items like “coffee grounds, discarded apricot stones, leftover argan shells,” and other foods that might otherwise get discarded after using but are instead being upcycled, making their way into beauty products to avoid waste. Similarly, this term can also refer to packaging that gets recycled to become a new beauty product (either from the same brand or otherwise), which brings the use of plastic “full circle.”

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