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Spotlight on Cosmetic Greenwashing: Examining Cases for Clarity

Exploring environment claims : the 50 shades of green
Exploring environment claims : the 50 shades of green

Are you a skincare enthusiast looking to learn more about greenwashing? Well, you are at the right place! In this post, you will get the scoop on the deceptive "green" practices that cosmetics (but not limited to) companies use to make their products look more appealing.

A Introduction and sustainability topics at babassu soaps

B. Concrete examples of greenwashing + detailled analysis of ingredient lists.

C. Describing the different greenwashing techniques :


Greenwashing is a term used to describe the practice of companies or brands making misleading or false claims about the environmental benefits of their products or initiatives. This can mean advertising a product as "natural" or "environmentally friendly" when in fact it is not. This practice has become a common trend in now every industry since 2015-2016. Greenwashing is not an illegal practice, but its ethical implications are often debated, very soon to be more regulated. A company that engages in greenwashing does not care about the environment, but rather about profit or market share. They rely on quick, inexpensive methods to create a superficial pro-environmental image to keep being in the game.

Being mindful of the potential for greenwashing is important, as it can create a false sense of security that a product is better for the environment than it may actually be. This could lead to people making decisions and purchases without full understanding of the environmental impact of the product.

Profitable Pollution vs. Sustainable Success: The Tables are Set, What's Your Bet?
Profitable Pollution vs. Sustainable Success: The Tables are Set, What's Your Bet?

Our approach on sustainability questions

Instead of pouring all our energy into product promotion, babassu soaps is rather taking time to make sure everything is ethically and as "sustainable" as possibly made. Probably a "professional deformation" from our 9-to-5 job related to chemical compliance and quality in the fashion industry, with a dash of sustainability.

Some examples of our brands politic and efforts:

  • soap packaging limited to the strict minimum. No use of plastic in soap packaging, it must ne biodegradable or compostable (paper, cotton)

  • use of water-based inks

  • producing natural soaps with the cold method, limiting the energy usage

  • ingredient list kept to the minimum, and strict avoidance of synthetic ones

  • production soaps scraps are collected for personal use, new soaps of second choice are produced with it - zero wastes

  • choice of suppliers as local as possible (Germany, Netherlands, sometimes U.K.)

  • responsible sourcing of ingredients (babassu instead of coconut, no palm oil...), organic when possible

We have been hesitant to bring attention to the controversial issue of greenwashing, as it can be considered as finger pointing. But the movement is today so becoming nonsense that we think it's something that needs to really be addressed, and we should not afraid to call it out.

Because babassu soaps feels like a responsible member of the industry, we think it's important for consumers to know the truth behind the branding and marketing of the products they use. To make things more concrete, we have chosen 4 examples as learning opportunities. Our goal here is purely educational and aim to provide an honest, critical review.


When analyzing the INCI list (official list of ingredients), the following color code has been chosen to identify how natural or synthetic will be used:

  • Green are natural ingredients. Most are extracts from agro-ingredients, minerals or naturally occuring solvants (water, ethanol..)

  • Orange ingredients are derivated from natural ingredients, these have been more or less transformed.

  • For the blue ingredients (= either orange or most likely red), it depends on how the brand is sourcing the ingredients. They can either exists as synthetic or natural form. Most quantities are coming from the chemical industry. If a brand is not mentioning anything special, it probably is from synthetic origin.

  • Red ingredients are definitely synthetic.

#1 When the brand philosophy or claims are not matching the ingredients list

Details analysis ingredient by ingredient (click to expand)

Conclusion : The majority of the ingredients are derived from natural ingredients. The "natural touch" is the addition of powder leaf extract, although given its position on the list, it is merely for the sake of having at least 1 sounding like natural ingredient that consumers can easily identify and identify on the packaging.

Natural : ~ 40-60% (45-55% water)

From natural ingredients : ~ 40-50%

Derived natural or synthetic : ~4-10%

Certified synthetic : 2-4%

#2 Not being aware of the big picture, taking easy shortcuts

A plastic bottle, being thicker with much less surface area than fibers (textiles), releases comparatively fewer particles. However, over time, due to temperature variations, shocks, and the passage of time, it will still release a very small amount of particles.

Beyond cosmetics packaging, the concern extends to potential water contamination, as the packaging has an 60% likelihood of ending up in landfill or incineration, significantly impacting the environment. This issue is more pertinent to food or drink containers, given their direct impact on health through ingestion.

In conclusion, a comprehensive evaluation through Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) is essential to determine if the recycling process generates more microplastics than creating a new plastic bottle. The concern here highlighted by this brand is judged misplaced and constitute a greenwashing claim.

#3 Eco-certifications are not only about the natural ingredients content

What certifications truly signify regarding 'natural' ingredients varies depending on who you ask, and everyone seems to have a different definition. I, too, had a mistaken understanding for a while until I began reading ingredient lists and comparing them with brand statements.

The certification jungle

The product ingredient list below is certified as natural cosmetic by COSMOS and is proudly labelling having 99% of ingredients coming from natural origin. This means actually anything and nothing as it can include a natural ingredient :

  • in its pure form or physically transformed (oil, honey, essential oil...)

  • or more or less chemically transformed

All the nuance is under the term "more or less" and hides a whole world of realities. This would deserve sub-distinctions:

  • Lightly transformed (saponification, chemical extractions...) where very few energy or chemical transformation occurs. No implication of complicated substances.

  • Transformed (hydrogenation...). Where processes of extractions / reactions implies substantial energy or specific chemicals.

  • Heavily transformed. Here heavy anounts of energy or dangerous chemicals came into play. For example the creation of SLS made from coconut or palm oil through a heavy series of reactions.

Packaging of a solid soap
Packaging of a"avocado" solid soap

Details analysis ingredient by ingredient (click to expand)

Conclusion : A small part can be considered natural (water about 10%, purified coconut oil 2-3%, the star ingredient avocado oil about 0.5% (only!), table salt 1%). The formulation is containing 4 surfactants made from natural ingredients (intensive chemistry processes behind). The rest consists of synthetic perfumes and conservators. In regards to the ingredient list, it would have make more sense to display a palm tree, as the 2 majors components comes from palm oil.

Certified natural : ~ 10-25% (8-20% at least is water)

From natural ingredients : ~ 50-75%

Natural or synthetic : ~ 2-6%

Certified synthetic : < 1%

#4 The trick with the fruit or plant picture

The cosmetic industry often incorporates plant or fruit images on packaging to suggest a rich presence of these ingredients, even though the actual formulations may have minimal amounts. Capitalizing on humans' visual nature, marketers leverage the impact of visual stimuli on consumer behavior. In cosmetics, the appeal of natural ingredients, such as plants and fruits, is strong.

Consumers are attracted to products that evoke feelings of freshness, health, vitality, and beauty. Plant or fruit imagery creates the illusion of abundance, using vibrant colors, lush foliage, and presumed nutritional properties to enhance the desirability of cosmetic formulations. Many consumers assume that products with plant or fruit extracts will be more effective or beneficial for their skin or hair.

Extracts vs. Actual Ingredients

Plant or fruit extracts are highly concentrated substances obtained by processing large amounts of the source material. However, in cosmetic formulations, they are often used in minimal quantities. For example, a product might boast the inclusion of "Aloe Vera extract" on its label, giving the impression of a significant presence of this soothing ingredient. However, upon closer inspection of the ingredient list, you may find that the extract is listed towards the end, indicating a minimal concentration. This tactic allows companies to capitalize on the positive associations consumers have with specific ingredients while minimizing the cost of formulation.

Example below with a shampoo with lemon extract. While it's commendable that the product avoids silicones, the emphasis on this positive aspect conveniently overlooks the abundant use of artificial detergents and a substantial blend of perfumes (10 ingredients in total), many of which likely have a high probability of being synthetic. Notably, the lemon extract, identified as "Citrus Medica Vulgaris fruit extract," is positioned at the bottom of the ingredient list, despite occupying approximately 50% of the front packaging. Adding a layer of irony, the brand highlights the sustainable cultivation of these lemons, creating a somewhat contradictory narrative.

Certified natural : ~ 20-30% (about 16-25% at least is simply water)

From natural ingredients : ~ 5-10%

Natural or synthetic : ~ 2-6%

Certified synthetic : >50%

Expectations vs. Reality : the impact on consumer perception

The deceptive marketing tactics discussed earlier can result in a gap between consumer expectations and the actual composition of a product. In an era where people are becoming more ingredient-conscious about their personal care products, many are not cognizant of this discrepancy. Transparency and honesty are crucial in this context. Cosmetic companies should aim to provide accurate and detailed information about their products, including the real concentrations of key ingredients. This transparency empowers consumers to make informed choices and fosters a sense of trust between the brand and the consumer.


With an increasing number of organic and natural products in the market, it can be challenging for consumers to distinguish between genuine and falsely marketed items. The abundance of conflicting information online makes it even harder to make informed choices. To assist with this, we have outlined common forms of greenwashing, along with examples, to help consumers easily recognize and avoid it.

Sin by "hidden trade-off"

Products information may emphasize one positive aspect, such as being paraben-free or vegan, while downplaying other environmental impacts. For instance, a skincare brand may boast about their vegan formulations but fail to address the excessive water consumption in their manufacturing processes or the environmental impact of their packaging materials.

You should look for brands that provide comprehensive sustainability information. Seek out companies that prioritize a range of eco-friendly practices, such as using renewable energy in their facilities, implementing recycling programs, and supporting fair trade or ethically sourced ingredients.

Sin by lack of evidence

If a beauty company says their product is sustainable but cannot provide research or certification to back it up, it means they have no evidence for their claims. It is important for beauty brands to provide evidence to ensure the authenticity of their products, reputation and help customers make informed decisions.

No evidence should lead to interdiction of claiming any green claims. Soon regulation are coming.
No evidence should lead to interdiction of claiming any green claims. Soon regulation are coming.

Sin of irrelevance

Greenwashing occurs when a company makes environmental claims that are not important or relevant to consumers looking for environmentally friendly products. For example, a makeup brand may advertise a lipstick as cruelty-free, but fail to address the excessive packaging waste or the use of non-sustainable palm oil derivatives in their formulations. By focusing on a minor eco-friendly aspect, companies divert attention from broader sustainability concerns.

Consumers should consider the entire lifecycle of a cosmetic product. Look for brands that go beyond a single sustainability claim and address multiple aspects such as recyclable or biodegradable packaging, ethical sourcing of ingredients, and commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. By choosing brands that take a holistic approach to sustainability, consumers can support companies that genuinely prioritize the environment.​

Lesser of two evils

It occurs when brands compare their products to alternatives that are considered more harmful. For example, a skincare brand may market their product as a "safer" alternative to traditional cones, even if their own formulation still contains potentially harmful ingredients. By positioning themselves as the better option, companies create a positive perception while overlooking their own sustainability shortcomings.

You should carefully check product claims and ingredient lists. Look for brands that prioritize ingredient transparency. Consider brands that have a commitment to sustainable packaging and environmental initiatives. By supporting brands with a holistic approach to sustainability, you can make more environmentally conscious choices.

Which Cosmetic Intrigue: The art of hiding vice behind virtuous beautytruth to choose to hide a lie ?
Cosmetic Intrigue: The art of hiding vice behind virtuous beauty

Sin of vagueness

It is easy to spot it when companies use terms like "natural," "organic," or "clean" without providing clear definitions or transparent information about their product formulations and sourcing. For instance, a skincare brand may claim to offer "natural" products, but without specifying the percentage of natural ingredients or providing certifications to support their claim.

To avoid falling for the sin of vagueness in the cosmetic industry, you should look for brands that provide detailed ingredient lists and transparent information about their sourcing and manufacturing processes.


While not a legal offense (for now at least, we are in 2023), greenwashing can mislead consumers, influencing potentially misguided choices. Major companies often employ tactics like emphasizing a single natural ingredient while downplaying the overall composition of their products.

It's crucial to recognize that these claims are not necessarily false but are carefully crafted to spotlight specific products aspects. This article underscores the alarming reality that large companies may not prioritize consumer health, contributing to the surge in issues like cancer and hormonal imbalances, potentially linked to harsh chemicals in household and beauty products.

To make informed decisions, readers are urged to reaD ingredient lists. Soon, new legislations on green claims are expected to be released for all products sold in Europe, aiming to alleviate consumer confusion and enhance overall product transparency


  • Manvi & Sharma, Ashok & Jain, Vinamra. (2019). GREENWASHING: A Study on the Effects of Greenwashing on Consumer Perception and Trust Build-Up.

  • Shen, Li & Patel, Martin. (2010). Life Cycle Assessment of man-made cellulose fibres. Lenzinger Berichte. 88: 1–59.


  • Seksan Papong, Pomthong Malakul et al. Comparative assessment of the environmental profile of PLA and PET drinking water bottles from a life cycle perspective, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 65, 2014, Pages 539-550, ISSN 0959-6526

  • Daniel Maga, Markus Hiebel, Nils Thonemann, Life cycle assessment of recycling options for polylactic acid, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 149, 2019, Pages 86-96, ISSN 0921-3449

  • Rezvani Ghomi E, Khosravi F et al, The Life Cycle Assessment for Polylactic Acid (PLA) to Make It a Low-Carbon Material. Polymers (Basel). 2021 Jun 2;13(11):1854


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