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Ethical Comparison - Make-up

‍‍‍There are many issues you should consider when shopping for cosmetics, with many brands quick to promote themselves and their products as ethi‍‍‍cal‍‍‍. But when shopping for ethical beauty items, you should consider a broader view of ethics that is not just limited to organic or cruelty free. In other words, a brand could be cruelty free but not organic – or the company could have a disastrous environmental record.

Additionally, it is worth pointing out that the cosmetics industry is big business: in the UK alone we spend £5 billion a year on cosmetics and toiletries. Women, men and even children are under increasing pressure to look good, smell right, and defy the ageing process. Most cosmetic products contain a range of synthetic chemical ingredients.  Not all synthetic chemicals are bad, but some are certainly controversial. Scientific research is beginning to shed more light on which synthetics might be potentially hazardous or harmful. New research is emerging all the time, but understanding of the long-term effects of synthetic chemical ingredients in cosmetic products is largely unknown.

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Animal testing and Crue‍‍‍lty Free

Since 2013, cosmetics 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 cosmetics 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.

The only way to be completely sure you aren’t indirectly supporting animal tests is to purchase products from companies that don’t do any animal testing – look for Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny symbol, which guarantees that the company in question does not test on animals anywhere in the world – you can also search their Cruelty Free database. PETA also has a searchable database of companies that do and do not test their products on animals.

The “Dirty Dozen”

‍‍‍‍‍‍A list of commonly used chemical ingredient have been found to be a potential health risk, which recent research has described as the “dirty dozen”. Synthetic chemicals such as propylene glycol are known to cause problems for sensitive individuals. Fragrance-free skincare creams, and those which are made from certified natural ingredients, are thoug‍‍‍ht to be less likely to irritate the skin. For more on these issues, see the Skincare section of The Good Shopping Guide.

A Sensitive Issue

Almost all cosmetics can cause allergic reactions in certain individuals. There is no list of ingredients that can be guaranteed not to cause a reaction, so people who are prone to allergies should pay careful attention to what they use on their skin.

Companies can use terms such as ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘natural’ on cosmetics labels to mean almost anything. Most of the terms have considerable value in promoting cosmetic products to people, but dermatologists say they have very little medical meaning. ‘Hypoallergenic’ implies that products are less likely to cause allergic reactions, but no prescribed scientific studies are required to substantiate this claim.

Likewise, the terms ‘dermatologist-tested’, ‘sensitivity tested’, ‘allergy tested’, or ‘nonirritating’ carry no guarantee that the product won’t cause skin reactions.

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.


‍‍‍We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables‍‍‍): Green people, Oy!, L’ Occitane, Odylique, Beauty Without, Cruelty, Dr. Hauschka, Lavera, Neal’s Yard, Nvey ECO‍‍‍, Urban Decay, Bourjois, Elizabeth Arden, Clarins, Clinique, Estee Lauder, No. 7, Chanel, Lancome, L’Oreal, Maybelline, Rimmel, The Body Shop, Dior, Max Factor, Revlon.

Disclosure:  Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning we earn commission if you click through and make a purchase. Placement and use of these links has no bearing in terms of the ethical scores that we give to a brand.  All commission earned by The Good Shopping Guide is re-invested into the research carried out by The Ethical Company Organisation.




Some cosmetics now use nanoparticulate materials to give improved or additional functionality. There are concerns that nanoparticles of zinc, titanium and iron oxides might penetrate the protective layers of the skin and cause reactions with UV light that could result in damage to cell DNA.

Widespread use of nanoparticles in products that are washed off will present a diffuse source of nanoparticles to the environment, for example through the sewage system. Whether this presents a risk to the environment will depend on the quantities that‍‍‍ are discharged and the toxicity of nanoparticles to organisms, about which almost nothing is known. A 2009 study suggested that nanoparticles in personal care products may have adverse affects on the environment. More recently, a number of scientific studies have emerged and suggested a direct link between microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products and adverse environmental effects. This has led to government bans on the use of microbeads, as pressure mounts for sustainable cosmetics and skincare items.