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The Definitive Guide To Clean Beauty — Whatever That Means

The truth about the industry is complicated.

Clean! Green! Non-Toxic! Walk down any beauty aisle these days and all the labels seem to be shouting at you about just how safe and lovely they are. They’re the emotionally supportive partner your skin needs in these scary and turbulent times. Problem is, in the grand scheme of things, none of those words actually mean anything. That’s because, like its forefather before it — natural — those terms have exactly zero government regulation, so brands can pretty much use them all willy nilly, making it exceptionally hard to know what exactly you are getting in that lovely, non-threatening “clean beauty” bottle that’s murmuring sweet skin-care nothings into your ears.

But, that’s not to say it’s all a bunch of malarkey. There is real value to the clean movement, and while there are some shady players using the words, the majority of consumers and retailers have become wise to their BS ways. Beauty lovers learned their lesson with greenwashing the hard way back in the 2010s. No, the real issue with clean is that no one has a hard and fast definition for it because everyone’s idea of what constitutes clean is different. Does it mean only natural ingredients or do proven safe synthetics count? Are sustainably sourced ingredients the only type of natural ingredients that are acceptable? Where does plastic packaging play into the clean conversation? Who even decides what is safe these days?

Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to these questions because nobody has stepped in to regulate, instead leaving it up to consumers to try and figure it all out for themselves. Because society didn’t have enough to deal with already, now consumers have to play Nancy Drew with the origins of preservatives to make sure they meet everyone’s personal safety and environmental responsibility standards. Rad.

The good news is that, sensing shoppers’ frustrations, many brands and retailers have stepped up to the plate to help make things a little easier by being more transparent about what clean means to them, to help you better determine if a product meets your personal clean beauty standards.

With that in mind, below you can hear from some of the leaders in the space to find out what you need to know to be a better clean beauty shopper. Because until the industry as a whole gets its collective act together to get the damn thing done on regulation, you have to educate yourself to determine what the standards of safe beauty should be.

Clean Beauty: What Does “Clean” Mean?

As stated before, it doesn’t technically mean anything because there’s no governing body in the U.S. making hard and fast rules on who can use the word and what constitutes clean. “We live in a world where companies can say whatever they want without having to back it up or actually do what they claim,” notes Tata Harper, founder of Tata Harper Skincare. “Because of the rise of clean beauty, every brand is trying to claim that they are safe or natural or any of those adjectives.” Although, to be fair, this isn’t a problem with just clean beauty — terms like clinical and science-backed also aren’t regulated. Adds Greg Gonzalez, co-founder of Youth To The People, “I believe a lot of brands use the term ‘clean’ with good intentions, but since it’s undefined, each brand is left to give their own interpretation of what they believe ‘clean’ really means. For example, some ingredients or preservatives get a bad rap because they have been marketed that way, even though they are perfectly safe from a scientific point of view.”

While everyone has different opinions on the finer points of clean beauty, there is one core theme that seems to run throughout, which is, as True Botanicals founder Hillary Peterson puts it, “I consider beauty products clean if every ingredient and sub ingredient in that product is proven safe for people and the planet.” Every brand and retailer interviewed for this story had some variation of that basic idea, although definitions as to “safe for the planet” range from sustainable harvesting to limiting virgin plastics in bottles to utilizing reusable packaging in programs like the subscription Loop service.

Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson, one of the first to call her products clean in mainstream beauty, actually got so sick of people throwing the word around that she switched to biocompatible instead. “Brands and retailers are all defining ‘clean’ to fit their own ideas of what that is and its over-use has resulted in a dilution of the term,” she says. “I used it in the beginning to describe my unique philosophy of using both synthetics and naturals while still remaining ‘good for you,’ but I soon moved to biocompatible — ingredients that aren’t harmful to living tissue. This not only means avoiding ingredients that have been shown to be disruptive or linked to disease, it also means avoiding ingredients that could potentially be sensitizing, damaging, or inflammatory to skin.”

Clean Beauty: How Do I Shop Clean?

Retailers like Ulta and Credo have it a little more difficult re: clean because they are juggling multiple brands with multiple interpretations of the word. So they’ve adapted by instituting their own standards that brands must abide by in order to be able to be called clean in their store. “Our definition — and our vision — is the foundation for the Credo Clean Standard, the document that guides our company and our 130+ brand partners, which have to sign and comply with the Clean Standard,” explains Annie Jackson, Credo co-founder and COO. “Every brand we sell must meet our strict standards that encompass ingredient sourcing (knowing where it came from), ingredient integrity (the brand accurately represents this on their ingredient list), ingredient and product manufacturing (ingredients are grown sustainably or made without toxic or unsustainable manufacturing aides), ingredient safety (it was chosen for its low hazard or low risk), and the end of product's life (considering the potential effects of the product/packaging when it is washed down the drain, thrown in landfill, can it be recycled, etc.).”

Ulta ambitiously unveiled an entire program last year dedicated to conscious beauty and making it easy for consumers to shop their values by categorizing brands into five “pillars” — Clean Ingredients, Cruelty Free, Vegan, Sustainable Packaging, and Positive Impact — based on meeting specific criteria set by the retailer. Only brands and products that do so earn the right to reside in that section and carry the corresponding Conscious Beauty at Ulta Beauty label.

“Consumers are increasingly more conscientious about making informed product choices, and we’ve seen rising interest in clean beauty and sustainable practices,” notes Monica Arnaudo, chief merchandising officer at Ulta Beauty. “Given these are personal and layered experiences, Conscious Beauty at Ulta Beauty focuses on educating, guiding, and simplifying product choices. Our research shows that natural ingredients, recyclable packaging, and brands that reflect guests’ personal values will continue to be important.”

Clean Beauty: What Are These “Made Without” Lists All About?

These are a semi-new, but welcomed addition because they’ve added some sort of continuity to the category. Many brands and retailers have created comprehensive lists that they use to determine if a product meets their standards for what constitutes clean — and they require brands to not contain those ingredients in order to earn the clean label (and, in some cases, to even be carried in the store). For Credo, there’s The Dirty List, which features over 2,700 restricted materials that have been identified as either having links to cancer, being a hormone disruptor, being an allergen or skin sensitizer, being toxic to the environment, or being toxic to the human body. Ulta has the Made Without List, which was created with science and health experts after looking at the latest research and scientific studies around ingredients and health.

In the absence of U.S. government regulation, many brands also look to Europe and agencies like EcoCert and COSMOS, which have clearly defined regulations around non-toxic cosmetics, to inform their policies around which ingredients to exclude in their product formulations. Then there’s Made Safe, of which Peterson is a total stan. “Made Safe certification is the most comprehensive safety and sustainability standard available, backed by some of the world’s leading scientists,” she says. “Importantly, this certification does not rely on self reporting. They are looking into each ingredient and sub ingredient to assure product safety, and I believe that this level of transparency is what is going to help build trust in products.”

Clean Beauty: What’s The Deal With Chemicals?

Oh boy. You need a lot of time and space to truly unpack this, but the general gist of the matter is that there’s a whole kerfuffle around “chemicals” in beauty products, which is, again, another term that doesn’t actually mean anything. Organic compounds in nature are technically chemicals, if you want to get all technical about it. As Harper puts it, “Scientifically speaking, everything that you can breathe, touch, see, and ingest is made of chemicals, because matter combines and changes to make up the physical world as we know it.” I.e. the literal definition of a chemical. Boom. Science.

But many brands and influencers have made themselves rich and semi-famous by railing against them and touting “chemical-free” beauty. Which, again, is not a thing, because, as Jackson notes, “Everything – including water – is a chemical. So it is simply false (and probably fear-mongering) to position something as ‘free of chemicals.’”

In most cases what these brands are referring to when they use the term “chemical” is either a known toxic compound like formaldehyde, or in the more extreme cases, all synthetic ingredients, which says Masterson, is ridiculous. “Natural doesn’t mean safe or even good for the skin — there are plenty of examples of naturally-derived substances that are bad for you. Lead, snake venom, mold, and poison ivy are 100% natural,” she says. “The concept of synthetic unfairly gets a bad rap, but your body is synthesizing ingredients all the time from the nutrients you feed it. Synthetic or natural, whether an ingredient is harmful is entirely dependent upon the amount used, and how it is used.” Instead, look to those ingredient lists and allow them to be your bellwether for safety.

Clean Beauty: So How Do I Tell Who Is Legit?

The key words here are transparency and education. If a brand is truly clean, they will prominently display everything from their beliefs and ethics around clean beauty to how their products adhere to that. Brands that just slap the word on a bottle or throw a pretty green flower on their label and leave it at that are probably not adhering to a clean code of conduct. “There is a wealth of information out there today that empowers people to know what they are consuming,” says Jackson. “Customers should look for companies that share a written standard that is clear and accessible that brands have to meet in order to either be sold at that store or receive their certification.”

Clean Beauty: Is Any Of This Going To Change?

Considering the beauty industry already went through something similar with organic beauty and eventually managed to get regulations in place around the term, there’s always a slim chance that someone will step in and set up more comprehensive guidelines — but most brands aren’t optimistic. “Given how little beauty industry regulations have evolved in my lifetime, I am less confident that regulation will be a catalyst for change and I am more confident that transparent, authentic, committed brands will draw a huge following and inspire meaningful change in the process,” says Peterson. In other words, your money, and how you choose to spend it, has power to evoke change.

For her part, Jackson thinks that there’s a possibility the government might get involved on a more ingredient-specific level. “In the next few years we expect to see more state and federal policies that address some of the most toxic chemicals used in our industry, as well as the lack of transparency around ‘fragrance’ and ‘recyclable’ claims in packaging,” she says. “Credo actively supports policy changes that will spur more innovation and clarity — and less disinformation and waste — in our industry.”

Harper, on the other hand, is looking forward to seeing advancements on the science side that will allow more brands to ditch harmful ingredients in favor of safer alternatives. “What I am very excited about is the very rapid evolution and advancement of green beauty technologies,” she says. “I am super happy more and more brands can have access to it and hopefully will be using them. We have the opportunity to access advanced technologies from all over the world that are safe for your skin and the planet and more powerful and efficacious than toxic [ones].”

You can call this category of beauty clean, green, or non-toxic, but at the end of the day, you should prioritize what’s safe for you, your body, and for the planet — which is something that, thankfully, is getting more realistic with each passing day. “What is more important than a term like clean or organic is the intention and the actions of companies making the products that we purchase,” says Peterson. “I am so encouraged by the number of brands that genuinely care about creating positive change in our industry. And there is so much opportunity to do better so I would say, don’t give up! Change is happening and, importantly, through making informed decisions, we can all promote the brands that are cleaning up the beauty industry.”