Organic beauty glossary

Organic beauty terms glossary

If you’re dedicated to understanding organic beauty (and let’s face it, you’ve come to this page), you’ll have heard countless terms describing the composition of products and the functions of different ingredients.

So what does it all mean? Well, it’s not all that complicated – as you’re about to find out. 


Let's start at the beginning 

 All beauty products are made up of ‘active agents’ and ‘carrier agents’...


Active Agents

...are the ingredients – generally derived from herbs, essences of root vegetables, oils and flowers – that deliver some sort of benefit to the skin or hair.


Carrier Agents

...are combined with the active agents within a product to bind the finished product together, so that it looks and feels nice, and – most importantly – performs effectively. 


And then there are nine categories of carrier agent



Emollients are ingredients that stop water evaporating from the skin. They moisturise, lubricate and soften, prevent and ease dryness, and help to protect the skin. Natural emollients tend to let the skin breathe better than most synthetic emollients do.

Synthetic emollients are derived from Mineral oil, petrolatum, dimethicone and cyclomethicone.

Natural emollients include plant oils such as almond, avocado, olive, coconut, grapeseed, sunflower, cocoa butter, squalene and lecithin.



In cosmetics, humectants are mainly used to help the skin maintain moisture by drawing in water from the air. 

Synthetic humectants include  Propylene Glycol (PG), Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), Butylene Glycol (BG), & Thylene Glycol (EG).

Natural humectants include Lecithin, panthenol (pro-vitamin B5) glycerine, sorbitol and amino acids.



Emulsifiers are used to bind ingredients that normally wouldn’t mix, such as oils and water.

Synthetic emulsifiers include Petroleum and hydrocarbon derivatives, TEA, DEA, MEA, MIPA compounds, PEG compounds, Silicone, and Isopropyl Stearate.

Natural emulsifiers can be derived from various nuts, berries and leaves; as well as carnauba, jojoba, rice bran, xanthan gum, beeswax and polysorbates.



Surfactants (surface active agents) reduce the surface tension of a fluid – usually water, to help dissolve oil and hold dirt in suspension so it can all be rinsed away together. In creams they act as emulsifiers, while in cleansers they act as detergents.

Synthetic surfactants include Ethylene or propylene oxide, PEGs or PPGs, sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate ,TEA, DEA and MEA. 

Natural surfactants are usually plant-derived saponins or glycosides made from olive, yucca, saponaria and soapwort; as well as amino acids derived from soy, or Ethylhexylglycerin derived from glycerine.



Preservatives extend a cosmetic product’s life and help to prevent the growth of bacteria. While that adds value and shelf life, remember that the decaying process is part of nature too – and no cosmetic product will last forever. (In fact, you should be suspicious of products that last too long!)

Synthetic preservatives include Parabens: Methyl, Propyl, Butyl and Ethyl Paraben. Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea.

Natural preservatives include Tea tree and thyme essential oil, grapefruit seed extract and D-Alpha Tocopherol Acetate (Vitamin E). Citrus seed extracts, rosemary and olive oil extracts, benzoic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tocopherol (vitamin E).



Solvents help dissolve solid or gaseous ingredients so they can be carried in a liquid form. They’re also useful for the extraction of some materials.

Synthetic solvents include Methanol, acetone, benzene, phthalates.

Natural solvents include water, plant glycerol and plant derived ethanol.


Buffering Agents

Buffering agents are a weak acid or base (alkaline) used to maintain the acidity (pH) of a product. The buffering agent prevents a rapid change in pH when stornger acids or bases are added to the solution. 

Synthetic buffer agents include TEA, Tartaric acid, sodium hydroxide, potassium sulphate, potassium hydroxide

Natural buffering agents include Citric acid, sodium citrate, sodium lactate, calcium phosphate



Fragrance chemicals are compounds that volatilize, or vaporize into the air - that's why we can smell them. They are added to products to give them a scent or to mask the odour of other ingredients.

Synthetic fragrances can be made from a huge range of chemicals. They are usually listed on product labels as ‘parfum', ‘fragrance’ or ‘essence’.

Natural fragrances are usually pure, natural essential oils. Some Naturalmente products also include essential oils that have been processed to strengthen their aromatic performance.  


Thickening and stabilising agents

These agents add ‘body’ to creams, for a more luxurious feel.

Synthetic thickening agents are typically Mineral oil and petroleum

Natural thickening agents include Carrageen, vegetable gum and waxes.