Clean Beauty, Defined. (Sort Of.)


What exactly is ‘clean’ beauty? Is it always natural? Sustainable? Or ethical? And is it really clean?

The beauty industry has a dirty little secret. From toxic ingredients to packaging waste, some cosmetics brands are anything but pretty. But as conscious consumerism grows in popularity — with consumers becoming more aware of how their purchasing habits impact the planet — companies have begun churning out beauty products featuring trendy words like “natural,” “organic,” and “green.”

Clean beauty is another term that’s been cropping up on the labels of lipsticks, foundations, and the like. But what exactly does the term mean?

What is clean beauty?

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact spark of the clean beauty revolution, it began to dominate the market in the early aughts. The term largely refers to cosmetics and personal care products that are formulated without the use of toxic or potentially harmful ingredients like parabens and phthalates or synthetic fragrances. But, similar to other buzzwords like “natural” and “green,” “clean” beauty has no legal definition. 

clean beauty products
Kate Hudson for Juice Beauty | Courtesy

“With the exception of color additives, cosmetics and their ingredients are not subject to premarket approval requirements or [Food and Drug Administration] safety review,” Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said during a 2019 hearing. “Therefore, we don’t know whether cosmetic ingredients have gone through adequate, if any, safety testing.”

Many chemicals found in beauty products, such as parabens and fragrance ingredients, have been linked to health issues like birth defects and even cancer. According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 10,000 chemicals are used to formulate cosmetics products. The FDA has only banned or restricted 11 of these chemicals.

In 2020, California became the first state in the nation to enforce clean beauty regulations with the passage of a ban on toxic chemicals in cosmetics. The law, which will go into effect in 2025, prohibits 24 toxic chemicals “which are linked to negative long-term health impacts especially for women and children.”

What makes a beauty brand sustainable?

A sustainable beauty brand is one that puts the planet’s welfare before its own profits. That means paying more for ingredients that come at no human cost and are fully organic and biodegradable. 

Sustainable brands also consider the ethics of their supply chain, avoiding products and ingredients that have to be shipped from the opposite side of the planet and choosing to partner with other ecological businesses.

What is ethical beauty?

The beauty industry is rife with ethical issues that range from child labor to animal testing and the use of toxic materials that endanger our and the planet’s health. 

Brad Pitt, co-founder Le Domaine clean skincare | Courtesy Serge Chapuis

With that in mind, an ethical beauty product has been created with the customer’s and planet’s health at the forefront. An ethical product has also not been tested on animals and workers at every part of the supply chain have been paid fairly and worked in good conditions. 

An ethical beauty product will also avoid excessive packaging and non-degradable materials. Instead of single-use plastic, they will use paper alternatives that can be recycled.

Sustainability often means quality, too

Sustainably made beauty products are made with no expenses spared. This not only guarantees efficacy and durability but helps protect biodiversity and support ecosystems.

Products like vegan serums, make-up, and hair care often last longer than their cheaper counterparts, meaning that they cost you less in the long run and reduce your overall waste.

Things to look out for when choosing ethical beauty brands

It seems like all brands are claiming to be sustainable, but it takes a bit of detective work to figure out if they actually are. Look for Certified Vegan and The Vegan Trademark labels on products to ensure that no animals were harmed during production.

Also keep your eyes peeled for USDA Organic, Ecocert, and COSMOS certifications for non-toxic products. And if you want to go palm oil free too, look out for Certified Palm Oil Free and RSPO labels. 

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