What exactly is clean beauty? | Noah Buscher / Unsplash

When it comes to beauty, clean is the new normal. People are increasingly on the lookout for safer makeup and skincare products, with fewer toxic ingredients (an IPSOS report from last year found that 59 percent of American respondents were interested in buying clean beauty products). But in a world of marketing spin, the definition of what actually constitutes clean, natural, or vegan beauty can be muddied. Here, we’ll clarify it all.

What Is Clean Beauty?

While lifestyle brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh are often thought of as synonymous with clean beauty, the movement’s roots are way deeper than the celebrity world.

The industry was actually birthed by organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They were frustrated with the FDA and its lack of regulation over the cosmetics and personal care industry: Back in 1938, the FDA passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In 1966, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Neither regulate many of the ingredients used in beauty products today.

In response to the lack of external regulation, these organizations started conducting their own checks on beauty ingredients. Brands caught on and started doing the same, and the clean beauty industry began to grow.

But the problem is, the lack of clear guidelines from the FDA seems to have now been twisted to the advantage of some brands in the beauty industry.

Terms like “natural” and “clean” aren’t regulated either, which has led brands to come up with their own definitions of clean beauty.

Are Some Beauty Ingredients Really Toxic?

Back in April, Harper’s Bazaar conducted an extensive investigation into what constitutes clean beauty. It concluded that some of the “most common beauty ingredients of concern” are parabens, fragrances, aluminum compounds, ethoxylated agents, formaldehyde, refined petroleum, hydroquinone, talc, triclosan, silica, and oxybenzone.

But whether all of these ingredients are really harmful appears to be up for debate.

Paraben-free, in particular, has become a marketing buzz phrase. It’s slapped on virtually every label in the clean beauty industry. The idea that parabens are harmful stems from the fact that they are similar to estrogen. In high levels, estrogen may increase the risk of cancer.

But in beauty products, paraben levels are usually very low. Cancer Research UK’s health information officer Katie Patrick told the Guardian: “For most chemicals, what’s important is the dose we’re exposed to. Most things have the potential to cause damage, but only at levels far higher than we’d ever experience in cosmetics or day-to-day life.”

‘Consumers Don’t Want Them’

So, if parabens aren’t dangerous in small amounts, why are clean beauty brands so eager to purge them from their products? Well, actually, many aren’t fussed.

On more than one occasion, Tiffany Masterson, the founder of clean beauty brand Drunk Elephant, has revealed she doesn’t think parabens in beauty products are harmful. So why does she continue to avoid them? Because, she told The Guardian, “consumers don’t want them.”

And it’s not just parabens. Another ingredient shunned in the clean beauty world is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS). This is due to links with skin irritation.

But skin barrier function expert Professor Richard Guy of the University of Bath told the Guardian that whether SLS is harmful is subject to a number of variables. It depends on the individual, how much they use, and where they apply it to the skin.

He explained that “someone with eczema, who has a weakened skin barrier, may be more vulnerable because more SLS can be absorbed, increasing the likelihood of irritation,” but noted that SLS is “generally being used at sufficiently low levels that irritation is avoided.”

It’s the same for ingredients like fragrances and essential oils; what causes irritation and sensitivity to one person may cause no problem to another.

‘It’s Annoying and It’s Getting Old’

But what about the most serious claim? Namely: Could toxic ingredients in beauty products really cause cancer?

Makeup artist Sheri Stroh, a breast cancer survivor, was told by her oncologists that beauty products were not a cause for concern.

She told Elle: “Cancer is really complex. A lot of times, you can’t pinpoint a cause. [Brands need to] stop using cancer and other diseases to make money. It’s annoying and it’s getting old.”

Chemistry PhD graduate and science educator Michelle Wong agrees that clean beauty brands often get it wrong with their “no-nasties” marketing.

“The way clean beauty tends to brand itself is by saying ‘it will be clean if it’s missing these ingredients,’ and the flip side is, ‘it isn’t clean if it contains any of these ingredients,’ but that’s not how toxicology works,” she told Elle.

“The dose is really important,” she added. “There are safe quantities and unsafe quantities of ingredients.”

The “Cleanwashing” Effect

Clean beauty claims about toxic ingredients are exaggerated in some cases, but not completely unfounded. Some ingredients can cause irritation, and if you have a condition like eczema or psoriasis — or simply just sensitive skin — clean beauty products can be ideal.

But there is another problem in the industry: cleanwashing. It happens when brands try to make themselves seem “cleaner” than they are through marketing that ranges from stretching the truth slightly to being downright deceptive.

They may try to advertise themselves as “clean” because they’ve eliminated one or two ingredients from their products, but choose to glaze over the ones they have left in. According to research by financial technology company CircleUp, just over half of the brands that use “clean beauty” marketing use fragrance in their products.

Clean also often appears in tandem with words like “natural” and “sustainable,” which are also unregulated. These terms imply that a product is beneficial for humans and the environment. But when they are slapped on a product without clear definition or evidence, it can constitute something very similar to cleanwashing: greenwashing.

Greenwashing occurs when brands try to make a product seem more ethical than it actually is, in a bid to capitalize on rising conscious-consumer demand. Find out more about greenwashing here.

4 Myths About Clean Beauty, Debunked

As we’ve explained, the waters around the term “clean beauty” are muddy. Cleanwashing, greenwashing, and a lack of regulation and clear guidance can lead to a lot of consumer confusion. To help you figure out which products line up with your wants and values, here are four of the top clean beauty myths, debunked.

1. Clean Beauty Is Always Vegan

While there is often a crossover between clean beauty and vegan beauty, the two terms do not mean the same thing.

Quite simply, vegan beauty products use zero animal products. That means you won’t find ingredients like beeswax, cochineal, and collagen on the back of a vegan-labelled product. But you could still find them in clean beauty.

Let’s take collagen as an example. Collagen comes from the connective tissue of animals, meaning, by definition, it is not vegan. But many brands that define themselves as clean still sell it, hailing its skin-firming and plumping benefits. (Find more information on whether you really need to boost your collagen with animal bones here.)

On the other hand, some brands that identify as vegan-friendly sell products that some clean beauty brands wouldn’t. Some vegan-labelled shampoos, for instance, contain SLS.

2. Clean Beauty Is Always Cruelty-Free

While they may sometimes overlap, the terms cruelty-free, vegan, and clean are not interchangeable. Cruelty-free means that the product has not been tested on animals.

To qualify as cruelty-free, brands must not allow their products to be tested on animals at any stage in manufacturing. None of their finished products can be tested on animals, and they must not conduct business with other companies that use animal tests.

Leaping Bunny and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) both certify products as cruelty-free. For more information, find our complete guide here.

Bakuchiol, used in beauty products, is endangered. | Simone Morris/ Shutterstock

3. Clean Beauty Is Always Good for the Planet

Eliminating toxic ingredients from beauty products benefits the planet. When harmful chemicals are washed down the drain, this can harm underwater ecosystems.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean clean beauty products are always 100-percent sustainable.

Bakuchiol, found on the leaves of the Psoralea corylifolia plant, is hailed as a pure, natural, clean ingredient in the beauty industry. But the plant is actually endangered, with a low germination rate. Researchers are concerned about the unsustainability of its continued harvest.

James Wong, an ethnobotanist, told Glamour: “The reality when using natural ingredients, is that sourcing them will always have some sort of environmental impact.”

Packaging is another key part of sustainability. Every year, beauty brands produce roughly 77 billion units of plastic, and 70 percent of that ends up in landfills. So it’s also important to look for brands that use biodegradable packaging or have zero-waste initiatives.

4. Clean Beauty Products Always Use Natural Ingredients

Although natural beauty and clean beauty are often used interchangeably, clean beauty doesn’t always exclusively use natural ingredients.

The Good Face Project — a data-driven index of cosmetic ingredients, which analyzes and grades ingredients based on their safety, effectiveness, and cosmetic benefits — notes that as long as man-made ingredients “are safe and non-toxic,” there’s no reason why they should be excluded from clean beauty products.

“Clean beauty doesn’t have to be all-natural, preservative-free, etc. Clean beauty is synonymous with non-toxic beauty,” it notes on its website. “As long as certain synthetic ingredients are non-toxic and proven to have no harmful effects, they can be incorporated into clean beauty products.”

Even though we hope we’ve clarified things here, it will still take some research to find the right products for you. Determine what you want to achieve with each product, and which ingredients you’re comfortable with. Then read the ingredients — and avoid the dazzling buzzwords and marketing spin — and ask questions whenever you’re unsure. Trust your gut and let your own thoughts and beliefs guide your selections. Finally, don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t instantly make the perfect choice — a little patience is required on the way to your ideal beauty routine.