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Personal Care Product Toxins 101: Everything You Need to Know

Includes tips for avoiding toxic beauty products.

Health + Wellness

Oscar Wong / Moment / Getty Images

Choosing beauty products is about more than finding what will work as promised — you also need to determine whether its ingredients list is one you’re comfortable with.

If you live in the United States, some experts predict that you are exposed to more than a hundred chemicals from personal care products before you even start the workday. While it’s easy to assume by their prevalence that these compounds are safe, a shocking amount are both untested and unregulated. Worse still, dozens of them have known negative effects yet are still in products you use every day.


Navigating the confusion of these cosmetic compounds is a daunting task. This guide should give you the tools necessary to better understand what’s really in the bottle so you can make informed choices with your personal care products.

How Toxic Are Personal Care Products?

We take it for granted that government regulations will keep poison out of products we use on our skin. In fact, however, cosmetics and personal care products have less oversight than almost any other consumer good.

Consider this: since 2009, close to 600 cosmetics manufacturers have reported the use of 88 chemicals that are linked to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive products. And these products aren’t rare — these chemicals are distributed throughout close to 73,000 distinct products.

Many believe these known toxins should be banned. But for today, they continue to be found in products meant to be used on the most sensitive parts of our bodies.

FDA Limitations for Personal Care Products

FDA headquarter building

A sign for the Food And Drug Administration is seen outside of the headquarters on July 20, 2020 in White Oak, Maryland. Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

Why is there such limited regulation over cosmetics in the United States? That comes down to understanding their history with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Cosmetics are big business, but shockingly, this $170 billion industry is largely regulated under legislation established in 1938. Even today, just two pages of a 929-page act deal directly with cosmetics, crippling the FDA from regulating the chemicals within it.

This means that the cosmetics industry largely relies on self-regulation to keep things safe. As things stand today, companies don’t have to register with the FDA, provide them with ingredients statements, follow Good Manufacturing Practices, or provide access to product safety records. This limits the FDA’s power to order recalls, even when products pose risks of severe health consequences. Today, just 11 chemicals out of more than 10,000 found in cosmetics have been banned by the FDA.

Other countries aren’t as constrained with limited regulations. Many compounds prevalent in American products, such as formaldehyde, parabens, and many PFAS, are banned by the European Union and more than 40 other nations.

Health Effects of Toxins in Personal Care Products?

Toxic chemicals in cosmetics products have real impacts on personal health and the environment. Many are known or suspected carcinogens and linked to tumor formation. Other compounds contribute to neurological issues, endocrine disruption, and reproductive problems such as infertility, a higher risk of miscarriage, poor maternal and infant health outcomes, and developmental delays.

Most of these products only contain trace amounts of the problematic compounds. However, they are designed to be used frequently and are applied to the skin, a highly porous organ that offers direct access to your bloodstream and fatty tissues. In this way, even minute amounts of exposure can build up to dangerous levels over time.

What Chemicals Should You Avoid in Personal Care Products?

Here’s a closer look at some of the most insidious compounds in personal care products today.

Parabens

Parabens are used to prevent microbial growth in products like shampoo, conditioner, facial creams, and lotions. They are known endocrine disrupters that can be absorbed through the skin and into your blood and digestive system. There, parabens can mess with your hormones, cause reproductive health problems, and even contribute to cancer development. For this reason, pregnant women and young children are most vulnerable.

BHA and BHT

Both butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in personal care products ranging from lipstick to makeup, sunscreen, deodorant, and many fragrances.

Some people experience allergic reactions when they touch their skin, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies them as a possible carcinogen. Research with mice has found that long-term exposure to high doses causes kidney, liver, and thyroid problems while affecting lung function and even promoting tumor growth.

Worse, their presence is linked with organ toxicity and endocrine disruption. This has led the European Union to ban them in cosmetics, though they remain prevalent in the United States.

That’s bad news for wildlife, as the compounds can accumulate in water systems where they are toxic to aquatic organisms.

Coal Tar Dyes

As a derivative of burning coal, this complex mixture of hundreds of compounds is used in shampoos, scalp treatments, and hair dyes, as well as soaps and lotions. Research shows that coal tar and its derivatives are known carcinogens and can lead to skin tumors and neurological damage when applied topically. Compounding the problem, sometimes coal tar is contaminated with heavy metals toxic to the brain.

Preliminary research is inconclusive. One study found that women who used hair dyes had an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, while others have found minimal association between the two.

The FDA requires all hair dye and skin products that contain coal tar to display a warning label on the packaging with precautions for its use. Even so, millions of consumers use these products unaware. That’s partly due to confusing labeling, as coal tar dyes are used extensively in cosmetics, where they are identified by five-digit Color Index (CI) numbers.

DEA-Related Ingredients

Diethanolamine (DEA) is widely used in cosmetics and household cleaning products to make them creamy or sudsy. It also acts as a pH adjuster to balance out acidity.

Some people experience moderate skin and eye irritation from DEA. Even more serious, the EU has banned it in personal care products due to concerns of the formation of nitrosamines, a probable carcinogen. On its own, DEA has been linked to liver tumors and cancers and tends to accumulate in water systems, posing problems to aquatic life within it.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DEP)

Primarily used as a dye solvent in nail products, dibutyl phthalate prevents polishes from becoming brittle. It’s also used in fragrances, where it doesn’t need to be disclosed by the manufacturer. Unfortunately for the end-user, this compound is an endocrine disruptor and can cause developmental problems for men like early puberty and other reproductive changes.

As DEP is absorbed through the skin, it increases the chances that other chemicals will trigger genetic mutations like reduced sperm count and changes in the testes and prostate.

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Used as a preservative, formaldehyde and compounds that release it are common in shampoos, hair gel, body wash, nail polish, and even liquid baby soaps.

While these compounds prevent microbes from growing in moist environments, they can be absorbed through the skin where they trigger allergic reactions or worse. Products that contain formaldehyde can slowly off-gas the compound, making it a concern for indoor air quality. Some research links formaldehyde exposure to cancer. Worse, infants are one of the most vulnerable populations to formaldehyde.

Triclosan

This common antimicrobial agent is common in soap, detergents, toothpaste, and other personal care products. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found evidence of triclosan in the urine of more than three-quarters of people tested.

This compound has been linked to public health problems like endocrine disruption and an increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s considered especially dangerous for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.

Less serious but still concerning, triclosan tends to be mildly irritating to skin and eyes after prolonged exposure. It also degrades slowly and builds up in the environment when flushed down the drain, where it can produce toxic effects for animals in water systems.

Parfum (Fragrance)

Many products like sunscreen, soap and shampoo, deodorant, and perfume include “fragrance” on the label, but rarely disclose what precisely is contained in their proprietary blends.

The FDA defines fragrance as a combination of chemicals that contribute to a product’s distinct scent. Over 3,000 chemicals are regularly used, and they can be made from a mix of petroleum or naturally derived ingredients, and most contain solvents, stabilizers, and other forms of preservatives.

Laboratory analysis shows that the average cologne or perfume contains around 14 chemicals not included on the label, many of which can trigger allergic reactions in some users.

This poses a problem for consumers, as many fragrance compounds have been linked to serious health problems like allergies, reproductive complications, and cancer development. Other problems associated with regular exposure include chronic migraines, asthma attacks, and gastrointestinal issues. Some evidence indicates that repeated exposure to perfume can contribute to the development of childhood asthma.

Note that even products marketed as “fragrance-free” or “unscented” might contain fragrance paired with a masking agent to prevent your brain from processing it.

PEG Compounds

PEGS (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based agents commonly used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, and moisture carriers. You’ll most often find them in cream-based products and laxatives.

Depending on how they’re manufactured, PEGS can be contaminated with known human carcinogens, including ethylene oxide and 1, 4-dioxane. Both don’t degrade quickly, meaning they can build up in your system and lead to toxicity problems.

Even when uncontaminated, PEG compounds can pose problems, especially when used on broken skin. The agent works as a “penetration enhancer,” meaning it improves the absorption of other products through the skin and into your bloodstream.

Petrolatum

More commonly known as petroleum jelly, petrolatum is added to personal care products as a moisturizer. It tends to melt at body temperature and forms a water-repellent layer on the skin, essentially locking in moisture.

Petrolatum is considered safe when refined properly, but that’s not always the reality. Often, the compound becomes contaminated with toxic compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). That’s a big concern, as the National Toxicology Program classifies PAHs as reasonably anticipated carcinogens, especially in regards to breast cancer. While the EU mandates that manufacturers be transparent about the full refining process for PAH in petrolatum, there is no equivalent standard in the United States.

Siloxanes

Used to soften, smooth, and moisten hair and skin, siloxanes are also commonly found in commercial lubricants and make up water-repelling windshield coatings. Unfortunately, specific forms, such as cyclotetrasiloxane and cylcopentasiloxane, (also known as D4 and D5), are known to be toxic and can accumulate in your system after prolonged exposure. They are also harmful to aquatic life.

Lab testing has linked high doses of D5 to the development of uterine tumors and reproductive system harm. There’s also evidence that it can interfere with neurotransmitters in the nervous system.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate

This compound, commonly referred to as SLES, is a popular foaming agent in shampoos, facial cleansers, shower gels, and even dish soap. Many people find it irritates their skin and eyes after prolonged exposure.

Manufacturing processes are the biggest cause for concern, as sodium laureth sulfate is often contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, two compounds labeled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as known and probable human carcinogens. As 1,4-dioxane doesn’t quickly degrade, this compound is considered an environmental toxin that disrupts water systems and can impact human development.

While both compounds can be removed from SLES through a vacuum stripping process, companies don’t need to disclose to consumers whether the source they use has gone through the process.

What Products Contain Toxins?

The list of cosmetic products that contain these compounds is convoluted and subject to change after frequent reformulations. As such, any attempt at listing them would become outdated even before publication.

However, certain product styles tend to be more toxin-laden than others. Research conducted by the University of Notre Dame found that cosmetics advertised as “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” or “long-wearing” tend to contain alarming levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Of the products tested, over 60 percent of foundations, 55 percent of lip products, and close to 50 percent of mascaras contained high levels of PFAS.

These findings have been collaborated by the Environmental Working Group through its Skin Deep Database. It shows that 13 different PFAS compounds have been found in over 300 products produced by more than 50 brands. Just eight percent disclosed their PFAS content on the ingredients list, and most that did were incomplete.

Legacy brands like Johnson & Johnson also aren’t immune to making products without problematic ingredients. According to a 2017 independent investigation, the company’s Just Shine Shimmer Powder (a cosmetic marketed to teens and tweens) contained high levels of lead and asbestos, a known human carcinogen. Further testing in 2019 found more signs of asbestos contamination in baby powder and products marketed to children, which were sold by brand names Claire’s and Justice. Despite clear evidence of concerning compounds, the FDA lacks the authority to recall these products.

How to Find Toxin-Free Personal Care Products

Set textured multicolored smears cosmetic products on beige background

Tanja Ivanova / Moment / Getty Images

Thankfully, the tide is turning in regards to consumer awareness of chemical load in cosmetics. Personal care brands are taking notice and adjusting their formulas accordingly.

Many American cosmetics companies are feeling the pressure to improve their ingredients lists. Retailers such as Target, CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart, and mega-brands Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have gone public in recent years with promises to address the use of toxic compounds in personal care products. At the end of 2019, CVS prohibited formaldehyde, many parabens, diethylhexyl phthalate, and dibutyl phthalate from its shelves.

In contrast, many brands have long histories of keeping their ingredients lists simple and safe. The classic example is Dr. Bronner’s soap. Utilizing certified organic and fair-trade ingredients, this pure castile soap comes concentrated (meaning less plastic waste) and is free of synthetic preservatives, detergents, and foaming agents — making it safe for washing everything from the dishes to your face.

7 Tips for Avoiding Toxic Beauty Products

Finding personal care products free of toxins is far from easy. Not only is the industry guilty of greenwashing, but the lack of regulation within it means that dangerous compounds aren’t always disclosed on labels. With that in mind, here are some strategies for determining whether a product is worth the purchase:

  • Look for certifications from the EU, as the products undergo stricter regulation than U.S. brands.
  • Verify brands and ingredient safety through the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
  • Avoid products advertised as being long-lasting or waterproof, as they likely contain PFAS.
  • Stay away from anything not labeled fragrance-free. “Unscented” is not the same, as this wording allows manufacturers to add masking agents to hide fragrances.
  • Take shorter showers. The longer you spend under hot water, the more your pores will open, which increases the absorption rate of problematic compounds.
  • Make DIY beauty products using clean, simple ingredients.
  • Use personal care products that have a trusted organic certification.

Takeaway

Few things are more intimately connected to your well-being than products you apply to your skin. Failing to account for questionable ingredients may seem like a minor oversight in the moment, but consistent exposure to even trace amounts can lead to serious health and environmental problems.

Lack of regulation and even less product testing makes it almost impossible to accept a product’s claims at face value. To limit your exposure to problematic ingredients, you’ll need to rely on your own research and use the resources listed here to verify whether products are safe before using them.

Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness, food and farming, and environmental topics. When not working against a writing deadline, you can find Lydia outdoors where she attempts to bring order to her 33-acre hobby farm filled with fruit trees, heritage breed pigs, too many chickens to count, and an organic garden that somehow gets bigger every year.

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At the end of a stressful day, many find that nothing restores their spirits faster than a soak in the bathtub, especially with bath bombs. Most contain Epsom salts, skin-nourishing natural oils, and blends of botanical extracts. Some bath bombs have recently gotten an upgrade and include hemp extracts to help ease away stress and put you in a better headspace. Just like the tincture products for stress, these are designed to help you relax naturally.

Should you consider adding a CBD bath bomb to your self-care routine, and if so, which brands are worth the investment? Here's an overview of what this CBD bath product really delivers and the five best CBD bath bombs to try today.

What is a CBD Bath Bomb?

CBD bath bombs aren't that different from the standard home spa option. They are designed to dissolve upon contact with hot water to fill your tub with a blend of soothing salts, scents, and natural oils that promote relaxation while nourishing your skin, similar to CBD skincare products.

Adding CBD changes this equation slightly. CBD (cannabidiol) is a cannabinoid derived from the hemp plant. It interacts with your body's endocannabinoid system to potentially help keep some of your body's systems in a state of homeostasis.

Note that CBD affects your body differently than THC, which is the cannabinoid in marijuana responsible for its psychoactive properties. CBD won't change your mental state in the same way, but instead offers potential anti-inflammatory properties—particularly for healthier skin and pain relief. This is why many people now seek CBD oil for pain and inflammation.

Using a CBD bath bomb fills your tub water with these nourishing cannabinoids for a variety of skin benefits, which may include helping to reduce acne, soothing dryness and itching, and even counteracting wrinkles and other effects of aging. Some believe the hot water improves CBD's effectiveness by opening your pores for better absorption.

Our Picks for the Top CBD Bath Bombs

Here are our choices for the five best CBD bath bombs available today.

Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

How We Picked the Best CBD Bath Bombs

To create this list of recommended CBD bath bombs, we compared them based on several criteria. Here's what we looked at with each product.

  • Type of CBD - Does the brand use broad spectrum CBD, full spectrum CBD, or CBD isolate?
  • Strength - How many milligrams of CBD are contained within each bath bomb?
  • Variety - What fragrances are available, and are there multiple to choose from?
  • Value - How much does each bath bomb cost, and what is the price per milligram of CBD?
  • Transparency - Can you easily access third-party lab test results?
  • Packaging - Are the bath bombs packaged in ways that are eco-friendly?

These criteria made it possible to narrow down our search to the five best CBD bath bombs.

Top 3 Best CBD Bath Bombs

​Best Overall: Prima CBD Bath Gem

Prima CBD Bath Gem

prima.co

Prima CBD's bath gem includes a blend of natural scents and botanical extracts, including meadowfoam, eucalyptus, lavender, and camphor. Meadowfoam seed oil is a natural emollient, meaning it may moisturize your skin while you bathe. Likewise, camphor oil is often added to skincare products for its ability to cool the skin and relieve pain, irritation, and itching.

  • CBD - Broad Spectrum
  • Strength - 25 mg per 6-oz cube (.64/mg)
  • Other Ingredients - Epsom salt, safflower seed oil, cornstarch, hemp seed oil, meadowfoam seed oil, kaolin, hemp flower/leaf/stem extract, eucalyptus oil, camphor, lavender oil

Why buy: We love that these bath gems contain broad spectrum whole-plant hemp extract to a wide range of beneficial cannabinoids beyond CBD (but no THC). Note that each gem includes just 25 mg of CBD, which is a fraction of what other brands listed here contain.

Best for Beginners: Joy Organics CBD Bath Bombs

Joy Organics CBD Bath Bombs

joyorganics.com

Joy Organics CBD bath bombs come in four-packs and are formulated with broad spectrum CBD purified to remove all traces of THC (guaranteed 0.0% THC through third-party labs) while leaving other beneficial cannabis cannabinoids intact. While each bomb contains only 25mg of CBD, it's possible to add two or more to the tub to customize the intensity.

  • CBD - Broad Spectrum
  • Strength - 25 mg per bath bomb,100mg per box (.20/mg)
  • Other Ingredients - Organic coconut oil, lavender oil, maltodextrin, organic cocoa seed butter

Why buy: We like that these bath bombs also contain a blend of soothing lavender essential oil with coconut oil and cocoa seed butter, both of which show medical evidence for soothing skin and easing signs of inflammation. These bath bombs are an excellent option for anyone who prefers smaller doses of organic CBD or is new to using CBD skincare products.

​Best Value: cbdMD Bath Bombs

cbdMD Bath Bombs 4 Pack

cbdmd.com

cbdMD bath bombs offer the broadest range of fragrances and purchasing options for a truly customizable CBD bath experience. We love that you can choose from six varieties depending on your mood: Resist (lavender), Relax (lavender), Rejuvenate (eucalyptus), Restore (fragrance blend), Romance (frankincense), and Rise (eucalyptus).

  • CBD - Broad Spectrum
  • Strength - 100 mg per bath bomb (.075- .10/mg)
  • Other Ingredients - Epsom salt, corn starch, kaolin clay, coconut oil, fragrance and essential oils (varies by variety), artificial dyes

Why buy: These CBD bath bombs contain coconut oil with kaolin clay added in for its skin-nourishing properties and can be purchased alone or within variety packs. Each one contains 100 mg of broad spectrum CBD oil to offer the best value of CBD-per-dollar of any bath bomb here.

The Research on CBD Bath Bombs

To date, no studies are available that look specifically at CBD bath bombs. However, the research on the benefits of CBD topicals is growing, and the results are encouraging.

Studies show that CBD oil may help moisturize the skin for overall health. Cannabidiol contains high concentrations of antioxidants, which could make it effective for treating inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

There's also evidence that CBD may reduce acne breakouts by slowing down sebum production and fighting off skin infections caused by bacterial and fungal pathogens. A study with rodents from 2016 indicates that using CBD oil topically may help manage the inflammation associated with arthritis for natural pain relief.

Bathing with a CBD bath bomb may also promote relaxation as you breathe in the water vapor. A systematic review from 2020 found that inhaling CBD can reduce your fear response and promote a sense of calm.

Likewise, taking a warm bath offers its own health benefits. One 2018 study found that participants who took a daily hot bath for two weeks reported less fatigue, stress, and pain than when they took showers. There's also evidence from a 2019 clinical review that ending your day with warm water through a bath can help you fall asleep.

Full Spectrum, Broad Spectrum, or CBD Isolate: What's the Difference?

New CBD shoppers often become overwhelmed by terminology. One crucial distinction is the difference between various forms of CBD extracts.

Broad-spectrum CBD refers to products made with a wide range of beneficial cannabinoids, meaning it includes more than just CBD. However, these products are processed to remove even trace amounts of THC.

Full spectrum CBD products, in contrast, contain all of the naturally-occurring hemp cannabinoids, including up to 0.3% THC.

Finally, products that contain CBD isolate don't include any other cannabinoids. This means you won't experience the peripheral benefits from other hemp compounds. However, this pure form of CBD is the best form to use on your face and other sensitive skin because it won't clog pores.

How to Choose the Best CBD Bath Bomb for You

Determining which CBD bath bomb is best comes down to personal preferences. Here are a few of the things to keep in mind.

Concentration

Those with large soaker tubs will likely prefer the bath bombs that contain 100 mg or more of CBD to maintain a high concentration in the water. Others may prefer smaller bombs that allow them to add as many as desired to the water so they can start light and add more throughout the bath.

Fragrance

A bath bomb's fragrance is also an important consideration. Some brands offer CBD bath bombs designed for cultivating different moods, from boosting alertness to helping you relax. The essential oils used can offer additional benefits. For example, eucalyptus oil is often used to relieve muscle aches and joint pain, while inhaling lavender can ease anxiety and promote feelings of relaxation.

Ingredients

Finally, pay attention to the coloring and other added ingredients. Some bath bombs use artificial dyes that your skin may react to. If in doubt, choose a brand that uses natural botanicals instead of synthetic colors, fragrances, or preservatives. Also look for organic CBD bath bombs that are made without parabens, phthalates, or other chemicals.

How To Use CBD Bath Bombs

Using a CBD bath bomb is straightforward. First, fill a tub with warm water. Drop in the bath bomb and gently swirl the water as it fizzes to disperse it. Sink into the water and relax, staying in the bath for at least 20-30 minutes for the most benefit.

Rinsing your skin afterward isn't necessary. In fact, doing so will remove the hemp cannabinoids from your skin and may diminish the treatment's benefits. However, many people choose to lightly rinse their skin with cold water after bathing to reduce the lingering scent on their skin.

Safety and Side Effects

To date, there is minimal research available about the risks or long-term safety concerns associated with using CBD topically.

Even so, side effects from CBD bath bombs are rare. As with all skincare products, it's crucial to stop bathing immediately and rinse your skin off if you see signs of irritation, swelling, or a rash developing after using it.

Some of the more common side effects associated with CBD use may include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Diarrhea
  • Drowsiness
  • Reduced appetite
  • Fatigue

Make sure you talk with your doctor before use if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or are on medications that might be affected by prolonged exposure to hot temperatures. CBD can also potentially interact with certain medications, so be sure to ask your physician about CBD use if you take any prescription drugs.

Are CBD Bath Bombs Right For You?

CBD bath bombs offer a relaxing way to take time for yourself during a hectic day. Taking time each evening for a warm bath can ease your anxiety and make it easier to fall asleep, while CBD may offer additional benefits for your skin by increasing moisture, reducing irritation, and making you less prone to breakouts.

Consider trying one of these recommended CBD bath bomb brands today if you're interested in expanding your self-care routine with a natural compound that has potential benefits for your body and your mind.

Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness, food and farming, and environmental topics. When not working against a writing deadline, you can find Lydia outdoors where she attempts to bring order to her 33-acre hobby farm filled with fruit trees, heritage breed pigs, too many chickens to count, and an organic garden that somehow gets bigger every year.

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EcoWatch Illustration by Devon Gailey

If you care about the planet, you're likely seeking ways to make environmentally responsible purchases. But, all your efforts to buy from companies that boast of making better choices for the environment might not have the benefit you believe.

In short, you might be falling victim to greenwashing. This shady advertising strategy is becoming a buzzword today, but what does greenwashing mean? Here, we'll explore how to spot and avoid the common signs of greenwashing so you can make more informed buying decisions.


What Is Greenwashing?

"Greenwashing" is a common marketing ploy designed to make products seem more sustainable than they are. It's essentially a way to convince customers that a company is making positive environmental choices, often through eco-conscious verbiage designed to convince shoppers that the product is more natural, wholesome, or free of toxins than competitors.

The term was first coined in the 1980s in an essay by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. In this essay, he criticized the hotel industry's "save your towel" movement for preying on guests' environmental sensibilities. While this movement was disguised as a way for guests to help hotels conserve water and save the planet, it essentially only cut down on laundry labor expenses for the hotel and made a minimal difference in water usage.

In this way, companies use greenwashing to appeal to customers who care about the environment without having to make meaningful changes in their business practices. It's typical for greenwashing companies to spend far more time and money marketing the "eco-friendliness" of their products than on working to ensure they are sustainable.

Why is greenwashing so prevalent today? In short — because it works. A 2015 Nielson poll found that two-thirds of shoppers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly goods and that half consider a product's sustainability before deciding whether to purchase.

Greenwashing's Impact on Us

Protesters carry a banner which says 'Stop The Lies - Action...not greenwash.

Protesters carry a banner while marching during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration outside in London. Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Greenwashing might sound harmless, but the reality is far worse. One problem is that it confuses consumers and distracts from actual eco-friendly initiatives.

Not all companies practice greenwashing maliciously. Often, it's as much a misunderstanding on the marketers' end as it is for customers. Even so, unintentional greenwashing still spreads false information about what it takes to be sustainable and can convince well-meaning customers to make bad choices.

Greenwashing and Single-Use Plastics

One prominent example of the problem with greenwashing is single-use plastics. More than 90% of plastic produced today is not recycled. Worse, much of it eventually lands in the ocean, where some estimate it will outweigh fish by 2050.

In light of these facts, many companies are working hard to change the reputation around their plastic products and boost consumer enthusiasm for them. Bioplastics give a potent example. Made from bio-based polymers instead of petrochemicals, this material is often considered good for the planet because it can break down thousands of years faster than traditional plastics. But what isn't as commonly known is that these "natural" plastics need highly specific conditions to decompose that involve access to oxygen and sunlight — both of which are scarce in landfills.

Furthermore, many require the use of other plastics in the manufacturing process or even embedded within them to hold different components together. The benefits of using these materials are middling at best, which has led the FTC to challenge manufacturers on their misleading claims about their environmental impacts.

Single-use plastic water bottles have an even worse legacy. In 2008, Nestle came under fire by Canadian environmental groups for erroneously advertising that its bottled water benefited the environment with claims that "bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world."

The same brand later introduced "Eco-Shape" bottles it advertised as containing up to 30% less plastic. A closer reading revealed this savings wasn't compared to other versions of the product or even other water bottles, but instead of all forms of plastic bottles, including the much thicker bottles used for juice.

Other brands try to gain eco-friendly credibility in more subtle ways. Many labels include images of pristine mountain ranges or other green features to invoke a sense of purity and abundance without any manufacturing practices to back this up.

What Does Greenwashing Look Like?

Extinction Rebellion Protest Against Shell

Extinction Rebellion protesters dressed as 'Greenwash Busters' outside the Science Museum in South Kensington, during a protest. Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Greenwashing has evolved since the 1980s, and it's becoming harder to spot to the untrained eye. Here are some of the signs to watch for when determining whether a brand is guilty of greenwashing.

Selective Disclosure: Companies often highlight positive environmental facts about their products while intentionally avoiding any mention of the negative. For example, an auto manufacturer might praise a vehicle's fuel efficiency while ignoring the environmentally destructive mining practices involved in producing its lithium battery.

Symbolic Actions: It's standard practice for brands to draw attention to a minor positive action that does little to change its overall environmental footprint. Oil companies donating Dawn dish soap to clean infected animals after their own product spills in the ocean is one example.

Hidden Trade-Offs: Brands may advertise a new change as green while ignoring its negative effects. For example, Starbucks introduced straw-free lids to avoid wasting plastic, but these new lids used more plastic than before.

Lack of Proof: The company may make claims about its eco-friendliness ("made with organic materials!") without sharing certifications or other evidence to back them up.

Vagueness: Brands can greenwash by making broad statements filled with buzzwords about their sustainability that are too vague to mean anything. Examples include 'new and improved, 'non-toxic,' and 'made with biodegradable materials.' Or, the package around a plastic toy might be labeled "recyclable" without making it clear whether it's referring to the package, the toy, or minor components of either.

Irrelevance: Companies greenwash products by making claims that are technically true but irrelevant to their environmental impact. Examples are a paper company that boasts its products contain "all-natural materials" (most paper does) or an aerosol spray advertised as "CFC-free" (CFCs have been illegal in the US since 1978). This can also apply to trash bags labeled "recyclable," as the entire purpose of these bags is to end up in the trash. The label implies an environmental benefit that would only be realized if users emptied their trash bags, rinsed them out, and then added them to the recycling after use.

Lesser of Two Evils: This happens when companies promote one beneficial aspect of an otherwise damaging product. Examples include fuel-efficient SUVs or Walmart getting sued for misrepresenting the benefits of "biodegradable" plastic bottles.

Meaningless Labels: Many brands hide behind meaningless "greenspeak" that sounds impressive but doesn't have any official weight behind it. Examples include phrases like "made with natural ingredients" instead of showing USDA organic certification or saying "vegan approved" instead of showing the product is PETA-certified vegan.

Overinflated Phrases: Greenwashing companies may use phrases that, while technically true, give the consumer a skewed perception of the products they are buying. For example, an apparel company may state its shirts are "now made with 50% more recycled fibers" when increasing the amount from 2% to 3% of the total garment. True, but overstated as a benefit.

Suggestive Imagery: Sometimes, all it takes to greenwash is to market products in visually pleasing packaging. A tissue company might adorn its box with green leaves to imply the paper was harvested sustainably without mentioning that fact on the packaging. Some brands go so far as to incorporate small images that look like official logos for environmental certifications but are actually meaningless.

Corporate Examples of Greenwashing

Greenwashing has started to gain media attention in recent years. What large companies have been accused of greenwashing? Here are some noteworthy examples.

Auto Industry

Many car manufacturers give lip service to green transportation by improving their vehicles' fuel efficiency or using recycled materials for the cars' interior.

Some, like General Motors, also support the idea of tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles and have bold goals to only produce cars with zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. However, GM's CEO, Mary Barra, is on the board of directors for Business Roundtable, an organization that lobbied hard against the climate initiatives presented in the Reconciliation Bill. In other words, the company is lobbying hard against the laws regulating emission standards they have publicly committed to meet.

Other companies are less discrete. In one notable case, Volkswagen admitted to cheating on its vehicles' emissions tests by fitting cars with "defeat" devices to alter performance and reduce emissions when under testing conditions — all while the vehicles emitted up to 40 times the allowed limit of nitrogen oxide in real-world situations.

Apple

This global tech giant strives to have a positive public perception as a green company. However, many of the company's "green" policies serve only to save money. The company announced in 2020 that its iPhone 12 would ship out without earbuds or a wall charger in order to cut down on e-waste.

While this measure is a step in the right direction, many critics saw it merely as a way to deflect attention to the company's real source of e-waste — planned obsolescence. The brand's phones are notorious for being expensive to repair and stop being supported by developers only a few years after release.

Amazon

As one of the most influential retailers worldwide, Amazon sets the standard for many global green initiatives. In recent years, the company has come under fire for making public proclamations about doing better for the environment, but quietly supporting legislation that undermines these efforts.

Amazon won the naming rights for a stadium in Seattle, which it named the "Climate Pledge Arena" in honor of it being the world's first net-zero carbon certified arena. The company itself signed a Climate Pledge in 2019 with a public goal of hitting net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. However, this Pledge failed to show the concrete steps the company would take for this goal. Worse, the fine print showed it only covered Amazon's direct operations rather than the carbon footprint of its supply chain, which accounted for more than 75% of the company's emissions.

The company has also introduced a "Climate Pledge Friendly" badge on products that are certified Fair Trade, certified by the Rainforest Alliance, or other environmental certifications. However, some of the products earning this designation are clearly not eco-friendly, including single-use batteries, disposable baby wipes, and food products that contain palm oil sourced from endangered rainforests.

Shein

While Shein may be known as the quintessential online storefront for fast fashion, the company has been working to change its reputation for creating disposable clothing.

In one recent campaign, Shein highlighted its small-batch release process of just 50-100 items per style at a time to ensure there is demand before committing to large-scale production. The company also mentions its environmentally-conscious fabric printing process, automated water and power use in warehouses and incentivized clothing recycling programs at college campuses.

However, these claims are all unsubstantiated and the company shows little evidence of third-party verification for them. By using phrases like "we do our best to source recycled fabrics," Shein can imply good intent without any follow-through. Vague claims without real numbers or documentation attached to them mean that Shein's sustainability page uses many words to say very little.

Green Marketing vs. Greenwashing: What's the Difference?

Looking at case studies of greenwashing corporations, it's easy to assume that every company that claims to do right by the environment is hiding the truth. In reality, many businesses are making strides to make environmentally conscious choices, and their advertising campaigns reflect this. This is known as green marketing.

Here are some of the signs of a green product:

  • Products are manufactured sustainably
  • Items arrive with minimal packaging
  • Free of toxic materials
  • Able to be recycled or made from recycled materials
  • Made with biodegradable materials
  • Designed to be repaired or reused
  • The company offers an end-of-life program for its products (i.e., a recycling program)

Patagonia: A Case Study for Green Marketing

Demand Fair Trade sticker seen in the Patagonia store window in Dublin city center on March 13, 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty Images

One company renowned for its green marketing strategy is Patagonia. As a certified B corporation, Patagonia exceeds stringent standards for sustainability and worker's rights, including Fair Trade certification for many products. Likewise, all retail stores, distribution centers, offices, and the brand's headquarters are powered by 100% renewable energy.

Regarding it's clothing, Patagonia uses 87 percent recycled materials, many of which are Bluesign certified for sustainable production. The brand also adopts a "cradle to grave" approach to its apparel line by sourcing recycled or ecologically sound materials and offering a lifetime repair guarantee for any product sent to them. Anything deemed not repairable is sustainably recycled. It's even possible to trade in used gear or purchase lightly used clothing directly from Patagonia through the company's Worn Wear program.

Perhaps most notably, Patagonia made waves on Black Friday in 2011 by running an ad in the New York Times boldly asking readers not to buy their best-selling jacket. Within the ad, the company shared the true environmental cost of producing it and similar clothing and encouraged readers to enjoy what they already owned before needlessly buying more.

The campaign succeeded by showing potential customers that the brand was in the business for more than profits and that it prioritized the quality and longevity of its clothing.

How to Avoid Greenwashing

How can you determine which brands are following the footsteps of Patagonia and which are guilty of greenwashing? There are a few signs to watch for when learning how you can avoid greenwashing.

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, some of the best ways to identify green marketing over greenwashing include the following:

  • Look for packaging that explains a product's positive environmental impact in plain language without using hype phrases.
  • The marketing claims should be clear on whether they refer to the packaging, the product itself, or a portion of either.
  • The marketing language doesn't overstate or imply a more significant environmental benefit than it could deliver.
  • When the product compares itself to another brand, it shows evidence to substantiate it.
  • Seek out products with trusted third-party certifications, such as USDA certified organic, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Carbon Trust Standard (for verified CO2 emissions).

For the long-term, consider advocating for clearer marketing regulations that would ban common greenwashing practices by making companies better substantiate any eco-friendly claims they make. This will increase transparency between brands and ensure that improving their environmental footprint becomes a viable way to compete.

Takeaway

"Going green" sells. Companies are capitalizing on the movement by advertising as many eco-benefits for their products as possible — even when these claims get stretched beyond the point of believability. Do your part to keep corporations accountable by calling out greenwashing when you see it and by giving your money to brands that do better.

By understanding greenwashing and learning to identify its signs, we can hold companies accountable and ensure those doing right by the planet stand out for their choices. This will bring the entire marketplace to a higher standard and help us all make better buying choices.

Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness, food and farming, and environmental topics. When not working against a writing deadline, you can find Lydia outdoors where she attempts to bring order to her 33-acre hobby farm filled with fruit trees, heritage breed pigs, too many chickens to count, and an organic garden that somehow gets bigger every year.

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