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Is Green “Clean Enough”? The Perceived Limits of Natural and Sustainable Personal Care Products

Explore the nuanced consumer perceptions of natural and sustainable personal care products, revealing that even ardent advocates of sustainability may have limits in their preferences.

To hear many marketing experts tell it, consumers of food, beverage, and personal-care products have moved en masse to all-natural. Surveys of consumers’ preferences regarding the “naturalness” of candy, beauty products, household cleaners, and food and drink (not to mention their individual ingredients), appear to confirm this straightforward trend.

However, recent research from YCCI finds that consumers’ thoughts on all things natural and sustainable may be a bit more complicated. The research zeroes in on the market for personal care products (like face, body, and hand cleansers) and explores consumer opinions by leveraging three distinct methodologies: online ethnography, direct interviews, and A/B testing. 

The study revealed that even the most ardently “sustainable” consumers believe there’s a limit to what natural cleansers can do. 

When Consumers Go Natural

After  the online ethnography — a broad and deep scan of online conversations and e-commerce reviews related to personal cleansing products — the researchers’ interviews focused on the segment of consumers likely to feel most strongly about buying natural: Millennial and Gen Z “change enthusiasts,” who had purchased natural products twice or more in the past six months and who held strong beliefs about products’ sustainability.  Based on the insights gleaned from these first two steps, the researchers oversaw A/B testing with over 3,500 change enthusiasts to measure their interest in buying certain products. 

Together, these approaches yielded glimpses into the thinking of “change enthusiasts” when they consider whether or not to buy a given sustainable or natural product. The researchers grouped their findings into four categories:

1. Trust of Products and Companies

  • Long ingredient lists and unrecognizable substances repel customers. Testing revealed that reducing the length from 29 to 10 ingredients increased interest in purchasing.
  • Simple scents and toned-down colors seem more natural. Subjects avoided cleaners with bright colors and synthetic-sounding scents. A scent like “eucalyptus” was more popular than no scent — while a manufactured-seeming scent like “cupcake” was less popular than unscented.
  • Specific traceability of ingredients is important. Communicating how and where an ingredient is grown can significantly boost interest in purchasing. Consumers were almost twice as likely to buy a face wash whose primary ingredient was from “Kennebunk, Maine” than one from just “Maine.”

2. How Cleansers Feel

  • Consumers believe that if they can’t ‘feel’ it, it’s not working — but there’s also a limit to what’s safe. Subjects reported a desire for tingling and “scrubbiness,” but also had strong beliefs that these sensations were produced by chemicals, which they sought to avoid. 
  • Lather is good — but not perceived as natural. Similarly, research participants reported ambivalence about whether lather should be present. Tests indicated that lather-free washes won out only when lather-free was presented as a sign of naturalness. Interest in a product rose even more when lather-free wash was described as “frothy.” 

3. Efficacy

  • Consumers doubt that natural cleaners can remove makeup. Even those most-committed to natural skincare displayed wariness about using these products for makeup removal. 
  • Antibacterial power beats naturalness when it comes to hand cleaning. Researchers noticed a pattern in which a commitment to natural personal cleansing products was often broken for hand cleansing — an area in which many interviewees opted for “mainstream” antibacterial hand soaps. 

4. Sustainability

  • Corporate behavior holds weight with consumers. Subjects responded more favorably to an ad spotlighting a company’s environmental, social, and corporate governance goals than to one encouraging end-user recycling.   

The New Natural

Our findings suggest that while consumers seek eco-friendly alternatives, they also bring to the table their own psychological perceptions about what it means for a product to be natural. This includes making System 1 (the quick and intuitive part of our brain) judgments about a product based on attributes that companies may not consider, such as how long the ingredient label is, or when natural ingredients are more or less important.  

As brands think about evolving product lines to go natural or entering this space, consider aligning the brand message to some of the consumer values outlined here, such as elevating the sensory experience and building trust through ingredients. Testing the brand’s execution of these ideas behaviorally—in the context of the marketplace— is critical to avoiding blunders where consumers are asking for something (like natural products) but then often behave differently, making psychological judgements about perceived tradeoffs like efficacy that can ultimately influence purchase.

For more information on how to test new product innovations using behavioral science, email us at and discover more insights from YCCI here.