Think outside the beauty box



July 17, 2022

What actually is clean beauty?

Photo of women in bath with lemons

Credit: Anthony Tran


It’s a term thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? The beauty industry knows that we all want to be more careful about how our makeup, haircare, and skincare consumption affect the planet. They know we want to be mindful about the ingredients we use daily, too, and that we’re increasingly paying attention to the impact ingredients and packaging have on the planet. Enter “Green Beauty”. An umbrella term that is now used to qualify beauty products and brands that are making any kind of effort toward keeping things more eco-conscious. So, what does it really mean? How much of it are brands genuinely making strides forward, and how much of it is actually just greenwashing? Let’s unpack it.


Clean beauty, defined.

Clean beauty is a label that brands give themselves to demonstrate that they are taking steps to reduce their products’ impact on the planet. It is not an official certification or a specific brand.


Is clean beauty regulated?

At the moment, clean beauty is not regulated. Brands can refer to themselves and their products as ‘clean’ without having to satisfy regulatory standards. This means that, although many brands are taking positive steps, some will use the term without doing the work behind the scenes to make a difference. 

Cosmetics labeling falls under specific rules that don’t follow the same guidelines as labeling for items like foods or even household cleaning products. For example, even the term ‘organic’ isn’t regulated when it comes to cosmetics being made or sold in the US. However, you may find that certain ingredients on a list will be ‘certified organic’ or ‘USDA certified organic,’ where these natural ingredients will have been grown and harvested following set standards.

Packaging is even more of a gray area: specific packaging regulations can vary from state to state, and regulation focuses more on safety for cosmetics as opposed to sustainability. So it really comes down to brands deciding how far they want to go down the sustainability route. Some of the best cosmetics packaging options (in terms of what is available today) are bamboo-based and refillable options. Other popular planet-conscious options include paper-based products and packaging made from recycled plastic or other materials.


Is clean beauty really clean?

The honest (and frankly annoying) answer is: kind of. It basically comes down to how committed brands are to using the term transparently. The issue is that the burden still lies with consumers to figure out the most planet-friendly options, even with words like clean beauty being widely used. The lack of a single, regulated label for planet-friendly cosmetics means that the industry can greenwash in a reasonably widespread manner without breaking any formal rules. 

The best thing consumers can do for now is check labels and research packaging options. Knowing how to read labels to look for ingredients that wouldn’t be generally considered as clean (aka, they’re not so kind to the planet or you) is a great place to start. 

That being said, some brands and marketplaces are self-regulating by deciding to write a list of standards that products must meet for them to be associated with the brand. These self-regulating brands aim to create a space where consumers can buy products they like the look of without having to spend time going over labels and looking into brands’ backgrounds before ordering.


Why does clean beauty matter?

There are several reasons why clean beauty is a fantastic concept at its roots. Firstly, clean beauty products should be kinder to the planet regarding ingredients and packaging. Secondly, clean ingredients imply that they are free from harsh chemicals and gentle enough for sensitive skin. The concept seems pretty ideal, which might well be why people are so disappointed that the term is so often misused. 

Clean beauty matters – when products genuinely are clean – because the cosmetics and personal care sector is responsible for large amounts of unnecessary waste. From endless sample-size bottles to products based on non-renewable ingredients, the industry as it stands today has a long way to go before it is genuine and clean.


Reading the label: what you need to know.

Most brands who have done the leg-work to keep the impact of their products to a minimum will want to boast about it. You should come across claims about products being ‘free from’ certain ingredients, and these are a great starting point. Common ingredients that are featured in ‘free from’ lists include:

SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate)
Synthetic colors
PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)

As well as ingredients that have been left out, brands that have made an effort to reduce their impact on the planet will often include some of these terms in their ingredient lists:

USDA-certified organic
XX% natural ingredients
Eco-cert organic cosmetics
Vegan society approved


To sum things up

Clean beauty is a sound concept at its heart. Still, with a lack of regulation or parameters regarding what can be classified as ‘clean,’ it’s become a term that’s all-too-often used where it shouldn’t be. As much as we would love to be able to say that you can be confident that when you buy an item marketed as being clean that you’re doing your part for the planet, the truth is that might not always be the case. Education is key, and learning to understand labeling and packaging options are – for now – the best ways to ensure your shopping choices are as kind as possible to the planet.