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Why Are White Women & Influencers Still Leading Clean Beauty?

Clean beauty has always felt sort of ambiguous to me. That’s far from a unique take, given that the definitions of both “clean” and “beauty” exist on some incredibly wide-spanning spectrum that primarily capitalism benefits from defining and not defining. For years, I understood the general concept of clean beauty —  "safe," "non-toxic," "green," transparent — and basically linked it with everything I equated to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop — white, wealthy, white, granola, white, fear-mongering, white, classist, white, white, white. The brands I equated with “clean” also managed to not feature a single person that looked like me or my friends, so they didn’t really enter my radar. The Goopification of it all rubbed me the wrong way, and not to mention, what they were doing wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. It was the work my mom and family were doing in our bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms for years.

You see, clean beauty, fundamentally, has always been a part of BIPOC cultures and communities. Shea butter, moringa oil, turmeric — the trendy ingredients of modern day are just things that have always worked for us when there wasn’t something that existed on the market. The issue with Clean Beauty (capitalization intentional) is that the powers behind marketing and communicating the brands and retailers — the people that are at the head and are getting the most spotlight, just happen to be a lot of brands that are white-owned. But behind the scenes, the clean beauty space is diverse, collaborative, and enthusiastic.
I spoke with entrepreneurs in the clean beauty industry about their experience with retailers, media outlets, and their colleagues. They also shared their thoughts on why the industry seems so dominated by white voices and of course, how we can spark a change in the space.

Why is clean beauty so white?

When clean beauty came onto the scene, the faces we saw behind the brands were mainly white women, despite clean beauty being something that is intrinsically engrained in BIPOC communities. “I think we now see the accessibility of clean ingredients and formulas, and folks from different backgrounds formulating with these ingredients to speak to needs that BIPOC have,” explains Jamika Martin of ROSEN Skincare. “The newness of many commercial spaces and mass innovation tend to be initially dominated by white people because they have so much more access to the resources needed to start something at that scale." It's not that clean beauty itself isn't inclusive of non-white people, but rather, the gatekeeping of accessibility and knowledge to create and develop commercial brands in the clean beauty space is where the inclusivity issue lies.
“Part of the reason it's so white is that the language of clean dates back to eugenics and the temperance movement. The language stems from the concept of purity and puritanical American thinking.” Charlotte Palermino of Dieux Skin (the only non-BIPOC source in this piece) shares with me. “The reality is, plant healing and holistic healing have always been a part of Black, Indigenous and POC culture — the distorting of it, and use for profit on shame/fear and the nebulous idea of ‘pure’ ingredients, is really a white people thing. The idea you can never be pure enough, clean enough or good enough, consume and buy your way to a better, healthier, cleaner self — it's classist.”
Palermino has a point — every day it seems that we’re learning of some disagreeable thing that white people, who have been the arbiters of cleanliness and purity for thousands of years, have normalized while shaming non-white people for being “dirty” simply due to their cultural norms. There’s also a lot of education, misinformation, and judgment floating in the space that is hard for consumers (and brands) to navigate. "Even the word “clean” implies that other perfectly fine products may be “dirty” — and I don’t think there should be any superiority in how you care for yourself or your family,” Cynthia Sakai, founder of evolvetogether, explains.
“Western beauty as a whole has historically been associated with whiteness, and that's had a lasting effect on who gets a say and seat at the table,” says Brianna Arps of MOODEAUX, a clean, luxury fragrance label
Oh, and we would be remiss to forget the eternal Pigment Problem. The primary excuse as to why it’s hard to make certain shades in “clean” products is that those pigments are hard to make clean. “Truthfully, it is more difficult to create clean pigmented products that would show on tinted skin," explains Deepica Mutyala, founder of Live Tinted. "For a lot of companies, it is not worth the investment.”
Sakai breaks down that the issue isn't just with founders, but with retailers and the manufacturers, as well. “There’s less diversity in manufacturing and ownership, so the formulas and products themselves aren’t always being made in inclusive ways."
Representation matters is a phrase we hear time and time again, but we're regularly reminded that it is extremely valid and extremely important to not be singularly-focused when developing product. “Unless a founder is very intentional about building inclusive product ranges, they wouldn't necessarily take into consideration that deeper skin tones need more highly pigmented color cosmetics,” explains Aja Frierson of Habit Cosmetics.
It’s really that simple — make it the ethos of your brand, and find a way to make it work. That’s why brands like LiveTinted and Habit Cosmetics are successful — they didn’t take no for an answer.

"Data will tell you that white people shop clean beauty more than any other race, but the products being produced are for fair skin, so of course they’re the ones shopping for it! I’m not going to shop for something that makes me look like Casper the friendly ghost."

Melissa Butler, Founder of The Lip Bar
And of course, there’s the luxury = white perception problem, which, well, we’ve already talked about. “It really makes me feel that ‘clean beauty’ is looked at as less inclusive of BIPOC people. Mainly because there's several reports that show Black and brown individuals are already faced with fewer options for healthier products than their white counterparts when choosing from options targeted specifically for them,” Arps complains. 
“​​For a long time, I believe clean beauty was viewed as a luxury. Luxury translates to wealth, and the image of wealth we see most in this country is dominated by the white people," Melissa Butler of The Lip Bar, a vegan and cruelty-free makeup line sold in Target, adds. "Data will tell you that white people shop clean beauty more than any other race, but the products being produced are for fair skin, so of course, they’re the ones shopping for it! I’m not going to shop for something that makes me look like Casper the friendly ghost. Why would a Black or Brown or any other race shop a product, regardless of price tag or its luxury perception, when it doesn’t enhance or help or work for their skin?”
Before clean beauty can shake the whiteness baggage, they’re going to have to examine it all from the top down. The majority of clean beauty brands, from the C-suite down, are lead by majority white people. Thus, the issue is in marketing existing from a primarily white lens, but also the money put behind those brands will often favor the white ones over the non-white ones. It’s not a lack of non-white owned clean beauty brands — it’s about who’s at the head of it all. 

Disrupting the white space

Several brand owners explained to me that when trying to spark mass-market interest in their lines, they had to do a lot of education and eye-opening training. “We had the courage to be a brand that deviated from the ‘norm,’ which for a long time was beauty brands owned by white men who marketed to white women,” Butler shares. Sakai was able to find a woman-owned manufacturer to work with to make evolvetogether's personal care products, which she notes is very rare.
Before clean beauty really took off, many people couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in bucking the status quo and not keep using the same (mostly economical, environmentally-harmful) ingredients and preservatives of yesteryear. “As someone that lives a clean/green lifestyle, I firmly believe that what we put on our bodies impacts what happens within our bodies — so I didn’t care that producing cleaner products would cost me more, I cared about the long term costs that this would have on our bodies and our planet and I stood firmly in that,” says Lulu Cordero of Bomba Curls.
That’s the through-line from all of the founders interviewed for this story: They stayed firm in their bottom line of their brand’s mission, and that kept retailers interested. “An increasing number of retailers are becoming aware of the need for cleaner beauty products because an increasing number of customers are looking for that on the shelves,” Cordero adds.
The change in the space is coming from inside the house, literally. “From my perspective as a Black woman, I think society is receptive to our ideas and businesses more than ever before, because they're more visible than ever before,” shares Arps. “Mainstream visibility coupled with the urgency to support us, whether through the media/press or investors/retailers has been key over the past few years and will remain important as time goes on to continue bridging gaps in clean beauty.”

It’s easiest to sell to a consumer you identify with and unsurprisingly, the early clean brands were started by predominantly white founders who historically have a leg up in terms of access to funding, education and network

Amy Liu, founder of tower 28 beauty
Not to mention, there’s the problem of mere access. To say the beauty world is full of boundaries and barriers would be calling red tape "light pink." It's just not true — non-white people in the beauty space are lacking in options for funding, education, and mentorship as it is, and when you add on the additional cost of wanting to be clean and/or sustainable and/or transparent with your customer base, it's a hard stone to turn over. I'm told it's always about who you know, and in an industry that seems nearly built on excluding non-white people, it can be extremely difficult.
“I’m so grateful for those relationships as I know breaking in without strong contacts can be tough, especially as a person of color,” explains Tower 28 Beauty’s Amy Liu. “It’s easiest to sell to a consumer you identify with and unsurprisingly, the early clean brands were started by predominantly white founders who historically have a leg up in terms of access to funding, education and network,” Liu continues. It's this reason that Liu started Tower 28's Clean Beauty Summer School program, "to help BIPOC-owned clean beauty companies learn about the industry and build these bonds with mentors and other brands.”
Where some clean beauty brands are struggling is in the Russian Doll of branding, when it comes to retailers. What happens when the retailer feels that a brand is extra, extra niche? “There's retailers that are so excited about us, and want us to be in this space, [...] but then there's also retailers that say to me, ‘Oh, we love what you guys are doing,’ but they look at us just as a shea butter brand,” Abena Boamah-Acheampong of Hanahana Beauty explains. “And the thing is that, one, we're not. We make more products than just shea butter, we use other ingredients than just shea butter — we did grow on that,  and our cult favorites and our hero is shea butter, but they used that as a way to be like, ‘Oh, we already have two shea butter brands,’ where it's like, you have 15 shampoos? How many serums can a girl have? Detox masks to the brim, but you can only have three shea butters?” 
Butler agrees wholeheartedly with Boamah-Acheampong. “Stop putting Black people and Black brands in Black boxes. Just because I am a Black woman doesn’t mean that my customers are only Black.” 

The evolving definition of clean beauty

The following is 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." Let's read that again: “The FDA does not define or regulate the term “organic,” as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products."
For the clean beauty space, there is little to no regulation, and barely any firm definition on what that term means. We know Clean at Sephora, and the Credo Clean Standard, and the Follain Approval Process, but there is no government entity that regulates what "clean beauty" means across all these retailers and brands. Why? Because it's a marketing term, for the long and short of it. It's important to note: There is barely any government regulation in the cosmetics industry as it is — the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), was established by the FDA nearly a century ago in 1938, to allow them authority to regulate cosmetics — specifically, adulterated or misbranded products. Meanwhile, "Consumer commodity" (a.k.a. personal use) cosmetics are regulated under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, so that all should kind of explain how we got into this situation in the first place. I say this as a person with a 32-page PowerPoint I would love to present to future President Elizabeth Warren on why we need to establish a Federal Cosmetics Board, because this is all veering into capitalistic nonsense.
Arps explains to me that prior to launching MOODEAUX, the idea of walking up to a perfume counter or emailing a brand to ask about the potential of a scent being formulated with harmful ingredients would never have crossed her mind. "This just wasn't on my mind when deciding to purchase, given fragrance ingredients aren't required by law to be listed individually on cosmetic labels,” she shares. And she knows she's not alone — but there's a shift in the culture. "Nowadays, the tides have begun to shift with folks doing their research. And to me, this influx of inquiries surrounding things like sourcing, labeling, etc. is more than enough reason for us all to decide how we will participate in the clean revolution. Consumers can't want better, when they don't know for certain whether or not what they're consuming isn't great.”
However, there is a mission to reconsider these cosmetic regulations and passing new ones — thankfully, there are government officials who have been working on getting new cosmetics regulations passed. In June of 2021, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act (PCPSA), a bipartisan legislation to update the 1938 law and "will help protect consumer health and strengthen the FDA’s authority to ensure the safety of personal care products and their ingredients."
The PCPSA is a good thing, because without a proper definition, regulation, or just some rules in general, the clean beauty space could turn into the Wild Wild West. I’ve always wondered why the development and sourcing of beauty ingredients isn’t regulated with the strictness and regulation of wine grapes — biodynamic wines alone are enough to start me on a rant.
It’s nice to hear that I’m not alone in demanding and wanting to know what the hell I’m putting on and near my body in a language I can readily understand. What’s also fascinating is, as the space diversifies, so does the perspective about what the definition of “clean beauty” actually is.
Many "clean" brands have done a lot of fear-mongering around synthetic ingredients, and now, those with scientific backgrounds and information on formulations are standing up and trying to, at least, give a wider idea of what is "good for you"and what isn't, and we're seeing it being impacted in the marketplace. “This means that a lot of clean brands do kind of get caught in the crosshairs with almost the same energy that came from the early clean space to synthetics — over-generalization of ingredients and non-scientific claims about the safety of certain clean ingredients,” explains Martin. Brands now want to continue to explore the best ways to create results-driven products that are consciously clean, whether that’s in how they source their ingredients or how they're packaging their formulas.

The next chapter

Despite all the obstacles and setbacks, all of the founders I interviewed for this story tell me they have a lot of hope for the future of clean beauty. Public awareness around movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have shown desire for change and made it very clear that now, more than ever, brands must advocate and make diversity and inclusivity a core part of their ethos and show that in every way possible — marketing, funding, retail representation. "I think helping to provide education, network mentorship, and opportunity for people of color in the industry is key, and really what I try to do at any chance that I get. I think we as a community have to help each other and collaborate over competition,” says Liu.

“The definition of clean will continue to change, and therefore it is all about creating a better beauty industry for all of us. It is really about working towards just doing better vs. being perfect.”

Deepica mutyala, founder of live tinted
Mutyala believes that in the not-so-long future, it will become the standard to provide products that have transparent labeling of ingredients as much as focusing on inclusivity and work toward more sustainable practices. “The definition of clean will continue to change, and therefore it is all about creating a better beauty industry for all of us. It is really about working towards just doing better vs. being perfect.”
Accelerating existing BIPOC brands is a great way to make clean beauty more diverse and inclusive, but we also should make sure that we are creating opportunities for the next generation of founders, too. The only way to change any industry is for the consumer to demand it.
“Ultimately, I think this comes down to systemic funding and access to the resources to create a national scale brand. I don't think there's one Black person I know creating a new beauty brand that isn't clean, but they just aren't operating at the scale of the large movers in the space,” says Martin. "Clean beauty can be super accessible, I see the price points of raw materials every day. Let's make the marketing and teams behind these clean brands accessible and representative as well.” It's especially important for those who do exist within the space already, to do more work to bring diverse identities, races and lifestyles to the forefront, like Tower 28 Beauty School.
Arps agrees, saying, “I have hope the industry will grow to become less reactive and more proactive in making sure everyone is represented, and this is where we start."
At the end of the day, if clean beauty is going to be just another cog in the wheel of capitalism, it’s going to come down to who’s doing the funding to change the look of the space. Real diversity and inclusion comes down to capital — who has it and how to get businesses that capital. We need to see diversity and inclusion from the top down in order to see real and lasting change. Once that happens, we’ll see an industry that is reflective of the diversity of the world we live in. 
“When beauty is so damaging and also can be so sustainable in different ways, if you're going to be within the industry, you might as well take the time to be intentional around how you can grow a business,” explains Boamah-Acheampong. No one is asking for "dirty" or "toxic" products, and yet that is what is deemed as acceptable for non-white audiences as the bare minimum on everything, from food to beauty.  Please remember that non-white people have always been in this space. It belonged to us before it was a commodity. Now, we’re demanding our space at the table back. You better follow suit and read the room.
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