Clean Beauty: What It Means and What You Need to Know

Words by Claire Blaha

Photograph by Sora Shimazaki, courtesy of Pexels

Clean beauty is big business. Actor Gwyneth Paltrow has carved out a whole second career as a wellness and lifestyle maven with her company Goop and Brad Pitt recently unveiled his “science-meets-nature” skincare line. Other famous faces including Rihanna, Pharrell Williams and Naomi Osaka have all waded into the beauty industry, all offering simple, effective and sustainable products.

There are more options than ever for conscious beauty consumers to choose from: non-toxic nail polishes, cruelty-free conditioners, natural body butters and organic moisturizers. Skincare customers are looking for products that don’t cause irritation, that clear up the skin or maintain shiny hair, and are willing to pay for it. The Soil Association reported an 11th consecutive year of growth for this market, with more than 15% increase in 2021 of certified organic and natural products that took the market worth to £138.23m.

But clean beauty is not so easy to nail down. When you search for the “definition of clean beauty,” Google will give you hundreds of articles and ads describing serums and shampoos that are better for you for a multitude of reasons. What can be gathered from scrolling through the search results is that clean beauty products are generally defined as those made with ingredients that consider both human and environmental health. In the United States, the beauty industry is mostly self-regulated or kept in check by consumers, and the clean beauty movement is a response to the want and need for safety and transparency.

You shouldn’t have to worry about putting your health or wellbeing at risk by simply using a product. Many companies within the beauty industry now proudly tout their lists of ingredients, confident in the knowledge that many of the elements are non-toxic and safe to use on the body. Beauty should never really be pain, and the industry has woken up to the fact that consumers increasingly care about what they use on their bodies and the impact on the environment.

Photograph by Polina Kovaleva, courtesy of Pexels

Ultimately, though, transparency is key. Clean beauty is only clean because consumers are starting to hold beauty brands and the industry accountable for past mistakes, and now expect them to improve upon them. Because clean beauty is a fairly modern concept and is unregulated by authorities, it has been left up to manufacturers, consumers and society at large to determine what clean beauty means to them.

The rise of clean beauty has been largely driven by consumers with sensitive skin, and those taking a considered approach to their personal care. Many customers now do their “own research”, looking up ingredients lists and searching for reviews before they part ways with their money. Parabens, sulfates and acids are now commonplace words that determine whether a skincare product leaves the shelf.

Health and safety are obviously very important, and many people include environmental responsibility as a major aspect of the clean beauty movement. For many beauty manufacturers, this means using sustainable ingredients that are ethically sourced, and natural cruelty-free over harmful ingredients, some of which have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US (the European Union has banned more than 1,000 chemicals). However, cosmetic brands are not always required to disclose the contents of their products, if it is considered a trade secret, such as in fragrance. This creates a loophole that means that any skincare, beauty, makeup or hair-care product has the potential to still contain many possibly harmful ingredients with no real oversight.

It also gives way to greenwashing. Described as an insincere or superficial display of concern for the environment, greenwashing obscures the standards of clean beauty, with the use of phrases that can only be taken at face value. Often, wording that could indicate clean beauty can widely differ from company to company, package to package, and it can feel impossible to decipher the truth from myth. When beauty companies want to appeal to the health and environmentally conscious consumers, they will use common buzzwords to advertise a false message about their products, which can be harmful to unsuspecting users.

It’s important for consumers to read the list of ingredients in a product, look out for ambiguous words and understand what works for them. One person’s skin irritant might be the product that finally clears up another’s blemish. Ultimately, clean beauty can mean something different to each individual, who can choose which products to use based on their needs and values. But the creation of a governing body that can regulate the industry will go a long way in assisting consumers to make the best beauty choices not only for themselves, but for the planet.

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