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Even though the big cosmetics firms love to use the word ‘natural’ on their products, most skincare creams use man-made chemicals, some of which are potentially toxic. Consumer groups have expressed concern about ‘bio-accumulation’, where chemicals build up in our systems because we do not have the capacity to get rid of them. The only way to ensure the safety of what we buy is to look at the small print behind the slogan.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

How natural?

Lack of proper industry regulation means that a product can be called ‘natural’ even if it contains as little as 1 per cent natural ingredients. Most skincare creams contain dozens of synthetic and chemical ingredients, many of which are a potential cause for concern.

Specific ingredients that are probably best avoided include: propylene glycol, formaldehyde, ammonia derivatives (diethanolamine, triethanolamine and monoethanolamine), alpha hydroxy acid and benzoic acid. Of these, propylene glycol (also found in industrial form in antifreeze and brake fluid) has been associated with kidney damage, alpha hydroxy acid has been linked with damage to skin cells, and formaldehyde is a known irritant.

Skin irritation is a common complaint with cosmetics. Irritation and allergies tend to be more common in people with eczema, asthma and hay fever, and usually involve the appearance of inflammation, itchiness or redness. As all cosmetics have the potential to cause a reaction if enough people use them, warnings tend to be given only for high-risk products such as hair dyes.

Synthetic chemicals such as propylene glycol are known to cause problems for sensitive individuals. Fragrance-free skincare creams, and those which are made from certified natural ingredients, are less likely to irritate the skin.


According to Friends of the Earth, our bodies are on average contaminated with 300 man-made chemicals. Many of these chemicals ‘bio-accumulate’, meaning that they aren’t broken down by the body. Some can also interfere with the hormone system and may cause cancer. The longterm effects of these chemicals are so far unknown and, more worryingly, even if they were found to be harmful, our bodies would be unable to eliminate them.

Friends of the Earth believes that these chemicals should be identified, then phased out and replaced with safer alternatives as soon as possible.

Animal testing

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.

The only way to be completely sure you aren’t indirectly supporting animal tests is to purchase products from companies that don’t do any animal testing – 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.


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. Some brands such as L’Occitane and Weleda use glass and aluminum, which can be easily recycled to package some of their ethical skincare products. The Body Shop used to refill old bottles, although these days not every shop offers this facility (and we have concerns over their parent company since the takeover!).

Ethical Comparison – Skincare Rankings Detailed Table

N.B companies that do not conduct or commission animal testing receive a middle rating (only companies with CFI’s Leaping Bunny certification receive a top rating)

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Bulldog, Fushi, Green People, Honesty, Oy!, Odylique, Dr. Hauschka, Spiezia Organics, Lush, Neal’s Yard, Weleda, Clarins, L’Occitane, Aveda, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Origins, Biotherm, Clearasil, E45, Garnier, L’Oreal, Nivea, The Body Shop, Ponds, Simple, Olay, Boots, Botanics, Clean & Clear, Neutrogena.

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