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Industry • Best Practice

Skip the Snake Oil: What You Need To Know About The Clean Beauty Movement

In celebration of Earth Day, we went in search of clarity about what “clean beauty” really means and why defining it is so important.

Clean beauty is all the rage in 2022. The idea is overwhelmingly positive — let’s protect people and the planet — but it’s still an amorphous category that doesn’t have any oversight or even a widely acknowledged definition. Some companies even use the mess of buzzwords to confuse consumers and squeeze past the radar of conscientious shoppers. In honor of Earth Day, let’s dive into the basics of clean beauty so we can all do a better job indulging our beauty habits while also protecting the environment.

What does “clean beauty” even mean?

In its most general sense, clean beauty is a term typically used to denote products that are proven to be good for you — that is to say, not harmful. Many beauty insiders see clean beauty as a marker of benefits for both people and the planet simultaneously, but the Food & Drug Administration (which is as close as we get to a regulatory body for clean beauty in the United States) has historically been more concerned with human effects than environmental ones. 

Consider this: the FDA has banned a total of 11 chemicals while the European Union has banned 1,300 substances from use in cosmetics. That’s a huge gap in what is considered safe, healthy, or just unharmful. Unfortunately, until concepts like “clean beauty” are more intensely regulated, the best way to make sure you’re really buying clean products is to do your research. What claims is the company making, and how do they back them up? If a brand is really doing the work to make health-focused products that don’t harm the environment, they’ll be able to explain their process in clear and certain terms.

Why do we have so many words for the same “clean” idea?

Some of the terminology associated with clean beauty gets thrown around without much thought. But just because these words are used interchangeably doesn’t mean they are synonymous. Let’s dive into some working definitions of popular terms you’re likely to see in the wild:

  • Clean: Generally speaking, clean beauty products are good for people and good for the planet. They typically use non-toxic, plant-based ingredients and take into consideration the broader picture of both skin health and environmental protection.

  • Green: Products or brands that call themselves green should be invested in protecting the planet. Unfortunately, the operative word here is “should”, because there aren’t any regulations mandating when companies have done enough to use the green label.

  • Sustainable: Most companies that label themselves “sustainable” take a broader view of the environmental cost of production. In order to be sustainable, the ingredients in the beauty product, the brand’s sourcing and manufacturing protocols, and its container and the packaging around it all need to be renewable, reusable, and Earth-friendly.

  • Organic: Although this is another term that is often tossed around loosely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually oversees organic certifications that govern farming, manufacturing, and handling practices. Certification is often prohibitively expensive, so you might see descriptions about “organic farming principles” instead of a USDA-approved organic seal.

  • Non-toxic: To be sold in the U.S., beauty products have to be non-toxic. Technically, that just means they don’t include any ingredients that have been shown by the FDA to cause harm in the amounts in which they are present in the product. Some clean beauty companies extend that concept to exclude ingredients that are banned outside the US, like the European Union’s more extensive list, for example.

  • Vegan & cruelty-free: Products that are vegan don’t contain any animal byproducts, like beeswax, honey, or tallow. Cruelty-free products, on the other hand, haven’t been tested on animals. A beauty product can be one or the other or both, but they’re not necessarily the same.

If you only remember one thing this Earth Day, make it that a little extra research goes a long way. Taking the time to make sure you understand the claims a brand is making will help prevent you from being duped by packaging promises — for example, “all natural” ingredients aren’t necessarily better for you or for the environment! Study up on ingredient lists, read beauty brands’ mission statements, dive into sourcing protocols and recycling principles — just a little bit of extra effort goes a long way toward trading in snake oil for truly “clean” beauty experiences.

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