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What is Clean Beauty?

Over the past few years clean beauty has become a buzzword, emerging from niche industry into mainstream. But clean beauty can be a minefield to navigate. What exactly is it?

Over the past few years clean beauty has become a buzzword, emerging from niche industry into mainstream. As the backlash against traditional commercial beauty companies gathers serious momentum, companies have jumped on the clean beauty bandwagon in response to consumers’ concerns about potentially toxic ingredients in cosmetics and skincare with products excluding phthalates, parabens and other concerning ingredients. Quite understandable. As your largest organ your skin stands to absorb a lot of what you put on it, so it’s worth thinking twice about what you put on your face and body. But clean beauty can be a minefield to navigate. What exactly is it?

So, how do you define clean beauty?

Here’s the thing, clean beauty is still open to interpretation. There is no international or industry set definition of the term, and brands marketing themselves as clean offer their own definition of what that is. The cosmetics industry is one of the least regulated industries, and notorious in its lack of transparency. Without an international standard, the term can be misleading, sometimes deliberately so. Clean, like organic, green, and natural, are ambiguous terms often employed by brands as a marketing tool, or a greenwashing ploy to attract your money. Often these terms are used interchangeably adding further confusion.

The EU has banned more than 1,300 ingredients deemed unsafe for household products, with a small percentage making up ingredients used in cosmetics. But certain ingredients banned in the EU may not be considered toxic in the US. In fact, in the U.S. where there is no FDA approved definition of clean, less than a dozen harmful chemicals have been banned. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is the only US Government monitor of ingredients in cosmetics, and not much has changed since it was first passed in 1938. That’s older than most beauty companies operating today! This has given the beauty industry a lot of room to make its own rules, and to define and interpret terms like clean, natural, organic any way they see fit.

In the U.S. where there is no FDA approved definition of clean, less than a dozen harmful chemicals have been banned.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a US based non-profit research and advocacy group, a shocking eighty percent of the chemicals in personal-care products have never been tested for safety. Your favourite skincare or beauty products could contain plasticisers, surfectants, harmful preservatives and formaldehyde (used as embalming fluid). Since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm in more than 73,000 products. Although many argue that the chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics and personal care products likely pose little risk, exposure to some over a long period of time has been linked to serious health problems, including cancer. And we tend to use products repeatedly and daily. And while tests may still be inconclusive, if there is a cleaner better product out there that is not linked to adverse health effects, wouldn’t you choose it?

Clean vs Natural Ingredients

A clean product does not necessarily mean natural, although there are products where that can be the case. Natural means ingredients or chemicals that are found in nature—they can be plant, mineral or animal derived, and may be processed a number of ways. If the ingredients have undergone bleaching or have been heat treated the beneficial enzymes and botanical integrity in botanical derived ingredients will not have survived, which defeats the purpose of buying natural, really. Furthermore, not all natural ingredients are clean— lead, aluminium and petroleum for example, are naturally occurring, but not desirable on your face. Also, not all chemicals are bad—after all, water is a chemical­, and so is oxygen— just as not all natural plant derived ingredients are great. Some essential oils, like eucalyptus, cinnamon leaf, and peppermint, citral, limonene for example are skin irritants. Do your research, learn the ingredients, and find what works best for you.

Clean beauty ultimately is about safe, non-toxic ingredients, products that are created without the use of ingredients proven or suspected to cause adverse health effects

Clean beauty ultimately is about safe, non-toxic ingredients, products that are created without the use of ingredients proven or suspected to cause adverse health effects, like endocrine disruptors, carcinogens or allergens; eliminating aggressive ingredients and toxic chemicals like artificial colours and fragrance. Transparency here is key. Look for ingredients that are ethically sourced and made with the health of our bodies and the environment in mind.

Is Preservative-Free Always Better?

Many ‘clean’ companies tout that they are preservative-free, suggesting that they are safer, but not all preservatives are bad. Water-based products need preservatives to prevent the growth of yeast, mold and other possibly harmful microbes in products. Preservatives help keep beauty products safe and stable. But there are problematic synthetic preservatives, like parabens including: Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben, which have been linked to hormone disruption. And then there are ‘safe’ preservatives like vegetable glycerin, neem oil, and 190-proof alcohol; botanical preservatives like essential oils with preservative and antioxidant properties like tea tree oil, vitamin E, grapeseed extract; food grade preservatives (like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate); alcohols (organic ethanol, grape alcohol, benzyl alcohol, and witch hazel); and a short list of others that are sourced from plants (like gluconolactone, ethylhexyglycerin, triiostearyl citrate); and some that are synthetic but non-toxic preservatives, like dehydroacetic acid.

Vegan Doesn’t Mean Clean

Many people associate vegan with clean, but this is not necessarily the case. Vegan beauty means products without animal derived ingredients like milk, honey, beeswax, carmine, keratin, lanolin or whey. A vegan product can be plant-based, mineral or synthetic and many vegan brands may be riddled with harmful ingredients. One look at the liquid eye liner of a popular U.S. cult vegan brand reveals: silicones (Polyglyceryl-3 Disiloxane Dimethicone); petroleum derivatives (butylene glycol); microplastics; parabens (associated linked to organ system toxicity); and toxic colour (Nano Black 2 Ci77266, derived from coal tar), which has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 2B carcinogen, which means it's possibly carcinogenic to humans. Yep, it was time to ditch my beloved vegan eyeliner and find one that was both vegan and clean.

Also, bear in mind that vegan and cruelty-free are also not interchangeable. Cruelty-free means the product has not been tested in any way on animals, but they may contain animal derived ingredients like lanolin, carmine etc. If you want products that are vegan and clean check the labels to see if your product is vegan certified and free of nasty toxic ingredients.

Beware the Greenwashing

Ah, the ubiquitous practice of greenwashing! It’s all ‘clean this’, ‘sustainable that’ nowadays, but not all brands deliver. Many brands claim to be clean without actually committing to the ethos. One German cult brand I had been using produces a cleanser that lists talc as its main ingredient, a substance which has raised asbestos contamination concerns and has been linked to breast cancer. The brand also produces a ‘clean’ sunscreen I had been wearing for years which turned out to be have octynoxate, a concerning ingredient that has come under a lot of scrutiny due to its links to hormone disruption and cancer, and has been banned in Hawaii due to its damaging effects on coral reefs. Don’t believe the hype, and look beyond the branding. Always check the INCI ingredient label and do your own research.

Where Do You Start Your Clean Beauty Journey? 

Buying the right clean beauty products is about being informed to cut through all the marketing and making the right choice for you. Decide what you’re comfortable with. Some people want only natural botanical derived preservatives, others don’t mind a small percentage of clean synthetics. Rather than subscribing to a brand’s ‘free from’ list decide for yourself what you don’t want in a product. Using a paraben and silicone-loaded shampoo, or a mascara containing coal tar, isn’t going to give you cancer overnight, but we don’t know the long-term bio-accumulative effects of using these chemicals daily. Many clean beauty advocates choose to err on the side of caution.

Ready to try some clean beauty and skin care swaps. Here are some tips to start your clean beauty cabinet:

  • Declutter your beauty cabinet. Throw out/swap out/gift products that you never use/don’t suit you/are old/ or you are sensitive to.

  • You don’t have to get rid of everything and start again. Start by swapping out products you use the most and have had long term exposure on your skin, like body lotions for example, deodorant, sunscreen which you wear every day. If you wear lipstick or eyeliner daily, start there. Or, if you find a clean product that performs better than what you are currently using, swap it out.

  • If you have sensitive skin start with eliminating problem ingredients like sulphates and silicones. Avoid parabens and phthalates if you’re concerned about potential hormone disruptors.

  • Avoid microplastics. These are non-negotiable—you don’t want them on your face and we certainly don’t want them in our oceans. Keep away from ingredients like: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), Nylon (PA), Polyurethane, and Acrylates Copolymer.

  • Try to avoid unsustainable palm oil in your products.

  • Switch out the synthetic fragrances in your skincare (listed as ‘fragrance’, 'parfum', or ‘perfume’ in the INCI). It’s a cocktail of toxins and allergens, and you just don’t need them.

  • In 2018, the annual campaign Zero Waste Week reported that 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, much of which is not recyclable. Look for clean beauty brands who also incorporate minimal or recyclable packaging.

  • Read the INCI (ingredients label) and become familiar with ingredients and so you can avoid harmful chemicals. Check out apps like:

Environmental Working Group: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

Discover some of our favourite clean beauty brands


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