Clean Beauty Terms Defined
Rose Quartz palette with Zero Waste packaging from Aether I live and breathe clean makeup and skin care. I enjoy researching and trying products and talking to other beauty professionals about formulations and ingredients. It’s why I have the passion for doing what I do. But I totally understand that unless you are similarly obsessed, the vast ocean of buzzy beauty industry marketing terms like “cruelty-free, clean, vegan, non-toxic, and chemical free” can lead to loads of confusion and frustration by those of us who are trying to be conscientious consumers.
To make matters worse, since the U.S. beauty industry is largely unregulated that means brands are free to toss around these terms without having to support them with any kind of evidence. Often these words and phrases are used purely for marketing purposes as “greenwashing,” where a company makes claims about their product that make it sound better for you (or for the environment) than it actually is. That’s just shady business!
I have been researching, testing, and writing about clean beauty since the 90s when Burt’s Bees was privately owned and one of the only clean US beauty brands around (Burt’s Bees was acquired by The Clorox Company in 2007). I choose to use products in my business that I have researched and am confident are, at the very least, not detrimental to you and your health. Even better are those gems in my kit that can be beneficial for your skin and come from upstanding brands that are making positive impact.
As you go out into the world and make your own choices about what brands to support, I hope you find this deconstruction of these terms helpful:
In general the brands who use this term are committed to formulating their products to be free from known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and other questionable ingredients like sulfates, parabens, phthalates, PEGs (Polyethylene Glycols), chemical sunscreens (more on that in REEF SAFE, below), synthetic fragrances, and the list goes on.
The list of ingredients tends to be long and continuously evolving. Some ingredients are indeed harmful and some are just suspect, and whether an ingredient is going to be problematic for health or not can depend on the formulation in which it is included. Brands who self-identify (remember, there is no governing or certifying organization for this) as ‘clean’ avoid these ingredients to be on the safe side.
According to the Environmental Working Group, women use an average of 12 beauty products a day, containing 168 chemicals on our bodies every day. These exposures compound and interact with one another in ways we don’t yet fully understand. Why roll the dice with questionable ingredients? For that reason, I use clean beauty in my personal and professional life.
If a product is labeled as ‘green’ then it means that it’s environmentally conscious in some regard. That could relate to the ingredients of the product itself, and could also be that the product and/or packaging was made in a sustainable way from renewable resources. Green beauty brands strive for transparency in their ingredients – how they are sourced and manufactured - as well as how their products are packaged and distributed.
Blue is the new green! While there is intersection between the ideals of green and blue beauty, blue beauty is even more focused on the well-being and preservation of our oceans. Given the staggering and heartbreaking impact of plastic packaging on marine life as well as the chemicals in sunscreens that are contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs, it’s heartening that blue beauty brands are tackling this problem head on. One standout is Vivaio Days Turmeric Broad Spectrum Sunscreen, which uses reef-safe non-nano zinc as the sun blocker and packaging derived from sugar cane.
Speaking of reef safe, here’s what it means: certain chemicals in popular sunscreens are believed to be partly responsible for coral bleaching. Two of the worst offenders are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, both of which Hawaii recently banned effective in 2021. This means that companies like Banana Boat, Sun Bum and Coppertone are either going to have to reformulate their sunscreens or stop selling them in Hawaii. Let’s hope that when they reformulate they don’t simply replace these ingredients with something else that does even more damage.
The best sunscreen that’s safe for you and for the ocean uses physical instead of chemical blockers in the form of non-nano zinc. Suntegrity is my current favorite
This is one of those practically meaningless marketing terms that many conventional large corporate brands have seized upon to greenwash their way into consumers homes. It may simply mean that there are one or two naturally derived ingredients and all the rest are total crap. And by crap I mean useless fillers at best and harmful and skin-damaging at worst.
This is almost interchangeable with 'clean beauty,' as it means that the ingredients in the formula have been vetted for safety.
I have to laugh every time I see this term used in the industry. I started university as a chemistry major before switching to psychology and so I can tell you: there is nothing in this universe that is chemical free. Everything is LITERALLY chemicals! The air we breath, the water we drink, everything under the sun. Chemicals are the building blocks of creation.
These images were put together by James Kennedy, an Australian chemistry teacher.
I also think that the use of non-toxic and chemical-free tend to be ominous terms intended to strike fear into the hearts of us consumers. So in addition to the term being quite meaningless it’s a wee bit of insidious fearmongering as well.
Seriously, though, if you manage to find anything that is really and truly chemical free than please let me know because it means you have stepped into an alternate universe and I’m curious what it’s like there.
This means that no animal testing was conducted to formulate and manufacture this product. The good news is that there are organizations that can offer certification for cruelty free products: PETA and Leaping Bunny. Cruelty-free is great – I want my products tested on humans, thank you – but doesn’t say anything about the clean formulation or efficacy of a product.
Vegan products by definition contain no animal-derived or animal by-product ingredients like beeswax or lanolin. Of course, they can still contain loads of questionable synthetic ingredients so be sure to read the ingredient list carefully if you are also concerned about clean beauty.
This means that the ingredients in a product formula won’t clog pores or cause breakouts. Comedogenocity is a big grey area because what may present as pore-clogging for one person may be another person’s hero product. As there is no standardized testing and the FDA doesn’t define a list of ingredients that must be excluded for a product to be definitively comedogenic, brands are mostly free to claim what they like in this area.
There are voluntary third-party tests that companies can elect to have done in order to legally substantiate this claim, but there is very little regulation of this and so the term is mostly meaningless. If your skin is acne prone and clogged pores and breakouts are of concern to you, you can check a list of known comedogenic ingredients.
Just like the term above, there are no standards governing the use of this term. According to the FDA, “The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. ..The term "hypoallergenic" may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.”
This is an area of the beauty industry that really fires me up in a good way! Personal care and cosmetics packaging is currently out of control in terms of how much wasted is generated. And that’s just the packaging, not to mention the waste involved in sourcing ingredients, formulating, and manufacturing. But, baby steps are great and anytime I see a brand trying to go zero waste with their packaging I am Here. For. It! From shampoo and cleanser bars to packing that is refillable, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable, I applaud Aether, Antonym, and Kjaer Weis who all make gorgeous clean luxury cosmetics in recyclable or reduced waste packaging.
Does this all make sense? Do you find it helpful or do you have lingering questions? Let me know!