July 15, 2024

Your ultimate guide on the difference between vegan, natural, organic, clean and fairtrade beauty

Is your cleanser cruelty-free? And is your lipstick actually vegan? And how do you tell if your skincare is organic?

Attempting to decipher your favourite skincare’s ingredients list can be mind-boggling.

To help you figure out what’s really in your cosmetics, we’ve called on the experts to compile the ultimate guide to organic, vegan, natural, clean and fairtrade beauty products – and how you can differentiate between each one.

Firstly, there’s no legal definition or requirement to label a product as natural, organic or vegan. The only legal requirement is to list ingredients according to the global standard of INCI (International Nomendature of Cosmetic Ingredients). Ingredients are listed from the highest percentage to the lowest, while ingredients under 1% can be listed in any order. However, names aren’t necessarily listed in their most common form – for example, water is listed as aqua, which is its scientific name.

For help figuring it out, use an online cosmetic dictionary such Paula’s Choice. Or invest in the beauty editor’s bible, Milady Dictionary, £20. 01. We also swear by the Think Dirty app, which scans your cosmetic ingredients and gives you the lowdown on what exactly is inside. It also grades ingredients on a ‘Dirty Metre’, too.

Natural Products

Often the most overused description in beauty, a product can be described as natural even if it has just 1% naturally-sourced, plant-based or mineral ingredients. The best way to know exactly what’s in the formula is to check the ingredients listing. In a natural product, you’d expect the botanicals up top and any synthetic ingredients nearer the bottom. Natural extracts will be named according to their scientific or Latin name so check a cosmetic dictionary if you’re not sure.

For ease, look for reputable brands that clearly state their natural percentage, such as Balance Me.

Most products require some level of preservatives that are often synthetic; 100% natural products will have a significantly shorter shelf life.

The Soil Association’s Cosmos Natural logo guarantees the products do not contain GM ingredients, controversial chemicals, parabens, phthalates, synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances.


Products only need to contain a minuscule percentage of organic ingredient to label themselves as organic. Yes, really!

So, the clearest way of understanding the organic credentials of a product is to always check the label and look out for the Soil Association Organic Logo. This certifies that the products are sourced and manufactured using sustainable, organically-farmed ingredients and are not tested on animals, free from harsh chemicals, nano particles, parabens, synthetic dyes and artificial fragrances. Find certified brands of hair, makeup and skincare
on Soil Association.

Shelfie-worthy natural and organic beauty treats for skin

The Soil Association is now working to create a European standard, COSMOS (Cosmetic Organic Standard), with other organic certification bodies in Europe (including BDIH in Germany, Cosmebio and Ecocert in France and ICEA in Italy), so you may see these logos on brands from the continent.

Note that some ingredients cannot be organic, such as water, salt or clay.


Again, there is no legal regulation on a product labelled as vegan so check the brand’s credentials to assess their values. The quickest way to ensure products are vegan is to look for the Vegan Society Logo. It certifies that products do not contain any animal extracts or animal by-products in the ingredients or the manufacturing process. Also, that the products and ingredients have never been tested on animals.

Another logo to look out for to make sure your products are cruelty-free is the Leaping Bunny logo; it’s the only internationally recognised symbol guaranteeing no animal testing was carried out in developing the product.

EU law has strict regulations around animal testing, whereas China requires it by law, so any products sold there will automatically have been tested on animals.

It’s worth noting that a product labelled ‘vegan’ doesn’t necessarily mean that botanical replacements are used in place of animal-derived ingredients; they can include synthesised ingredients made in a laboratory.

Some common cosmetic ingredients derived from animals sources include glycerin, collagen, gelatine, retinol. The Vegan Society also recommends avoiding ingredients – pearl, silk, snail gel, milk protein, cochineal (E120), tallow, lanolin, unless specified as made from synthetic origin.

Celebrity vegans who make eating more veg look seriously sexy


Generally, ‘clean’ products will be free from sulphates, silicones, phthalates, parabens, pesticides, petroleum derivatives, artificial colouring and synthetic fragrances. Within the EU, a label must list any potential allergens that may cause sensitivity (in concentrations over 0. 01%). These ingredients are often included in italics at the end of the ingredients.


This ensures ingredients – usually the key botanical extract such as coconut, argan, apricot and brazil nut oils as well as shea butter – are bought at a fair price. This ensures sustainable wages for the local, small scale farmers who grow the crops. These products also provide support for community projects from clean drinking water to improving local healthcare. Look for the Fairtrade mark to indicate if ingredients are sourced fairly. Two of our favourite destinations for Fairtrade products are Odylique and Fair Squared.

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