What Does ‘Clean’ Mean Anyway? Decoding the Beauty Products You Love

  • 6 min read

The global skincare market is poised forvaluation over $177B by 2027 – a $47B increase over its 2020 value. The United States takes the largest slice of the pie by revenue, garnering a whopping $17.6B in 2020. 

The outlook for the characteristically resilient beauty industry wasbleak,to say the least, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2021, though, consumershadn’t abandoned their beauty practices; they justshifted their priorities

One of the greatest shifts? More than ever, we started thinking aboutclean beauty.The pandemic, at its height, didn’t just allow us more time to focus on skincare overall; it also made ushyper aware of health and cleanliness. 

These considerations coupled with the growing concern around Beauty’simpact on the looming climate crisis was a perfect recipe for clean skincare’s meteoric rise. But what doescleanactually mean? Arecleanandgreen the same thing? And do wereallyhave to Google every ingredient in our favorite products to make sure our self-care routines aren’t secretly harming us?

Let’s find out.

First Things First: What DoesClean BeautyMean?

We’d love to provide a definitive answer. Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration’s role in establishing beauty product safety in general isstaggeringly narrow. TL;DR, according to the FDA, you can’t:

  • Call something a beauty product when it doesn’t align with theFDA’s definition of acosmetic

  • Marketadulteratedormisbranded products (basically, you can’t use ingredients that arefederally recognized as “injurious” to humans, products must be manufactured and packaged in a sanitary environment, and you can’t misrepresent, obscure, or outright lie about what’s in your products)

This supremely limited regulatory influence results in aWild Westbeautyscape where it’s on companies to establish their own standards of cleanliness. 

For some beauty product purveyors,like Sephora,cleanmeans avoiding ingredients on a “formulated without” list (wehave one of those!) – which typically includes commonly villainized (for good reason) ingredients, such as phthalates and parabens. 

Some brands may reject any ingredient formulated in a lab, opting instead for only naturally-derived components, whileothers hail a healthy marriage of proven non-toxic synthetics and organic elements as the gold skincare standard. 

Since every brand may have a different definition ofclean, it’s on consumers to do their research and determine what feels right tothem.But even that comes with its own hurdles…


The Fight for Clean: Why Deciding What’s Right is So Hard

Even if youwantto do your due diligence to make sure you’re assembling the healthiest skincare regimen possible, commercial beauty doesn’t make it easy. Here are a few common hurdles to establishing acleanroutine – and how to get around them.

We Can’t Agree On What’s Actually Dangerous

To most clearly demonstrate, we’ll pick on an ingredient ousted from nearly every reportedly ‘clean’ ingredient label going:formaldehyde

Formaldehydehas been classified as a human carcinogen by the National Cancer Institute, so it makes sense that savvy beauty brands would exclude it from their products. Still, some companies citeresearch saying that formaldehyde, as it presents in lotions and other skincare products, is not a threat to human health. 

Why would they try to make me believe that a literal carcinogen is OK to include in my beauty regimen?

Because the NCI position cited above focuses solely on formaldehyde andrespiration.Their research exclusively spotlights individuals who are exposed to gaseous formaldehyde in their work – like anatomists and embalmers. The amount ofinhaledformaldehyde exposure from most beauty products (hair straightening treatmentsnotwithstanding) is purportedly negligible.

What’s more, for brands whosecleanstandards won’t allow them to touch lab-generated ingredients, formaldehyde wouldn’t be an automatic no-go; it’s anaturally occurring organic compound.

All of that said, we’re not trying to convince you that you should go formaldehyde-crazy. Itmay notbe an immediate cancerous threat, but the formaldehyde releasers in approximately 20% of U.S. personal care products areknown skin irritants for many. All of our products are formulated without them. This is just one illustration of varying classifications ofcleanthat necessitate some critical thought and decision-making on the part of consumers. 

It’s always important to make informed decisions about the products we put in and on our bodies, but especially when an ingredient is highly contested by one side and OK’d by another -– that’s your cue to look for science-based evidence and make your own call about what’s safest. 

We Don’t Have Time to Google Every Ingredient

The ‘I’ll use it if I can pronounce it’ approach is popular in the organic wellness sector – and it can be easy to stick toifyou use only products that list layman-terms names for familiar ingredients. 

More often than not, consumers are not so lucky. For example, ourPerfection Balm containsTetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate. Sounds scary, right? 

Nope. It’s a form of Vitamin C!

Still, the skincare industry ishuge.Whether you’re shopping the digital shelves of your favorite boutique wellness shop or perusing the hundreds of skincare displays at Ulta, none of us have the time or energy to run a search on every 10-syllable word we find, then sift through pages of results to decide whether it’s bad or not.

There are a couple of ways to get around this. 

First, atrusted esthetician who shares your values will have the expertise necessary to thoughtfully talk through your struggles and goals and recommend products that will not only meet your skin’s unique demands, but also align with your personal definition ofclean.

Secondly, databases such as theEWG’sSkin Deepanalyzer allow you to plug inthousands of ingredients and products and get an overview of their relation to common consumer concerns.


Everyone Wants to Sell Us Something

…and they’ll tell us anything they think will get us to buy.


In a world wherecleanis a growing concern for consumers, beauty brands are prioritizing products and marketing campaigns that give the impression of cleanliness (both for individuals and the environment) – even if it’s absolute bologna.

This isn’t new. In the food world, as collective emphasis on health and wellness has increased, so has the number ofnaturalproducts on grocery store shelves. The problem is, much like thecleanmovement in beauty,naturalhas never been officially defined. This allows food companies to capitalize on theAppeal to Nature Fallacy and sell their products based solely on vague references to health and a dizzying array offreshvisuals.

The beauty industry often appeals to the same fallacious line of thought by claiming to use ‘all-natural’ ingredients – which, at worst,may not be true and, at best, says nothing substantial about the safety or efficacy of their products. 

Furthermore, if you’ve ever wondered ifgreenandcleanare the same thing, you’re not alone. We’d be remiss to ignore the beauty industry’s habit of conflating the two in an effort to appeal to the conscious consumer. (After all, it’s easier to say your ingredients are vegan than to be transparent about your production practices – even though both considerations may be integral to being agreenbrand.)

Consumers are humans, and humans have different values! It’s ultimately up to you to decide which brands and products you feel good about. The most important thing is to not be duped into missguided (though reasonable!) assumptions. (For example, that a brand is environmentally concerned because they use recycled packaging when they don’t offer a transparent look at their supply chain or equatingvegan ingredients to cruelty-free products.) 

Always ask questions, then decide if the answers align with your values. For example, any (or none!) of the following might be important to you:


  • Packaging and Production. Is the brand doing their best to minimize overall packaging? Is the packaging they use recycled and/or recyclable? Do they provide a transparent look at their supply chain? Do they payallof their people a living wage? Do they participate in a carbon offset program to counter CO2 emitted during manufacturing and transportation of their products?

  • Animals. Is the product you love cruelty-free? Is the brand committed to cruelty-free practices for all their products, or just a select few? Is the brand owned by a parent company that practices animal testing? Are any of the ingredients animal-derived?

  • Formulation. Are all the ingredients direct-from-nature or are there synthetics? Are there ingredients – natural or synthetic – that are known to be harmful to health? Is the product certified organic? Does it contain ingredients that tend to be irritating for my skin type?

  • The Extra Mile. Is the brandECOCERT orEWG certified? Do they have the PETA orLeaping Bunny stamp of approval? Do they submit to routine third-party audits for sustainability and quality?

The Bottom Line

Since there is no federally regulated vetting process that allows a company to claimcleanstatus, brands can define the term for themselves. Unfortunately, this creates a rocky landscape for consumers who want to dotheir versionof the right thing, but it’s not altogether impossible! 

You can maintain beautiful skin and a clean bill of health (and conscience!) by proceeding with caution, doing your research, and demanding transparency from the brands you love.

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