On one of the first sunny Saturdays of spring, I stroll into my local beauty store to do some spring cleaning, restocking some of my go-to clean beauty products. I consider myself an engaged citizen in the climate movement, from macros like dedicating my life’s work to climate storytelling, engaging in civil disobedience to fight for climate justice, and canvassing for politicians with aggressive climate policies; to micros like refusing to have an Amazon account and composting and offsetting my travel emissions (and, yes, I know this is a temporary solution) — all of the aforementioned with the root understanding that sustainability is a mindset, a proactive choice, and ultimately, a continuous lifestyle.
When I shop for my wardrobe, I prioritize secondhand or small-batch climate-forward brands. However, when it comes to beauty, sustainability is not as straightforward as the most accessible entry point of consumption: buying secondhand isn’t a realistic option. At first thought, if one self identifies as sustainably-minded, then clean beauty would naturally be the extension of this mindset. When I walked into the store, I asked an associate where the clean beauty section is. She points out that the brands are all interspersed and will have a tag if the brand is deemed clean. I wondered what qualifies a brand to receive this label: was it ingredients or sustainable packaging or all of the above?
As I walked around the store, different brands across all categories, from makeup to hair, had these "clean beauty" markers. Some carried the label because they used clean ingredients, others because they are cruelty-free, while some brands had the tag because of sustainable packaging. I couldn't find one brand that met all of the retailer's criteria for their "clean beauty" standard: clean ingredients, cruelty-free, vegan, sustainable packaging, and a positive environmental impact.
I walked out of the store with a mask for my boyfriend that he swears by, too overwhelmed with the "clean" choices and what it actually meant. When I saw the sustainable packaging label, I wondered about the specific products' carbon labeling or their life cycle analysis. When I saw the clean ingredients label, I wondered if that included “natural” ingredients like palm oil (when palm oil plantations are one of the biggest contributors to deforestation and loss of animal habitats, according to the WWF).
My shopping experience made me realize that my own standards of clean beauty were also not as solidified as I thought.
Where did the term "clean beauty" come from?
The clean beauty industry is on track to grow almost 10 percent each year and is projected to reach $22 billion by 2024, according to Statista Research. In another three years, in 2027, this market is projected to reach $54 billion (!!). YPulse Insights found that 66 percent of 13-39-year-olds say they’re more likely to buy a personal care or beauty product that has a “clean” label on it. So if you are one of the millions of customers around the world that has already bought a clean-beauty marketed product, why did you buy it? And more specifically, what does it mean to you? That’s the thing about clean beauty — the definition is subjective and self-regulated. Every brand, retailer, and chemist will have varying definitions. Neither the FDA nor any government agency certifies this term, contributing to the wide usage as brands take it upon themselves to self-dub as “clean beauty.”
Where did this term even come from? Jen Novakovich, cosmetic chemist and founder of The Eco Well (a platform dedicated to accessible data in beauty) says the clean beauty movement originated in the early 2000s as a “free-form” claim. Thus, most tend to still define clean beauty as products made without ingredients that may be harmful to personal health.
Ulta Beauty names 24 ingredients or ingredient categories that cannot be included in a product in order for it to be labeled clean, while Sephora has 35 on its own list. Some ingredients overlap and some totally vary. Beyond the specialized clean-beauty retailers such as Credo and The Detox Market, it seems every major retailer from Target to Walmart all have a "clean beauty" standard they promote. Beauty editors, experts, and founders now define this term as a way to identify brands and products that are sustainable from sourcing and production to end of life use — a commitment to prioritize the health of people and the planet above all.
I've come to the conclusion that clean beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Just as we all have personal opinions on what’s healthy and what’s not healthy, the same applies to 'clean' and 'sustainable.'
It’s important to call out that clean beauty is an umbrella for other vague terms in the space such as “natural,” “non-toxic,” “green,” and yes even “organic.” Pulled directly from the United States Department of Agriculture website, it states: “The FDA does not define or regulate the term “organic,” as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products.”
To add to the confusion of the clean beauty space is to understand it is built off of an entirely other confusing space: the sustainability movement. Sustainability, another term that is not regulated nor clearly defined — with answers varying depending on who you ask and from what industry — has become the go-to verbiage for products that are ethically-produced with people and planet in mind. However, the definition of sustainability is ever-evolving as society evolves, thus making clean beauty an ever-evolving terminology as well.
I've come to the conclusion that clean beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Just as we all have personal opinions on what’s healthy and what’s not healthy, the same applies to “clean” and “sustainable.” Though sometimes, in our capitalistic world, that beholder may turn out to be a multi-billion dollar marketing machine that very much seeps into our subconscious on what we believe and buy as well.
Alas, after going in many deep clean-beauty-research spirals, I reached out to a few industry experts to help us demystify the space. Below are the top three things to keep in mind when it comes to clean beauty in order to innately understand the term (and perhaps why it may be in our best interest to move away from this term entirely).
Show (what's in your product), don't tell
Fear is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s the tried and truest marketing trick in the books— when brands can capitalize on fear, they can and will, and then provide a solution to that said fear with a product. Fear-mongering and greenwashing go hand in hand to create a billion dollar industry spanning past cosmetics.
So when we see statements such as, "In beauty, the EU has banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals while the US has banned 11," know that the European Union took a prescriptive approach, while the United States took a more direct approach. “Many of those [1,300] ingredients have no historical use in the cosmetics industry in the first place, like jet fuel,” says Novakovich. “The US approach has not felt the need to include ingredients not historically used in cosmetics because why include ingredients on this list that are already illegal to use in cosmetics?”
In addition to being a chemist, as a consultant to multiple beauty brands Novakovich reflects, “There’s also a disconnect within a brand’s scientists and their marketing teams.” She says she’ll hear scientists say, “How did some of these claims end up on our products?” Without sufficient regulations, brands will sometimes use these claims because fear sells.
If that’s the case, then allow brands to show what they are doing, like carbon labeling, life cycle analyses on their website, sustainability roadmaps targeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to name a few. Instead of saying what ingredients they don’t use, show us what ingredients they do use and why and how else they’re ensuring a safe and low impact product. Rather than focus on what’s absent, focus on what’s present.
“You want to show me you’re a safe product? OK, show me how you get to that safety. Tell me how you substantiate what you are saying,” Dieux co-founder Charlotte Palermino tells me.
Clean beauty does not mean sustainable — and vice versa
Cocokind founder Priscilla Tsai poses the question: what does it even mean to be sustainable? “No brand is inherently sustainable, as we’re producing products at the end of the day,” says Tsai. When asked how else brands should position themselves then, Tsai responds, “Well most brands are just saying they’re sustainable now, which, that in itself needs demystifying.” Babba Rivera, founder of Ceremonia, agrees: “As a founder, it’s more important to focus on doing the actual work vs. marketing what clean is.”
In my years of learning about sustainability, what I have found is that what's applicable in the fashion realm does not equally transfer to the beauty realm. For example, in fashion, it’s generally better to look for mono-fibers or natural fibers, such as cotton and hemp, as opposed to synthetic fibers, like polyester. Whereas in beauty, synthetic ingredients created in a lab are not our enemy, says Novakovich.
“Agriculture has one of the highest impacts on greenhouse gases,” notes Novakovich. “So, sure, the ingredient may be natural and plant-based, but by creating space to grow it, we just contributed to deforestation and direct CO2 emissions for cosmetics.” Conversely, lab-grown ingredients significantly put less strain on the environment in the long term of preserving our planet. See the nuance here?
Nothing is “clean” or “dirty”
To understand clean beauty is to understand that this is not a binary. Just like sustainability, clean beauty is a spectrum, and it’s not as easy just to label a product “good” or “bad.” Or in this case, “clean” or “dirty.”
Let’s be mindful of the words we use, too. “There’s already so much shame when it comes to buying skin care and beauty and trying to fit into beauty standards that I think we really need to move away from any language that makes people feel bad, like they’re not good enough or what they use makes them 'dirty,'” says Palermino.
"I don’t think founders go into clean beauty thinking they’re misinforming consumers or with bad intentions, but when are we going to acknowledge that it’s complicated?"
She continues, “These are words that are very hard for me to wrap my head around especially if you look at who is using quote and quote dirty products like Vaseline — people with lower income or POC. It’s not cool.”
It’s ironic to me that clean beauty was meant to expose the traditional beauty industry and as a result, has taken on the same marketing qualms they were aiming to expose: confusion, vagueness, and a lack of nuance. This is especially true when we are being told there are only two different camps: “clean” or “dirty." There will never be true clarity for consumers as nothing is a binary in this space.
“I don’t think founders go into clean beauty thinking they’re misinforming consumers or with bad intentions, but when are we going to acknowledge that it’s complicated?” Palermino clarifies, “Or that some parts of the clean-beauty movement are damaging and we can still fight for safety, less impact, and more ethical labor without this term that makes people allergic to nuance?”
In the sustainable space, we always say “the more you know, the less you know.” As confusing as this space is, I’m still a believer in the movement that clean-beauty marketing launched: the movement that encouraged consumers to be more intentional in their purchases and to consider how their purchases impact the environment at large. We can still keep these lessons as we move towards net zero without any ostracizing terminology attached.