A Guide To Ethical, Organic & Vegan Skincare & The Labels To Look For

sustainable skincare

The natural skincare market has bloomed into a significant growth industry and natural formulations have become central to this growth. Major brands and small independent brands alike now feature natural claims on ingredients as well as their product packaging. A growing number of consumers are interested in milder, more natural formulations which have been produced using ethical practices which some consumers feel very strongly about and want their purchases to reflect their outlook and philosophy which resonates with the way they conduct their own lifestyles whether it be vegan, zero waste or organic.

Yaso Shan has created a guide to help you with your ethical skincare shopping choices. She is a registered member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP), a leading UK professional body for qualified and practising members of western herbal medicine and she began her career as a Lecturer in the Health Sciences. She is also the founder and creator of Centella Skincare and is passionate about sourcing her ingredients from sustainable sources and ensuring they are cruelty free.

The Definition Of Ethical Skincare

A broad definition should be one that refers to how the product is made and advertised, that there is an honest account of where products or ingredients are sourced and used, that the recommendations for its use have passed all legal requirements including tests needed to make the products safe for public use. Ethical skincare should also encompass the fact that a product has been made by a responsible manufacturer that ensures the health and safety of its workers, paying them a decent living wage as well as adhering to ethical business practices that do not cause harm or exploitation to anyone or anything associated with its business function. It may also include having a low carbon footprint and that production and distribution are limited to local ingredients, products and services.


Many people confuse ethical skincare with simply the purchase of 100% natural, botanical, GMO-free, 100% vegan or indeed organic products. Natural and ethical are not synonymous with each other, not least of which no product can be 100% natural in its strictest sense. However, ethical skincare is much more than a considered purchase at the end of a long chain of events that dictate how we can be more responsible and conscious of how we shop.  So which organisations are responsible for the setting of standards for ethical skincare? Well, much depends on which aspect of ethical practice we are referring to and some of the logos to look out for are featured below.

natural skincare logos

Cruelty Free Cosmetics

One of the main concerns regarding ethical skincare is that of trust. Can we really trust what we are buying simply because the label says so? For instance, take animal testing. This is still a thorny issue and despite years of active campaigning both nationally and internationally, large cosmetic firms still conduct animal testing because it is not illegal in certain parts of the world, indeed countries such as China make it a legal requirement before marketing and selling.  Most people will indeed be shocked that testing cosmetics on animals is still required by law in China. It is particularly galling that this is still going on, and it is an appalling state of affairs that some previously cruelty-free companies are abandoning their principles and returning to animal testing in order to profit from the lucrative Chinese market.

Campaigners accuse them of putting profits above principle and rightly so; there is no justifiable reason to test beauty and skincare products on animals.  Britain banned animal testing for cosmetic purposes in 1998 and 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.

If you want to be completely sure that you are not indirectly supporting animal tests make sure that you purchase products from companies that don’t do any animal testing at all – look for Cruelty-Free International’s Leaping Bunny symbol (see above), 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 (www.peta.org).

Organic Skincare

If you choose organic products make sure they’re certified organic by a body such as the Soil Association or EcoCert (see logos above), to ensure they contain a high proportion of organic ingredients. Ethical Consumer, a consumer organisation committed to ethical business practices aims to enable consumers to assert their own ethical values through the market by providing information about the company groups that lie behind the brand names on a product-by-product basis.

Vegan & Rainforest Friendly Products

Vegans will want to avoid animal derivatives in their skincare products which can include include honey, beeswax, silk, collagen and lanolin. Brands can also be certified by the Vegan Society and the Vegetarian Society. Palm oil and palm oil derivatives have become an important component in many personal care products. In particular, it is used for its viscosity and as a skin conditioning agent. However, the increasing threat that unsustainable palm oil is posing to the world’s rainforests, and consequently, to the people and animals that rely almost entirely on these forests for their livelihoods is a major concern.

Having destroyed vast areas of forest in countries including Indonesia which is home to orang-utans, palm oil companies are now planning to expand into the rainforests of the Congo Basin in Africa, home to lowland gorillas and other threatened primates. However, palm oil as a skincare ingredient only accounts for less than 10% of its use worldwide whilst the remainder is used for the food industry, household products and as a biofuel alternative to diesel. The world’s leading body for the certification of sustainable palm oil has therefore created new standards to tackle deforestation, human rights violation and greenhouse gas emissions on certified plantations.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 as an organisation to promote the growth and use of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). In so doing, it aims to make sustainable palm oil the norm around the world. So look out for the RSPO trademark logo which guarantees the ethical sourcing, production and sustainability of this important and highly desirable ingredient if you feel strongly about this subject.

Plastic Packaging 

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. Given the recent headlines on plastic pollution of our world’s largest oceans, this is a real concern so many ethical skincare companies are finding alternative, biodegradable materials for their packaging. Some brands may use glass and aluminium, which can be easily recycled to package some of their ethical skincare products. There are many zero waste shops and online stores popping up at the moment so these are a great place to source your toiletries and skincare.