We’ve all been there. Meandering through the beauty aisles, maybe looking for something in particular, maybe just browsing for something we didn’t know we needed. Whenever I’m in this shopping mode, I tend to pick up products that catch my eye. Sometimes the packaging is what gets me. Other times, I see an ingredient or formula highlighted that makes me curious.
Unfortunately, there are so many beauty buzzwords now that it can be hard to know which to trust and which to ignore. So, to help you out, today we’re going to talk about five beauty marketing terms that are essentially meaningless.
1. “Clean Beauty”
I’ve already written pretty extensively about the problem with the “clean beauty” trend, but I have to mention this term because of how annoyingly pervasive it is in the beauty community.
There are entire brands whose marketing centers around the fact that their products are “safe” and “clean,” but the truth is that “clean beauty” is a meaningless, unregulated buzzword. Some “clean” brands, like Simple, will list each ingredient and then explain why it’s present in the formula, and I think that’s okay.
It’s great for people who don’t want to deep-dive into cosmetic chemistry, and the transparency is nice. But you can be informative and transparent without falling back on “clean” as your selling point.
This meaningless beauty marketing term really frustrates me, and I will haul out my soapbox to talk about it any time, anywhere. It sounds legitimate and must be based on some type of science or testing, right? Wrong!
Although “hypoallergenic” has been a beauty marketing term for more than 50 years, there is no medical definition or standardized testing that goes along with the label. Beauty products cannot be certified as hypoallergenic because there is no official way to test for this.
Usually, hypoallergenic products are free from some of the most common allergens, and their formulas may be pared down in the hopes of not irritating sensitive skin, but they’re not necessarily any better, safer, or less irritating than similar products.
I’ll make this one simple: Everything! Is! Chemicals! There is no such thing as chemical-free! Chemicals are great. We love them.
Brands that tout their products as “free from toxins and chemicals!” are making ridiculous, fear-mongering claims that have no basis in reality. The same goes for brands that make a point to say that there are no “scary-looking, unpronounceable ingredients” in their products. After all, “cyanide” is easy to pronounce, while tocopheryl acetate (aka vitamin E) looks much more intimidating.
Certain chemical compounds are indeed more likely to irritate than others. And research into common ingredients is always ongoing so that we can learn about any potential risks. But brands making sweeping, nonsense claims about “no chemicals” always trigger my alarm bells.
4. “Natural” and “Plant-based”
These words are tricky, especially because they’re adjacent to “organic.” According to the FDA’s website, cosmetics can be labeled organic if they comply with the USDA’s standards for organic products in addition to the FDA’s standards for cosmetic safety. So, if a U.S. brand uses “organic” in their marketing, that IS actually a meaningful term.
Organic doesn’t mean better or safer, but it does carry meaning. Adjacent terms like “natural,” “plant-based,” “botanical,” and “green,” on the other hand? These are generally nonsense buzzwords that can be twisted to mean whatever that particular brand feels like it should mean.
My one caveat to how much I dislike these tricky, organic-adjacent terms is that some brands will use third-party certifications in an attempt to at least be ethical with their claims. Unfortunately, since there are no standardized processes for regulating “green beauty” terms, it can still be difficult to know which seals and certifications are actually meaningful.
This is a term that got me for years because I assumed that it meant those products had been through clinical trials or received professional, credible endorsements. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The truth is that these products may have been tested in trials (but maybe they haven’t), but the terms themselves don’t carry any weight.
Other terms that fall into this category include “clinically proven” and “clinically tested.” Clinically proven to do what? For who? And who did these tests? Which derms are recommending this product, and why?
Once you pause for a moment and think about these things, you quickly realize that they’re all vague terms that may or may not have any real credibility behind them.
Look Past the Hype
It’s so easy to get suckered into buying a product because it looks and sounds like it aligns with your goals and values. I’ve been there many times. You’re not dumb, and you shouldn’t feel bad. Marketing teams spend a lot of time and money figuring out exactly how to present products in a way that entices you to buy them.
Now that I’ve given you a peek behind the marketing hype curtain, I hope you’ll be able to shop with a more discerning eye. And please, if you know of other meaningless beauty marketing terms that I didn’t include, drop them in the comments!