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Skincare

Finding natural, organic and vegan skincare: ratings for 88 brands with recommended buys and brands to avoid. 

We also look at toxic chemicals, plastic packaging, if brands are using palm oil, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Avalon Organics and JĀSÖN, and look at which brands are still involved with animal testing.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying skincare products:

  • Is it necessary? The skincare industry encourages unnecessary consumption. Think about whether you really need it.

  • Is it organic? Buying organic is the best way to avoid toxic ingredients and protect the environment. 

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying skincare products:

  • Is it cruelty free? Look for the Leaping Bunny logo or Naturewatch Foundation certification to be sure that neither products nor ingredients have been tested on animals. Also look for companies that scored a best for our animal testing rating.

  • Does it contain palm oil? At its most unsustainable, palm oil is linked to mass deforestation and serious violations of human rights. Look for brands that commit to sourcing certified palm oil, or are palm oil free.

  • Does it contain toxics? The long and complex ingredients lists for skincare products often include toxic chemicals. These are bad for the environment as well as health.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

The Body Shop

It was announced in February 2024 that The Body Shop's private equity owners, Aurelius, had called in the administrators which was likely to result in shop closures and job losses. We have therefore removed The Body Shop from this guide until we can be sure that the brand will continue to exist and in what format and if Aurelius will continue to be the owners of a restructured Body Shop.

 

Most of us use some kind of skincare, even if it’s just the occasional hand or body lotion. Mainstream brands remain popular but spending on ethical cosmetics has almost doubled over the last decade and there is an array of small brands to choose from, many marketing themselves as natural, eco-friendly, or ethical. But what makes a skincare brand ethical?

One way to answer that question is to consider the many things that make skincare brands unethical. These include animal testing, toxic ingredients, overpackaging, palm oil, and microplastics.

Ethical brands avoid or are taking action on some or all of these things. We look at which brands are doing what, from the designer brands, to high street and small independents.

What is natural skincare? 

Skincare marketing is often a confusing babble of jargon. With many brands now trying to demonstrate their ethical credentials, it’s even more of a word soup. You might see natural skincare, eco skincare, clean skincare, sustainable skincare, but does any of it actually mean anything?

The word ‘natural’ is bandied about in relation to skincare but there’s no consensus about what it means and there’s certainly no one regulating the use of the word (except for certification schemes, which are voluntary initiatives).

Some use it to mean that products contain ingredients derived from the natural world – mainly plants. But most cosmetics contain at least some ingredients that could be called natural (e.g. water) and there’s no requirement that they contain a certain percentage to be able to use the word. Plus, there are natural ingredients that can be harmful to us while synthetic ones, particularly lab copies of natural substances, may not be bad.

‘Clean skincare’ is an equally unregulated term. It seems to have a slightly different meaning to natural; clean products avoid synthetics considered to be toxic but may include others which are not. ‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ can cover a range of things such as reduced, recycled, recyclable, or refillable packaging, claims of carbon neutrality, or biodegradable ingredients, among other things.

If you want to avoid products that are harmful to the environment, animals, and people, there are some labels and certifications, such as organic and Leaping Bunny, that actually mean something.

Organic skincare

Products certified as organic have been produced in a way that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, animals, and people. Organic standards prohibit the use of herbicides, artificial fertilisers, genetic modification, and toxic ingredients. They also include requirements on biodegradability of ingredients and reducing packaging waste. 

The main organic certifications held by products in this guide are COSMOS and NATRUE. Confusingly, both standards have certifications for natural as well as organic products. These are used for products which contain ingredients for which there is no organic option such as clay or salt. Our separate article on certification schemes for cosmetics has more information. 

Companies whose whole product range was certified organic received a Company Ethos mark and their products received Product Sustainability marks, shown on the table as [O]. 

A few brands also sold organic products but some products in their range or other brands owned by the company were not organic. In these cases their organic products received a Product Sustainability mark.

The table below shows which brands and companies are fully organic and which have organic products. 

Organic products, range, company Brands
Whole product range is organic Bentley Organic, Conscious Skincare, Lucy Bee, Neal’s Yard, Odylique, Queenie Organics.
Sells organic skincare but not all products are organic, and/or, other brands owned by the company are not organic Austin Austin, Avalon Organics, Badger Skincare, Botanics Organic, Dr Hauschka, Green People, Lavera, Nature Box, SESI, Urtekram, Weleda.

Cruelty-free skincare

Skincare companies may use terms like 'cruelty-free' or 'against animal testing' but, by themselves, these don’t guarantee much. 

Few consumer brands conduct tests on animals and, in the UK and EU, animal testing on cosmetic ingredients and products is banned, albeit with poor enforcement. It’s usually manufacturers of ingredients that carry out testing so robust certifications require companies to ensure that their suppliers don’t and haven’t recently tested their ingredients on animals. One way of doing this is for a company to have a fixed cut-off date meaning that it publicly states that it does not use ingredients that have been tested on animals after a certain date. (See our separate article on animal testing for more information.)

Ethical Consumer rated the animal testing policies of all the skincare companies. Companies got a best rating if they had a policy not to test on animals and a fixed cut-off date. Small companies could get a best rating if they stated that none of their products contained ingredients that were tested on animals, but most went beyond this and were certified or had a fixed cut-off date.

Two certifications require a fixed cut-off date: Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny programme and Naturewatch Foundation’s Compassionate Shopping Guide. Companies with these certifications automatically got a best rating.

Best Ethical Consumer Rating for Animal Testing

Certified by Leaping Bunny and/or Naturewatch Foundation
Brands Avon, Badger, Body Shop, Caurnie Soaperie, Conscious Skincare, Faith in Nature, Hain Celestial (Alba Botanica, Queen Helene, Avalon Organics, JASÖN), Lucy Bee, Neal’s Yard, Odylique, PHB Ethical Beauty, SESI, Tropic Skincare

Others with strong policies:

Strong animal testing polices
Brands Austin Austin, Bentley Organic, Dr Hauschka, Green People, Lavera, Lush, Honesty, Miniml, Pure Nuff Stuff, Queenie Organics, Weleda, Yaoh

Brands let down by animal testing policies of parent company   

Molton Brown is Leaping Bunny certified and states that since its foundation in 1971 it has never tested on animals. However, its owner Kao Corporation has a policy on animal testing that does not exclude it in all circumstances and therefore got our worst rating.

Estée Lauder got a worst rating for the same reason. It owns Aveda and 76% of The Ordinary, both of which are Leaping Bunny certified.

Noughty is owned by KMI Brands which also owns Ted Baker. Noughty is Leaping Bunny certified but Ted Baker only has PETA certification which doesn’t require a fixed cut-off date.

Vegan skincare

Skincare products can contain ingredients derived from animals such as honey, beeswax, silk, collagen, and lanolin. We have a separate article which talks more about what animal products to look out for.

The following companies received a Company Ethos mark (and a Product Sustainability mark) for being wholly vegan:

The following companies had products that were vegan, marked on the table as [Vg], but they also sold non-vegan products. Products that were certified as vegan by the Vegan Society or Vegetarian Society got whole Product Sustainability marks. Products that weren’t certified got half marks.

Woman putting moisturiser on face

Toxics in skincare

Skincare products may contain ingredients which are harmful to the environment or toxic to us. We have a separate article on toxic chemicals in cosmetics and what to look out for. 

We rated the skincare companies for their policies on the use of certain toxic chemicals – parabens, triclosan, formaldehyde and phthalates. Companies which stated that they did not use any of these chemicals or which had dated targets for ending their use got best ratings (small companies were only required to explicitly prohibit three of the four). The following brands got best ratings:

Best rating for toxic chemicals
Brands Austin Austin, Badger, Bentley Organic, Caurnie Soaperie, Conscious Skincare, Dr Hauschka, Green People, Honesty, Lavera, Lucy Bee, L’Occitane, Miniml, Odylique, PHB Ethical Beauty, Pure Nuff Stuff, Queenie Organics, SESI, Urtekram, Yaoh.

Several companies that market themselves as sustainable only got middle ratings, for example Faith in Nature, Neal’s Yard, and Weleda. This doesn’t mean that they necessarily use the toxic chemicals mentioned above, just that we couldn’t find an explicit statement prohibiting all of them.

Are there microplastics in skincare products?

We rated skincare brands’ policies on the use of microplastics and liquid polymers in their products. A lot of what we use on our body ends up going down the drain and into our water supply. So, if we don’t want our skincare polluting the environment, the biodegradability of ingredients matters. 

The following brands had positive policies that explicitly excluded all microplastics and poorly-biodegradable liquid polymers:

Can you avoid palm oil in skincare?

Palm oil is cheap and abundant and its derivatives can be hidden behind over 200 different names in ingredients lists. As of 2014, in the EU, food ingredient lists must include which type of vegetable oil they contain, but this law does not apply to non-food products like the toiletries and cosmetics.

These numerous palm oil derivatives bring many properties to products, such as increasing thickness or viscosity; providing a foaming agent to help remove dirt; and increasing shelf life. We have a separate article on palm oil and cosmetics.

All palm oil’s plus points have led to a huge demand globally, which has had devastating consequences. Forests are destroyed to be turned into plantations, displacing people and wildlife and releasing greenhouse gases. When peatlands are drained to grow palm, they become flammable and serious fires can result, causing even more carbon emissions, as well as health problems for people breathing in the smoke.

We gave best ratings for palm oil to companies that didn’t use palm oil or were taking significant steps to ensure that their palm oil was sustainably sourced. These brands are in the table below.

Palm oil policy Brand
Doesn't use palm oil Caurnie Soaperie, Conscious Skincare, Lucy Bee, Pure Nuff Stuff, Queenie Organics
Strong processes in place to ensure palm oil is sustainably sourced  Badger, Lavera, Miniml, Odylique, PHB Ethical Beauty, SESI

Is there sustainable packaging for skincare? 

person putting fingers in pot of skincare cream

Many skincare products are wrapped in swathes of unnecessary packaging but most of our Best and Recommended buys are taking steps to reduce what they use. There are several different approaches.

Some companies, like SESI, Miniml and Faith in Nature, offer refills

Queenie Organics and Conscious Skincare are plastic free

Austin Austin, Neal’s Yard and Odylique use all or mostly post-consumer recycled plastic.

Lush has a recycling reward scheme which gives you 50p off your next purchase when you return a pot or bottle.

The price of skincare

There’s a massive range in the price of skincare products. 

The designer brands are often eye-wateringly expensive (and who wants puffy eyes?). Some Elizabeth Arden moisturisers cost over £70 for a 50ml jar. 

The high street brands like Boots No 7 are a bit more reasonable at around £25.

Some of our Best Buys come out a bit cheaper, for example Conscious Skincare sells 60ml jars of moisturiser for £27. Some others are more expensive but are generally cheaper than designer brands.

Skincare: do we need it?

The internet is full of articles and videos advising women on skincare (men are now being targeted for this stuff too, but it is still mostly aimed at women). These generally take it for granted that we all need a skincare ‘routine’ or ‘regime’ involving multiple steps and products. Many of them try to assume a veil of legitimacy or disinterestedness, often by including advice from a dermatologist, but almost all of them include links to specific products and they are basically sales websites.

Some sites we looked at had ten step routines; others promoted the benefits of triple cleansing. But there’s little evidence that these products have much effect or that there are significant differences between all the products available. Beyond something to keep ourselves clean and maybe moisturise, the only product that could really be called essential is sunscreen which, aside from the clear health benefits, is also the most effective anti-ageing product.

But the skincare industry depends on us all buying way more than we need. Its marketing spend is colossal. It exploits our insecurities about our appearance and, in a more recent move, seeks to convince us that lathering our skin with multiple products is central to the expression of self-love on which our emotional wellness now depends.

The smaller, ethical companies may be implicated here too. Whilst we support their efforts to produce products without the harmful ingredients that are so prevalent in the mainstream brands, we recognise that sustainable credentials can also be used for promotion in a way that may be contributing to unnecessary consumption.

So, next time you’re browsing for skincare products, think before you buy. The likelihood is that you’ve already got half a pot of something you can use, and if you haven’t, you probably don’t need it anyway.

This guide features in Ethical Consumer Magazine 206.

The abbreviations in the score table indicate the following: [O] = organic product [V] = vegan.

Company profile

Hain Celestial is an American company which owns the skincare brands Alba Botanica, Avalon Organics, JĀSÖN, and Queen Helene Cocoa Butter. All its skincare brands are Leaping Bunny-certified, but it’s mainly a food company and owns the Linda McCartney, New Covent Garden Soup, and Sun Pat brands, among others. Whilst it owns a range of meat-free and dairy-free brands, it lost marks for animal rights and factory farming for other non-organic meat and dairy brands.
 

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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