When scrolling through any beauty website, you’re likely to be met with brands telling you their product is “clean,” “natural,” “organic” or “sustainable,” amongst other things, as a means to communicate with you that the brand is taking steps to create more responsible products. Whether you’re privy to what’s inside the beauty products you lather on each day — or where they come from, for that matter — you should question the claims brands are throwing at you.
So, what is sustainable beauty?
If you’re like us, you’ve been totally confused with those brand claims mentioned above, and maybe even genuinely thought they meant the same thing. “One of the reasons why there is so much confusion and sometimes disagreement around these terms is because they are largely unregulated, relative and open to interpretation,” explains Lisa Fennessy, founder of the clean beauty and organic lifestyle blog This Organic Girl. Essentially, it’s up for each brand to define the term for itself.
New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King says there aren’t official definitions of terms like “all natural” or “clean skin care,” and “while the FDA does not regulate the term ‘organic,’ a cosmetic or skin care product can be certified organic by the USDA if the applicable ingredients are free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other nonorganic substances” — a certification that has four levels depending on the percentage of organic ingredients.
She further explains that just because a product is marketed as “all natural,” that doesn’t make it innately better for you. “Keep in mind that natural ingredients can have risks too, and an ingredient’s source does not determine its safety,” she says, even adding that plant-derived substances are still technically chemicals, which can be either safe or unsafe.
Influencer Tennille Murphy has long practiced a sustainable lifestyle but sees herself as a student of what sustainable living actually looks like. While natural or nontoxic may relate to what’s inside the bottle, she looks at the term sustainable as it relates to the “packaging, how the product is created, where companies source ingredients from and the overall ethical standards of that product.”
Murphy recommends you check the ingredients and practices for the brand or product you’re interested in to see if it meets your standards, because in her opinion, “if a brand is proud of the work they’re doing, they’ll let you know up front.” For example, Amy Ling Lin founded nontoxic nail care brand Sundays after she was exposed to the toxins in the nail industry and sought to create something that’s better for the planet, consumers and nail technicians by leading the brand with better practices in mind.
The story of how Romain Gaillard founded The Detox Market is similar. He created the brand almost accidentally out of the idea that beauty should be more transparent after being educated about the toxicity and questionable ingredients in personal care. Now the Market puts brands through a vigorous vetting process to ensure that its products are sourced ethically and don’t contain any of The Detox Market’s banned ingredients, all with three pillars in mind: ingredients, sustainability and inclusivity.
“The main takeaway is that better beauty is not black and white,” says Fennessy. “It’s less about the end product and more about the choices we are making as consumers to support the type of product we want to see in the beauty space.” Want to start using these kinds of brands but don’t know where to begin? Aesthetician and brand founder Angela Caglia advises you to do your research, shop smarter, eliminate single-use products and look for brands that offer eco-friendly packaging.
We’ve taken recommendations from our experts and added some of our personal favorites to curate the below list of brands that are leading the charge in sustainable, clean and nontoxic beauty, without sacrificing efficacy. Whether they’re eliminating plastic from their packaging or only using ingredients you recognize, these beauty brands are sure to become staples in your routine.
We’re not sure who loves Cocokind more — us or Murphy, who has been using the brand since it launched. She even went as far as calling it “the most top-notch, affordable beauty brand.” Founded by Priscilla Tsai, Cocokind is committed to disclosing exactly what’s in its products in an effort to empower shoppers. The brand recently introduced new packaging that highlights its carbon footprint and detailed product formulations. We’d recommend trying the Oil to Milk Cleanser ($14.40; cocokind.com) that’s vegan, made from recycled packaging and known to nourish the skin.
Sundays is easily our favorite nail care brand for its stunning nontoxic, long-wear polish options unlike any we’ve tried before. Lin founded the brand with wellness in mind, determined to create nail care products that were safe for both Sundays employees and clients. Beyond the lovely nail polishes that are vegan and cruelty-free, the brand offers a phenomenal Soy Polish Remover ($28; dearsundays.com) that we quite literally can’t recommend enough. It’s a nonacetone remover packed with vitamins and grapefruit essential oils that doesn’t leave your hands dry and dull.
The Herla Gold Supreme Illuminating Body Oil ($50; macys.com) is a favorite of King’s. “Made with sweet almond oil, sunflower seed oil, shea butter, squalene and lavender, this super-lightweight, fast-absorbing oil deeply moisturizes the skin, while antioxidants help protect the skin from free radicals,” she explains. The natural mineral pigments will also provide a long-lasting shimmery golden glow that you can’t resist this summer. Founded by Natalia and Krystyna Bednarek, this women-owned brand is cruelty-free, vegan and free from parabens, sulfates and silicones, amongst other things.
Many of our sustainable beauty experts recommend Tata Harper, a brand founded by Henry and Tata Harper that formulates, manufactures and packages all of its products on their farm and lab in Vermont — born out of the idea that health is the ultimate luxury. Most products are packaged in glass meant to be recycled, along with the Water-Lock Moisturizer ($68; thedetoxmarket.com) that Gaillard raves about. “This elegantly packaged moisturizer is refillable. Just pop out the insert and drop in the new cartridge,” he explains. The lightweight number is a moisturizer-primer hybrid that’s formulated with orange peptides, pomegranate spheres and hyaluronic acid to lock in hydration.
Looking to achieve that bronzy summer glow? Your solution is the Tower 28 Bronzino Illuminating Cream Bronzer ($20; sephora.com) that’s so good it sold out in one day. Now available in three additional shades, the cream bronzer features 100% mineral pigment and ethically sourced, US-minced mica that’s formulated to suit even sensitive skin. In fact, the brand is all about sensitivity in its products that are nontoxic, noncomedogenic, nonirritating and use ingredient names you recognize. Founded by Amy Liu, the brand is also compliant with the EU’s cosmetic regulations that ban over 1,300 harmful ingredients. It’s clear why Lin is a fan of the brand.
Mother-daughter duo Jenefer and Melissa Palmer are on a mission to deliver your skin the highest-quality ingredients through their brand Osea that draws inspiration from the sea. Recommended by Caglia, the products are vegan, plant-based and gluten-free, with the environment in mind at every step. Get your hands on its Osea Undaria Algae Body Oil ($48; thedetoxmarket.com), an organic seaweed-based lightweight oil that’s meant to nourish and revitalize both your skin and spirit.
“This Charleston, North Carolina-based brand marries green science and plant-powered ingredients to create luxury, effective and beautiful skin care,” says Fennessy. She calls The Straight A Serum ($125; thedetoxmarket.com) a must. In fact, King recommends it as a great overnight face oil. Founded by clean beauty enthusiast Susanne Norwitz, each product is formulated with chia sourced from Guatemala, free of parabens, pthalates and synthetic fragrances.
Caglia recommends Nécessaire as one of her skin care favorites. You’ve likely seen the brand’s products in the shelfies of your favorite influencers because both the packaging and formulations are top-notch. Founded by Nick Axelrod and Randi Christiansen, the brand is on a mission to deliver high-quality body care products that are necessary in your routine — with your well-being in mind. The inclusive brand uses 85% postconsumer waste boxes and 100% recyclable paper for shipments, and do diligent research on the ingredients they put into the bottles. Murphy also notes that Nécessaire is carbon neutral certified. Give The Body Lotion ($25; sephora.com) a try if you’re looking for a niacinamide formula that’ll combat dryness, improve skin texture and feel luxurious.
Hillary Peterson was driven to found True Botanicals after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and looked to create products that are good for people and the planet. The brand wants you to take the best care of yourself at the end of the day, helping you make easy skin care choices from its selection of formulas that are each Made Safe certified (meaning they are made without 6,500 known toxic ingredients) as well as being cruelty-free and vegan. One of our favorites is the Renew Pure Radiance Oil ($110; nordstrom.com) that hydrates the skin while diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Herbivore is all about making its “products, ingredients and packaging as gentle on the planet as they are on our bodies.” That leaves us not only inspired but ready to stock up on the beauty must-haves that will admittedly look great displayed on our vanity too. Founded by Julia Wills and Alexander Kummerow, the brand’s formulations contain natural, plant-based ingredients without toxins like parabens, sodium laurel sulfates (SLS) or animal testing. All of its packaging is recyclable and reusable, including the Lapis Tansy Face Oil ($72; herbivorebotanicals.com) that’s made with the naturally blue oil, blue tansy, that is known to soothe dry or irritated skin. And although it’s an oil, reviewers rave that it even helped clear their acne.
“Kjaer Weis takes sustainability to the next level of chic with beautiful refillable silver compacts and lipstick tubes,” says Gaillard. “The entire brand is refillable.” Makeup artist Kiersten Kjaer Weis founded the brand to combine her experience growing up in a natural environment with her love for the beauty industry to create her eponymous label of high-performance, organic luxury makeup products. Its Cream Blush ($56; thedetoxmarket.com) is formulated with castor seed oil, beeswax, jojoba and rosa rubiginosa seed oil to provide nutrients to your skin while delivering a natural touch of color.
Founded by father-daughter team Ian Turner and Vicki Engsall, The Jojoba Company is passionate about sharing the benefits of the jojoba plant while utilizing natural ingredients and upholding sustainable and ethical practices. “Sustainably grown on their family farm in Australia, their signature Australian Jojoba Oil ($18.95; amazon.com) is rich in omega 6 and nine fatty acids as well as vitamins A, D and E to moisturize and soothe the skin and hair,” says King, who recommends the brand. She advises you to apply it to the ends of your hair while it’s damp to protect the cuticle from drying out for super-soft, lustrous hair. King says it’s also great for massaging around the nail cuticle.
We’ve been loving Hey Humans since it launched in February — a brand co-founded by Jada Pinkett Smith that offers a range of personal care products with the environment in mind. Available exclusively at Target, the brand uses 99% plastic-free packaging, made from recycled aluminum or paper, and features naturally derived vegan and cruelty-free ingredients. Each product is $6 or less, our current favorite being the Body Wash ($5.99; target.com) that’s gentle and hydrating.
Another recent favorite clean pick of ours is Savor Beauty. The brand is a tribute to Korean self-care rituals, inspired by founder Angela Jia Kim’s own mother. Each product is handmade in small batches weekly in New York, formulated with certified organic natural ingredients that are even used in the brand’s spas. Savor Beauty uses a numbered system that makes it simple to create your own customized routine. The Manuka Honey Mask ($64; savorbeauty.com) quickly caught our attention because you can apply, then let it steam in the shower to melt the honey into the face, leaving your skin soft and glowing. And, duh, it smells deliciously like honey.
Brianne West says she started Ethique “out of frustration for the abhorrent amount of waste created by the cosmetics industry, and in particular the amount of plastic and waste created by our bathroom essentials.” Thus, she set out to create a solid shampoo, and since, the brand has evolved to include items from household cleaners to solid deodorants — all of which are plastic-free. Try out the Ethique Shampoo Bar ($15.99; amazon.com) that’s available in eight different formulations to best suit your hair type.
Rahua is on both Caglia and Gaillard’s list of sustainable hair care. The brand calls itself “rainforest grown beauty,” drawing wisdom from the rahua oil native to the Amazon rainforest. Founded by Fabian Lliguin and his partner, Anna Ayers, Rahua works with families from the Amazon’s Quechua-Shuar tribe, where the oil is produced to cultivate the assortment of products. Like the Classic Conditioner ($36; thedetoxmarket.com), each product is vegan, nontoxic and made with organic, natural and plant-derived ingredients. Even better: One reason Gaillard loves it is because “Rahua now offers reusable pouches to keep supply running high and plastic bottles at a minimum. Buy the bottles once and keep!”
If you ask your health-conscious friend which natural deodorant to use, they’ll probably mention Native. The brand offers an assortment of vegan and cruelty-free products, including the iconic aluminum-, sulfate- and paraben-free deodorant ($11.99; target.com). Founded by Moiz Ali (although he has since sold to Procter & Gamble in 2019), the brand recently introduced its plastic-free packaging ($12.99; target.com) in an effort to reduce plastic waste globally.
We’re big Ilia fans at Underscored, notably the Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 ($48; iliabeauty.com) that recently launched in 12 new shades. It’s described as an oil-free, noncomedogenic tinted serum with mineral SPF that’s meant to combine clean makeup, active skin care and sun protection into one formula. So it’s clear that Ilia, founded by Sasha Plavsic, believes that makeup and skin care should go hand in hand by selectively choosing ingredients that are going to be good for your skin always. The brand also makes sustainable packaging efforts, including using TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box platform to help customers recycle their empty bottles each month.
Fennessy mentions she’s seen brands moving toward low-waste packaging efforts like Bathing Culture, as shown through its Refillable Mind & Body Wash ($35; nordstrom.com). The brand launched on Earth Day five years ago, co-founded by childhood friends Spencer Arnold and Tim Hollinger, born out of the duo’s desire to create a body wash that didn’t strip your skin or was full of toxic ingredients. Their wash checks practically all the boxes by being vegan, cruelty-free, biodegradable and carbon neutral, and it’s packaged in an adorable rainbow glass container that’s meant to be refilled.
Murphy has a self-proclaimed strict set of standards for her hair care products, but Briogeo makes the cut. “They sell the most amazing plant-based line,” she says. The Black-, female-owned brand was founded by Nancy Twine in an effort to treat hair the way we treat skin. Briogeo’s products are based with what the brand calls a NOVA complex, which is a blend of natural oils, vitamins and antioxidants that’s free from sulfates, silicones, phthalates, parabens, DEA and artificial dyes. Check out Murphy’s preferred Curl Charisma collection, especially the Rice Amino + Avocado Leave-In Defining Creme ($20; briogeohair.com) that’s made for hair types 2A to 4C.
Kosas calls itself “makeup for skin care freaks,” and we think that’s how beauty should be. Founded by Sheena Yaitanes, the brand offers an assortment of beauty products that deliver skin care benefits from hydration to brightening, making it a favorite brand of Caglia’s. The cruelty-free brand reportedly bans over 2,700 ingredients, formulating products without no-nos like parabens, formaldehyde, aluminum and undisclosed fragrances. Clean up your brows with the brand’s first foray into the category with the Kosas Brow Pop pencil ($22; sephora.com) or Air Brow gel ($22; sephora.com). The funky packaging is also worth hoarding.
What does Lin recommend for hair care? Innersense Organic Beauty — a brand founded in an effort to empower people to make healthy choices through its commitment to “clean chemistry, radical transparency and a commitment to the environment.” Founded by Greg and Joanne Starkman, the pair describes the brand as a reflection of their love story, through products that show love for the planet, people and hair. Check out Lin’s preferred Color Awakening Hairbath ($28; thedetoxmarket.com) that’s formulated with coconut oil, pumpkin seed oil and shea butter for a color-safe shampoo that won’t dry out your tresses.
Founded by Rob Calcraft and Antony Buck, Ren has been passionate about clean skin care from the very beginning, inspired by Buck’s wife suffering from reactions to her current beauty products while pregnant. Nowadays, clean skin care to Ren means transparency from ingredients to sustainable sourcing and packages. The Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner ($38; sephora.com) is one of the brand’s most well-known products to exfoliate and brighten the skin, bottled in 100% recycled plastic meant to be recycled after use to prevent waste.
Hello has totally made us reconsider what we put in our bodies, especially as it relates to our oral care. Founded by Craig Dubitsky, Hello’s ingredients are cruelty-free, responsibly sourced and packaged in boxes made from 100% recycled paper printed with soy-based ink. We’ve been loving the sulfate-free Activated Charcoal Epic Whitening Fluoride-Free Toothpaste ($4.89; target.com) that’s formulated with sustainable bamboo to help bad breath, and it tastes great too.