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Is Clean Beauty Sustainable? 3 Brands on How They Avoid Overharvesting & Other Issues

Last Update: May 23, 2024

“Clean beauty” is a booming industry with a noble cause. The idea is simple: for too long, the cosmetics and beauty industries have used synthetic fragrances, harsh chemicals, and other ingredients that may be harmful to people who use them. The solution? Forgo the lab-made ingredients altogether and use ingredients sourced primarily from nature.

Brands that want to swap harsh synthetic ingredients for so-called “clean” ones (though it’s important to note there’s actually no formal industry definition for this term) often turn to the natural world for sourcing. This can come with its own set of environmental hazards, such as overharvesting.

Between 2000 and 2020, the trade value for wild-harvested medicinal and aromatic plants grew by 75% to keep up with demand. If the idea is to create a safer, more sustainable beauty routine, is “clean” beauty the only way to go? Or is it occasionally more beneficial to opt for ingredients that don’t endanger delicate ecosystems, or even versions of these ingredients that can be made synthetically to protect the environment? 

We took a closer look at the problematic skincare ingredients that are harming our earth, and spoke to three of our member-favorite skincare brands, Trilogy, Weleda, and True Moringa, to see how they approach sustainable harvesting when sourcing their hero ingredients. 

Cosmetic Ingredients That are Harmful to the Environment

Sulfates

What they are: A broad term that includes the compound that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical; in beauty and personal care products, these are usually sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate (which are often derived from petroleum or palm and coconut oils) to help products form a soapy lather. 
The issue: When they’re derived from petroleum, sulfates may be harmful to marine life and waterways when washed down the drain. Conversely, palm oil production is an industry that’s fraught with overharvesting, deforestation of rainforests, and displacement of indigenous communities. 
The solution: While many disagree about whether or not sulfates are harmful to a person’s health, it’s clear that these ingredients are harmful to the planet on a few different levels. In this case, choosing products made without sulfates may be the only real solution. 

Artificial fragrances 

What they are: Lab-produced fragrances made from chemicals. 
The issue: Many artificial fragrances in personal care products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), similar to printing inks and pesticides. According to recent studies, these volatile chemical products now constitute half of fossil fuel VOC emissions in industrialized cities. (The short version? Your perfume may be polluting the air.)
The solution: Use fragrance-free personal care products when possible, and if you want a fragrance in a perfume or lotion, choose one made with a natural fragrance

Silicone

What it is: A broad term for semi-liquid substances derived from silica (the main compound in sand) after it undergoes significant chemical changes. Because silicone is an occlusive, it creates a barrier that locks in moisture and makes hair and/or skin appear smoother. 
The issue: Silicone is not biodegradable—in fact, it’s bioaccumulative, meaning that when it washes down your drain, it pollutes waterways and may not break down for hundreds of years.
The solution: While plant-derived silicone alternatives are in the works, for now, you may want to choose personal care products that are silicone-free. 

Microplastics 

What they are: Microplastics are tiny, microscopic bits of plastic that break down from plastic waste. In beauty and personal care products, these include the beads in facial scrubs and certain makeup wipes. 
The issue: When you wash a facial scrub with plastic beads down the drain, those tiny bits of plastic make their way into our waterways, pollute the ocean, and harm marine life. They also may make their way into your own drinking water
The solution: Use plastic-free beauty and skincare products, like biodegradable facial wipes or skin scrubs made from plastic microbead alternatives like salt, sugar, or even upcycled coffee grounds.


Controversial Clean Beauty Ingredients

Bakuchiol

What it is: An ingredient derived from the Psoralea corylifolia plant that offers anti-aging properties similar to retinoids when used in skincare.
The issue: Thanks to its sudden popularity in skincare, overharvesting  Psoralea corylifolia for bakuchiol is depleting the plant population. 
The solution: Choose a brand that prioritizes sustainability. Cocokind, for example, extracts bakuchiol from babchi seeds that have fallen to the ground (versus harvesting the plants) to avoid overharvesting. 

Argan

What it is: A popular skincare ingredient that comes from pressing the kernels of the argan tree to extract its oil.
The issue: Again, overharvesting. Argan trees are endemic to Morocco, and because of the global demand for the oil, there isn’t enough time for the argan trees to naturally regenerate. 
The solution: Only purchase argan oil produced by responsible brands who prioritize the environment and the supply chain. (For example, our f.a.e. By Thrive Market Argan Oil is produced by partners who follow our Supplier Code of Conduct, which acknowledges these issues and requires ethical manufacturing practices and supply chains.)

Shea

What it is: A fatty substance used in many moisturizers that is wild-harvested from the nut of the shea tree, which is primarily grown across West Africa.
The issue: Because shea nuts are primarily harvested by women and children, there are significant concerns about their health and safety as they work to keep up with the global demand. The shea tree is also classified as a vulnerable species, as it is slow-growing and overexploited. 
The solution: Only purchase products that contain shea from responsible brands. (For example, Alaffia sources all of its shea from certified fair trade cooperative members in Togo, West Africa.)


How 3 Clean Beauty Brands Source Responsibly 

True Moringa

Regenerative farming to combat deforestation:

“The majority of our moringa trees are cultivated on our organic, regenerative nucleus farm, home to the largest solar-powered irrigation system in West Africa. We take care to use agricultural practices that protect the integrity of the soil. To date, we’ve planted over 3 million trees to combat deforestation and malnutrition locally in Ghana, and we source directly from 5000 small farming families throughout Ghana cultivating without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.”

Why moringa?

“We started working with our hero ingredient, moringa, in large part because of how sustainable the tree is. Moringa captures 20 times the carbon of similar vegetation. It thrives in arid climates, requires relatively little water, and can easily be planted alongside food crops, improving biodiversity and helping other crops grow better. 

Virtually every part of the moringa tree can be used. The leaves are a complete vegan protein, and rich in iron, calcium, and vitamins. The seeds of the tree contain the deeply nutritive oil that forms the basis of our skincare line—packed with antioxidants and fatty acids that compliment the oils the skin produces naturally to moisturize, purify, and protect. Even the “waste product” of oil processing, the moringa seed cake, is rich in protein and can be used in water purification, animal feed, and fertilizer.

Unlike most tree crops, moringa produces leaves in two months and seeds in eight months, allowing farmers both a sustainable source of nutrition and income security in one plant.”

A holistic approach to clean beauty:

“We take a holistic, three-pronged approach to our product formulation that centers wellness for people and the planet through our farming, manufacturing, and product development. 

We start at the farm, providing the tools and training our family of 5,000 farmers need to grow moringa. Farmers without land access (typically women and tribal minorities) are allotted a parcel of land on our solar-powered, regenerative organic farm. We provide in-depth training and support (child care, transport, access to health insurance, access to scholarship funding for higher education). Farmers then self-select into groups of about 30 members to form micro-banks called “Village Savings & Loan Associations” (VSLAs). Through these VSLAs, farmers save the income they earn from moringa and can choose to lend out the pooled savings to any group member. When the loan is paid back to the group with interest, community wealth grows. For every $1 we invest in VSLAs, $10 in community wealth is generated. 

Too often, commodities like cocoa and coffee are extracted from developing countries and all of the value addition is done in western countries. 98% of our team is from Ghana and based in Ghana full time where we cold press our moringa oil and mill our organic moringa powder. By creating jobs and adding value locally, we are shifting this paradigm. 

Lastly, when designing products we only use the purest natural ingredients, sourced from farmers we know and trust. We believe that deep knowledge of our supply chain from the farm through the final product makes for higher quality, cleaner products that better serve our farmers, team members, customers, and the planet.” 

Weleda


On sustainable sourcing:

“As a long-standing member of the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT), we adhere to the strict social, economic, and ecological criteria set by the organization. The values it defines are for the benefit of both people and the planet, and we are proud to be recipients of the UEBT Sourcing with Respect certification. Not only do we ensure that many of our raw materials are grown following biodynamic principles, but also that the people who grow and harvest them are treated fairly and with respect.

We are continually looking to increase our number of farming partnerships and biodynamic cultivation projects; as it stands we currently have 50+ of those globally. We are proud to be B Corp certified, and continue to look for opportunities that can make a positive impact on the Earth.”

Growing calendula on a biodynamic farm:

“We are very proud of the six Demeter-certified gardens that are part of the Weleda organization, in addition to our many global farming partnerships. In our Biodynamic garden in Schwabisch Gmund, Germany, we cultivate calendula, which is a key ingredient found in many of our skin-soothing products, including our best-selling Skin Food collection. 

Every summer in June, the garden blooms and brightly colored orange blossoms flourish, seemingly stretching as far as the horizon. Over 6,000 pounds of these flowers are handpicked, and over fourteen tons of leaves and stems are harvested. Once the harvesting has been done by hand, the fresh blooms are immediately brought to our processing plant, right next to the field.”

Thoughtful, clean beauty: 

“Weleda places a great emphasis on the quality of our ingredients, and our personal care products are all certified natural to NATRUE standards. They are free of parabens and phthalates, free of synthetic preservatives and synthetic fragrances, and never tested on animals. Nature is at the very heart of our products, and ethical sourcing is a top priority. As part of our UEBT certification for Sourcing with Respect, we guarantee that we preserve and sustainably use biodiversity in the best way possible during plant cultivation, harvesting and further processing. We are also wholly committed to treating all our cultivation partners fairly and equitably and supporting community development.”

Trilogy

Sustainable standards:

“In addition to our headquarters being a Toitū Envirocare Net Carbon Zero facility since 2007, all of Trilogy’s products are either NATRUE or BioGro Organic Certified. As we develop new products, we always keep in mind the stringent criteria of these certifications when it comes to choosing ingredients. 

The European Certification NATRUE, for example, is a strong advocate of sustainability with certain criteria that we at Trilogy have to meet. For instance, the use of palm is highly regulated in NATRUE, and we strive to use RSPO-certified palm sources wherever we can. NATRUE also holds itself accountable to UN sustainable Development Goals.”

Ethically sourced rosehip oil:

“Our iconic USDA certified organic rosehip oil is wild-harvested and then cold-pressed using no chemical solvents, minimal heat, and minimal processing. Our original rosehip oil is sourced from Lesotho, South Africa; it’s a key industry in the area, supporting countless families in the community. Trilogy has a 20-year relationship supporting this community.”

An alternative to vanilla overharvesting: 

“One of our newest ingredients is VanilleActiv2TM. This lipid-rich ingredient comes from vanilla pods—the same ones used in baking and cooking—but is extracted from what is left over from the pods after the vanilla is extracted. An example of upcycling at its finest! The manufacturing method used is Supercritical CO2 extraction, which is considered a “green chemistry” process wherein CO2 is recycled and no organic solvents are used, resulting in a neutral carbon footprint. 

The bulk of the vanilla that makes up VanilleActiv2™ comes from the Kingdom of Tonga, where a small vanilla plantation was established after the 2002 cyclone. The creation of new industry was essential to allow the local community to thrive, and now, over 400 families are supported by this burgeoning business and its premium vanilla is exported around the world.”


This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Thrive Market does not represent or warrant that the nutrition, ingredient, allergen, and other product information on our website is accurate or complete, since this information comes from the product manufacturers. On occasion, manufacturers may improve or change their product formulas and update their labels. We recommend that you do not rely solely on the information presented on our website and that you review the product’s label or contact the manufacturer directly if you have specific product concerns or questions.

This article is related to:

Beauty, Natural Beauty

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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