Back in the back-to-nature '70s, practically every bottle and jar of cosmetics advertised some sort of organic ingredient -- from aloe to witch hazel -- though the labels of most brands revealed their contents to be hardly "all natural."

Fashions went the other way in the '80s. Companies from Avon to Revlon began cloaking their skin-, hair- and eye-care products in the mantle of hard and unromantic science. They dressed their saleswomen in white lab coats, gave their products scientific-sounding names and numbers, and wrote ad copy about "ph balance," "cell renewal" and other pseudoscientific wonders that left dermatologists and consumers alike scratching their heads.

Today, natural is back. The cosmetics trend of the '90s so far has been driven by the phenomenal popularity of small alternative cosmetic companies, such as the Body Shop, which emphasize plant- and herbal-based ingredients rather than synthetics, and use minimal packaging and no commercial advertising. Bigger cosmetic companies also are rushing headlong into the "green beauty" movement, as it is being called.

A growing number are stopping animal testing and choosing only ingredients that have a proven safety record. Others are switching to botanical ingredients and cutting down on petrochemicals. "Recent consumer trends," as a column in the trade magazine Drug and Cosmetic Industry (DCI) put it, "have forced the cosmetic industry to take a closer look at what nature has to offer." Even Vogue magazine recently declared that "an ecologically correct attitude is sweeping the beauty biz."

Is this current fad a sign of revolutionary changes in the cosmetic industry? Or is this business, obsessed with profits like any other, just taking advantage of "green marketing" in the neo-environmental '90s?

Selling beauty historically has been the main game of the makeup and skin- and hair-care industry. During the last few years, however, mavericks in the industry, such as the British Body Shop's Anita Roddick, with her social-issue campaigns, and Tom Chappell of Tom's of Maine, with his preservative- and saccharine-free toothpaste, started tapping into equally passionate consumer desires.

"People are turning things over more and more and seeing how the label reads," says Michael Waldbock, president of The Body Shop. "They're worried about side effects. They see chemical companies generating so much waste, and they ask themselves, 'Why should I have this stuff in my daily life.' "

Roddick rocked the industry by deliberately eschewing advertising and conventional packaging and filling The Body Shop's shelves with plain bottles that offered neither beauty nor lasting youth, but pledged only to "cleanse, polish and protect the skin and hair." Now Britain's largest international retailer, the $143 million company has opened 470 stores in 38 countries.

Other marketers have introduced their own "natural" or "green" lines, including Aveda, Avon, Borghese, Clarins, Dior and Lancome. This fall the industry giant Estee Lauder became the first to launch a separate company with its own products for green consumers, called "Origins." It features botanically based formulations for skin care, "matte" makeups and earth tones to complement natural skin colors rather than a glitzy made-up look, and "sensory therapy," Estee Lauder's version of aroma therapy, a longtime hallmark of some alternative cosmetic companies.

Yet the trend has done little so far to define what's meant by "natural cosmetics," a term generally taken to mean products made primarily of plant-derived ingredients, such as avocado, herbal extracts, etc. Nor is there any clear definition of what constitutes a "green" cosmetic.

And the country's first environmental seal-of-approval program, Green Seal, according to its spokeswoman Diana Dorsey, has yet to get around to "developing criteria for buying cosmetics."

As a result, buyers of cosmetics and toiletries are at the mercy of companies marketing products with environmental claims that are confusing or impossible to verify, says Jackie Prince, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund. "As it is now," she says, "there are no restrictions on companies putting 'recyclable' or 'biodegradable,' for example, on virtually any materials. The only thing stopping these companies is the possibility of the local attorney general going after them for false claims."

As anyone who has ever bought beauty products knows, most cosmetics come drowning in packaging that is sometimes more expensive than what's inside. Robert Glaxton, a columnist for the cosmetic trade, once noted that, "People want, expect and are prepared to pay for lipstick to be extravagantly packaged."

In this age of environmental limits, however, some companies are beginning to reflect different values. If only in their "natural" lines, Estee Lauder and Revlon have started using recyclable materials.

But bucking old practices, The Body Shop and Origins are showing that with minimal packaging, one can create highly elegant products that stand out against all the glitz. Estee Lauder's Origins line wraps its bottles, sushi-style, in all-recycled corrugated cardboard, giving it a minimalist, functional look. It uses soy-based inks, which are biodegradable. It pours some of its product in old-fashioned bottles, which are lined up at counters as at an old apothecary.

Environmentalists, not surprisingly, welcome such changes. "There is a strong need to reduce over-packaging in the cosmetic business," says the Environmental Defense Fund's Prince. According to a 1990 study conducted by Franklin Associates for EPA, Americans discarded 43 million tons of all consumer goods each year, amounting to about 27.6 percent of the waste stream. There are no figures for cosmetics and personal care products' share of this but, says Prince, "There's no question but that the cosmetic industry is a notorious offender."

The best way to cut down on the problem is to reduce overall bulk. That is easier said than done. How much outer packaging can a company scrap without losing its identity? Packaging is what distinguishes products from one another, giving bulk and substance to some of the smallest products. It provides more space for graphic and product marketing. According to Tom Conry, author of "The Consumer's Guide to Cosmetics," only about 7 cents on a dollar goes to the actual cosmetic materials (the rest going to retail distribution, profits and taxes, advertising, packaging, etc.).

Instead, some companies are adopting a different strategy by making the packaging as recyclable as possible and incorporating recycled materials into the product. Kevin Harper, president of Autumn Harp, a skin-care company based in Bristol, Vt., which markets its products through health food stores, helped similar companies carry out a system set up by the Society for Plastic Institutes for coding plastic containers to make them more easily recycled.

Also, waste prevention specialists are encouraging companies to use the plastics most easily recycled -- at this point HDPE (high density polyethylene), the kind used in milk jugs; PET (polyethylene terephthalate), used for soda bottles, and LDPE (low density polyethylene).

Yet a container labeled "recyclable" means very little if communities don't collect the material, because it still ends up in a landfill. To help people who can't recycle, The Body Shop began to accept empty bottles and plastics, and Estee Lauder's Origins is doing the same. "In Europe, bottles are standardized to facilitate recycling -- and everyone knows to bring them back," says EDF's Prince. "Perhaps some system of standardizing bottles and containers would help." Otherwise, cosmetic companies putting their products in old-fashioned bottles seems really no more than a stylish gesture.

With "natural" reappearing as a marketing buzzword in this neo-environmental decade, consumers need to ask: What is "natural," and do natural ingredients make a cosmetic perform more healthfully or effectively?

Rebecca James, an independent consultant to the cosmetic industry, says that advocates for natural skin and hair products define them as being made of ingredients found in "as close to an unprocessed state as possible," a quality that makes them more easily absorbed by the skin than synthetics developed in a lab. "Mineral oil, taken from petroleum, effectively forms a film on the skin and is great at preventing chapping, but it can clog the pores -- unlike a botanical like coconut oil that is breathable."

Prekash Purohit, quality-assurance manager at Aveda, a natural cosmetic company based in Minneapolis, says substances synthesized from natural ingredients -- such as from coconut oil instead of petroleum -- also makes them gentler and less harsh for the skin and hair.

Origins claims its products are based on "the ancient wisdom of nature's remedies," pitching the curative and beautifying properties of herbs, fruits and vegetables. Company president William Lauder has said, "We found that through botanicals we were able to naturally reprogram the skin, and bring it back to an original state of healthy, good looks -- totally balanced."

Yet while "natural" might seem more healthful, bear in mind that there are no standards regarding the term, either through the natural foods industry or under the Food and Drug Administration. Emil Corwin of FDA asks, "What's to prevent someone from calling their product 'natural' and putting anything they want in it?"

Conventional cosmetic companies frequently market the magic of some natural ingredient, even if it appears in only negligible amounts. On the other hand, cosmetics containing a larger percentage of so-called natural ingredients, such as The Body Shop's, frequently contain synthetic preservatives, colors and, even that bugaboo for the sensitive, artificial fragrances.

Dermatologists, and the medical establishment in general, tend to ignore the claims for natural cosmetics. "The health {benefit} of natural cosmetics is primarily psychological," concludes New York dermatologist Diana Bihova. She acknowledges that "theoretically the more chemicals {in cosmetics} the more reactions people could have." But she cautions that people can be just as allergic to natural substances -- the fruits and vegetables found in natural cosmetics.

Health writer Deborah Chase, author of "The Medically Based No-Nonsense Beauty Book," takes an outright hostile stance, saying that, as a whole, "Natural cosmetics are purely an advertising gimmick." She cynically jokes that avocado and banana are better eaten than applied to the skin, and debunks the physiological value of cosmetics made from such herbs as arnica, birch and ginger.

To their credit, natural cosmetics (to varying degrees more or less natural in their composition) do seem to eliminate many irritants, allergens and even more potentially harmful substances ubiquitous in conventional cosmetics.

Cosmetician Ida Grae, who makes a line of cosmetics for the chemically sensitive, feels her products work simply because they're free of synthetics. And her products are recommended by dermatologists who specialize in treating the chemically sensitive.

But even if botanically based cosmetics are healthier for consumers, are they better for the environment, as some claim? Matrix Essentials Inc., a maker of hair and skin products based in Solon, Ohio, advertises that its "System Biolage" hair products "contain natural ingredients derived from renewable plant extracts and oils" and that their "biodegradable formulas have minimum impact on delicate ecological systems."

Environmentalists welcome the use of herbal and botanical formulations because, for the most part, it means using sustainable, renewable resources that are less toxic and presumably biodegradable. "The dependence of cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies on petrochemicals, which produce enormous amounts of volatile hydrocarbons that pollute the air and expose workers to dangerous compounds, is something we're concerned about," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. "We love a move away from that."

As a contributor to pollution and waste, the cosmetic industry ranks low compared to the oil and petrochemical industries, according to the incomplete information available to EPA. Still, at a minimum, according to EPA, makers of soaps, cleansers and cosmetics were responsible for releasing more than 20.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals onto air, land and water in 1988.

Using synthetic chemicals in any fashion pollutes water and always generates some hazardous waste. "We're seeing steps in the right direction {in cosmetics manufacture}, but we need to move toward renewable, replenishable substances that don't rely on petroleum," says Hershkowitz.

Are you that green consumer and earth-saver for whom cosmetics and personal-care products are now being "positioned"? Don't give up when you're confused by the various claims. If you are enticed by the sound of an advertised ingredient, Hershkowitz suggests, "Contact your local herbal specialists to see if claims are sound."

It's also a good idea to contact the Food and Drug Administration, the agency regulating the industry, as well as the companies themselves, to let them know your concerns. Consumer savvy -- the same factor that created the market for alternative products -- ultimately will judge the competitors.

Francesca Lyman is a Bronxville, N.Y., freelance writer specializing in environmental issues and the author of "The Greenhouse Trap" (Beacon Press, $19.90). Resources

Besides local outlets and stores, these companies specialize in natural cosmetics and body-care products and will provide catalogues or information:

Autumn Harp, 28 Rockydale Rd., Bristol, Vt. 05443; 1-802-453-4807.

Aubrey Organics, 4419 North Manhattan Ave., Tampa, Fla. 33614; 1-800-237-4270.

The Body Shop, 45 Horsehill Rd., Cedar Knolls, N.J. 07927; 1-800-541-2535.

Ida Grae, 424 La Verne Ave., Mill Valley, Calif. 94941; 1-415-388-6101.

InterNatural, P.O. Box 680, Shaker St., South Sutton, N.H. 03273; 1-800-446-4903.

Kiss My Face, P.O. Box 224, Gardiner, N.Y. 12525; 1-800-262-5477.

Weleda, P.O. Box 769, Spring Valley, N.Y. 10977; 1-914-352-6145.

Aveda, 321 Lincoln Street, Minneapolis, Minn. 55413; 1-800-331-9365.

Matrix Essentials, 30601 Carter Street, Solon, Ohio 44139; 1-800-282-2822.