What Does “Clean” Beauty Mean?
“Clean” beauty is no longer just a buzz-word.
Skincare fanatics and regular joes alike are taking care when applying products to their skin. Gone are the days of quickly applying the cheapest product to your face – people want to know how their products are made, and they want to know what their skin is absorbing.
From shampoo to toner, beauty products are touting their “green”, “clean”, and “natural” qualities. But what does that mean?
What exactly is “clean” beauty?
Brands use the word “clean” to signify their exclusion of certain ingredients, like those that are controversial or unsafe.
Unfortunately for the consumer, there is little to no oversight in this space. Anything can be labeled “clean”, even if it isn’t.
Here’s a list of common “clean” terms and what they mean:
- Green / Sustainable
- Naturally derived
If a product is labeled “natural”, that means it’s made with ingredients sourced from nature, like from plants, minerals, or animals. Natural ingredients tend to be minimally modified.
Materials are organic when they are produced without pesticides. Due to the push toward organic products across many sectors, this is the only “clean” term that is government-regulated.
If a beauty production is chemical-free, it doesn’t necessarily mean there are no chemicals at all – instead, it means the product is made without the toxic or harsh chemicals like lead or formaldehyde.
A cruelty-free label indicates that there was no testing on animals when creating the product or its ingredients.
A non-toxic product should not be toxic to humans.
Green / Sustainable
These terms imply that the product is made with the environment in mind. Whether it be from sourcing, production, or disposal, a sustainable product should not cause excess harm to the environment.
If an ingredient is naturally derived, it has started out naturally but has since gone through some form of chemical changes. Scan the label to see the percentage of ingredients that are naturally derived.
Vegan products do not contain any animal byproducts at all. That means there is no aspect of an animal at all, not even if it can be obtained without harming them. Vegan products will not include animal oils or beeswax.
When can you trust the label?
As we mentioned earlier, there isn’t much oversight in the beauty world. Anyone could claim any one of these labels as true, and there may not be anyone out there that can call them out for it.
That being said, there are some third-party organizations that take the time to review brands and their claims.
Here are a list of certifications and stamps of approval to look out for when looking for a clean beauty product.
Ecocert Natural Cosmetic (COSMOS) certification
The COSMetic and natural Standard (COSMOS) stamp of approval guarantees that the product has been verified by their teams and that it is produced in an environmentally friendly way while also respecting human health.
USDA Certified Organic
This USDA certification has various levels of labeling. From 100% organic, to 95%, to at least 70%, the USDA has specific certifiers who will verify a product’s organicness.
This is another certification option for cosmetics looking to prove their organic claims. Products with a NSF label are made with at least 70% organic materials.
Cradle to Cradle
This certification assesses five pillars of sustainability: material health, product circularity, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness. This is a global standard denoting that products are made safely and responsibly.
A Leaping Bunny certified company is free of animal testing at all stages of production and development. If you’re concerned about animal-cruelty, this is a certification to look out for.
EU banned ingredients list
If you’re familiar with toxic ingredients, you’ll know that the European Union bans a comprehensive list of toxic and potentially toxic ingredients from cosmetics. If you’re looking for cosmetics without toxic ingredients, look for this label.
9 toxic ingredients to avoid at all costs
Not every clean product needs a certification. They can be expensive to acquire, and oftentimes it is unobtainable for smaller brands. Just because a product doesn’t have a certification doesn’t mean it isn’t clean.
If you’re unsure about what to look out for, be sure to avoid these 9 toxic ingredients:
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) & Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
- Polyethylene (PEGS)
Parabens are a type of preservative and antimicrobial chemical that prevent bacteria and mold growth in products.
Those aren’t things you want growing in your products, but parabens just may be worse than what they prevent. Parabens have been linked to reproductive organ harm, thyroid issues, obesity, and hormone-related cancers due to their estrogen-mimicking effects. Human Reproduction reported a link between parabens and early onset puberty in girls.
Remember the EU list of banned ingredients? Many types of parabens are banned by the European Commission, but none of them are banned by the FDA. American companies can call themselves “clean” but still have these harmful ingredients. Read your product label and make sure parabens are not included.
These are what make fragrances last longer. These chemicals make products like nail polish and hair spray pliable and they have been linked to reproductive harm in children and men, as well as obesity, type 2 diabetes, infertility, and cardiovascular events.
They can be read on labels as BBzP, DEP, BDP, and BDHP. Avoid any product with these abbreviations.
If you’ve heard of this chemical before, you know it’s no good. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen that acts as a preservative in beauty products.
This carcinogen can still be found in keratin smoothing treatments even when they’re marked as formaldehyde-free. Thankfully, they have been completely eliminated from common cosmetic products like nail polish.
Ethanolamines can be found in many types of products, and in both skincare and cosmetics.
These amines are used as foaming agents (surfactants), preservatives, or cleansers. Common ones found in skincare products are monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA).
While the FDA says these aren’t a cause for concern for consumers, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) has found a link between topical DEA application and cancer. Avoid products that include MEA, DEA, and TEA.
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
BHT is a preservative that is known to cause endocrine disruption. It can be found in many cosmetic and skincare products, from lip gloss to sunscreen.
The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has labeled BHT a Category 1 substance, and the NTP has found it to possibly cause cancer in humans.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) & Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
SLES are foaming agents that contain 1,4-dioxane, a potential carcinogen. Oddly enough, 1,4-dioxane isn’t an ingredient that is added on purpose, but is rather created when other common cosmetic ingredients are mixed together.
While less toxic than SLES, SLS is a chemical that can cause skin irritation.
It is best to avoid both.
Oxybenzone is an ingredient that is harmful for both ourselves and the environment.
Commonly found in sunscreen, this UVA and UVB-blocking agent absorbs those harmful rays and emits them away from a skin at a different wavelength, resulting in less skin penetration.
It has been found to be an endocrine-disrupting compound. But it does more than just interfere with your hormones — oxybenzone is what damages coral reefs. Its bleaching properties are especially harmful, which is why it is banned in many sunscreens.
Make sure your sunscreen doesn’t contain oxybenzone.
Polyethylene glycols (PEGS) are compounds that are petroleum-based and used in cosmetics as thick moisture carries. Oftentimes these are uses as cream bases for cosmetics.
Like with SLES, PEGS can contain traces of 1,4-dioxane, a possible carcinogen. On top of being a potential cause of cancer, PEGS can also hurt the nervous system and overall human development.
On top of those negative effects to the body, PEGS are not easily degradable and can remain in the environment well after you wash it off at night.
It is possible to remove 1,4-dioxane in a vacuum stripping process, but there are no guidelines or certifications that lets consumers know if the PEGS have been stripped. It is best to avoid PEGS altogether.
Hydroquinone has a skin-lightening effect and can be found in many skin-lightening creams and serums.
It has been banned in the EU, but not in the United States. While no concrete evidence has been brought forth, this ingredient has been linked to decreased immune response and certain cancers.
How can beauty brands become clean?
A beauty brand doesn’t have to be 100% clean to make a positive impact.
If a brand simply reduces the amount of packaging a single product uses, they are already making steps towards being more environmentally sustainable.
An easy way to cut out harmful and irritating chemicals is to cut back on fragrances and dyes. This will decrease the amount of ingredients used while also decreasing the chances of causing skin irritation. Be sure to support brands that are taking steps to protect both you and the environment.