Is ethical skincare really ethical?

It’s an intriguing question that many of you are interested in. In this article, we asked respected health journalist Yaso Shan to offer her opinion and advice on what is ethical skincare with many major brands using it to promote their products.

Yaso ShanYaso Shan is a registered member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP), a leading UK professional body for qualified and practising members of western herbal medicine who began her career as a Lecturer in the Health Sciences, specialising in the biomedical sciences, physiology, pathology, infection and the principles governing conventional medical treatments. Her interest is in natural therapies, particularly plant remedies, stems from her own cultural perspective together with the fundamental belief that enabling the body to heal itself lies at the heart of all effective therapies.

Over to Yaso…

Is ethical skincare really ethical?

Ethical Skincare

The natural skincare market has blossomed into a significant growth industry and natural formulations have become central to this growth. Major brands and niche brands alike now feature natural claims on ingredients as well as product packaging. Moreover, consumers are interested in milder, more natural formulations which have been produced using ethical practices which some consumers feel very strongly about and want their products to reflect their outlook and philosophy which resonates with the way they conduct their own lifestyles.

But what exactly is ethical skincare?

A broad definition should be one that refers to how the product is made and advertised, that there is an honest account of where products or ingredients are sourced and used, that the recommendations for its use have passed all legal requirements including tests needed to make the products safe for public use. Ethical skincare should also encompass the fact that a product has been made by a responsible manufacturer that ensures the health and safety of its workers, paying them a decent living wage as well as adhering to ethical business practices that do not cause harm or exploitation to anyone or anything associated with its business function. It may also include having a low carbon footprint and that production and distribution are limited to local ingredients, products and services.

Many people confuse ethical skincare with simply the purchase of 100% natural, botanical, GMO-free, 100% vegan or indeed organic products. Natural and ethical are not synonymous with each other, not least of which no product can be 100% natural in its strictest sense. However, ethical skincare is much more than a considered purchase at the end of a long chain of events that dictate how we can be more responsible and conscious of how we shop.  So who are the overseers of the setting of standards for ethical skincare? Well, much depends on which aspect of ethical practice we are referring to and some of the logos we can look out for are shown below:

Various Logos

Some of the biggest concerns regarding ethical skincare are ones that are based on trust. Can we really trust what we are buying simply because the label says so? For instance, take animal testing. This is still a thorny issue and despite years of active campaigning both nationally and internationally against it, large cosmetic firms still conduct animal testing because it is not illegal in certain parts of the world, indeed countries such as China make it a legal requirement before marketing and selling.  Most people will indeed be shocked that testing cosmetics on animals is still required by law in China. It is particularly galling that this is still going on, and it is an appalling state of affairs that some previously cruelty-free companies are abandoning their principles and returning to animal testing in order to profit from the lucrative Chinese market. Campaigners accuse them of putting profits above principle and rightly so; there is no justifiable reason to test beauty and skincare products on animals.  Britain banned animal testing for cosmetic purposes in 1998 and since 2013, personal care products tested on animals can no longer be sold in Europe – even if the testing was done outside Europe. However, that doesn’t mean that companies selling their products in Europe do not continue to test products (or ingredients) on animals outside Europe and continue to sell them in other markets. This means that companies can still profit from cruelty to animals, just not in Europe.

Cruelty FreeThe real power actually lies in the consumer so the only way to be completely sure that you are not indirectly supporting animal tests is to purchase products from companies that don’t do any animal testing at all – look for Cruelty-Free International’s Leaping Bunny symbol, which guarantees that the company in question does not test on animals anywhere in the world. PETA also has a searchable database of companies that do and do not test their products on animals (

The EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation has unfortunately complicated the issue on animal testing. REACH is a regulation of the European Union, adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals while enhancing the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry. It also promotes alternative methods for the hazard assessment of substances in order to reduce the number of tests on animals.

However, natural compounds are not standardised and without standardisation, it is not possible to guarantee that natural ingredient obtained from one source is necessarily equivalent to the same natural ingredients obtained from another source.

Natural ingredients that are not sourced from “sustainable” conditions means that you’re actually contributing to the problem by consuming these products. Therefore many trees, plants, flowers and fruits are being damaged and harm is happening to the environment because best practices are not being adopted by many skincare and cosmetic companies.

So what should a consumer look out for if wanting to purchase ethical skincare products?

There are many ways to be “ethical” as a natural skincare brand: from using organic- and non-animal-derived (vegan) ingredients, to not distributing products in China (where it’s a legal requirement for imported cosmetics to be tested on animals), and even creating solid products to avoid wasting water. Look out for the Cruelty-Free International leaping bunny logo when shopping for cosmetics, as this guarantees that a company’s no-animal-testing policy is watertight. Brands may say they’re against animal testing, but if their products don’t contain this logo there’s no guarantee their ingredient supplies adhere to these principles outside Europe.

Soil Association OrganicSimilarly, when looking for organic products make sure they’re certified organic by a body such as the Soil Association or EcoCert, to ensure they contain a high proportion of organic ingredients. Ethical Consumer, a consumer organisation committed to ethical business practices aims to enable consumers to assert their own ethical values through the market by providing information about the company groups that lie behind the brand names on a product-by-product basis. Eco Cert Organic CosmeticThey rate all companies selling cosmetics and natural skincare products on their animal testing policy. Companies will score a best rating if they have a policy not to test on animals, have a fixed cut-off date (a date after which none of their products or ingredients will have been tested on animals), and are not selling to markets, such as China, where animal testing of products is required by law.

Good Shopping Guide Ethical BeautyLook out also for the new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation Certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to the original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

VeganAs for other requirements that make a product ethical, there is vegan and organic; vegans might want to avoid animal derivatives in their skincare products. Ingredients to watch out for include honey, beeswax, silk, collagen and lanolin. Brands can also be certified by the Vegan Society and the Vegetarian Society. Palm oil and palm oil derivatives have become an important component in many personal care products. In particular, it is used for its viscosity and as a skin conditioning agent. However, the increasing threat that unsustainable palm oil is posing to the world’s rainforests, and consequently, to the people that rely almost entirely on these forests for their livelihoods is a major concern. Having destroyed vast areas of forest in countries including Indonesia which is home to orangutans, palm oil companies are now planning to expand into the rainforests of the Congo Basin in Africa, home to lowland gorillas and other threatened primates. However, palm oil as a skincare ingredient only accounts for less than 10% of its use worldwide whilst the remainder is used for the food industry, household products and as a biofuel alternative to diesel. The world’s leading body for the certification of sustainable palm oil has therefore created new standards to tackle deforestation, human rights violation and greenhouse gas emissions on certified plantations. RSPOThe Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 as an organisation to promote the growth and use of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). In so doing, it aims to make sustainable palm oil the norm around the world. So look out for the RSPO trademark logo which guarantees the ethical sourcing, production and sustainability of this important and highly desirable ingredient. Importantly, consumers should not boycott palm oil altogether because anything replacing it will only use more land; this will not solve the issue of deforestation. It would easier to lobby for an ethical palm oil industry in order to avoid diverting the issue elsewhere to another commodity.

A particular problem with moisturisers is the amount of packaging they create. Most brands use plastic packaging, which is most likely to end up in landfill, with only a small amount being recycled or incinerated. Given the recent headlines on plastic pollution of our world’s largest oceans, this is a real concern so many ethical skincare companies are finding alternative, biodegradable materials for their packaging. Some brands may use glass and aluminium, which can be easily recycled to package some of their ethical skincare products. However, very few brands are 100% perfect but an increasing number of cosmetic and skincare companies have shown a real commitment to ethical standards and using ethically-sourced ingredients.

A false standard of beauty has been created making women feel inadequate and unhappy about their bodies, particularly ageing skin, aided by the majority of marketing campaigns seemingly aimed at women. An “ethical marketing” approach to beauty and ageing has been adopted by many natural skincare companies to alter this perception along with what is regarded as healthy to appeal to the consumer who worry about animal cruelty and/or the planet. Not that skincare companies would want to contribute to women feeling less worthy, it is worth scrutinising all skincare marketing literature; the focus really should be on how to achieve healthy skin through a healthy diet, natural skin care and a positive mental attitude. The purpose, therefore, is to promote the purest skin care products that truly promote healthy and beautiful skin, by using organic, vegan and unheated, plant-based ingredients, made under an ethical and sustainable business model.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *