The Clean Beauty Movement: What Is It And Why Is It Controversial?

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The Clean Beauty Movement: What Is It And Why Is It Controversial?


The clean beauty movement is a growing trend in the skincare industry.

Here's our guide to what clean beauty means, the eco issues it faces and the ingredients to avoid.

Francesca Brooking

Wed 23 Jun 2021

These days it’s not uncommon to see beauty brands marketing themselves as ‘clean’.

Led by a rise in conscious consumerism, the once niche clean beauty movement has been propelled into the mainstream with major brands now starting to jump on the trend.

But what is clean beauty and why is it so controversial?

We weigh in on the clean beauty debate to try and get to the bottom of this complicated trend.

Beauty products surrounded by leaves and stones

Clean beauty is a complicated trend

What is the clean beauty movement?

In a nutshell, clean beauty refers to skincare products that are ‘clean of harmful ingredients’.

This usually means that clean beauty brands favour natural ingredients on the whole but still use synthetic ingredients that have been deemed safe for consumers’ health and the environment.

It’s a rejection of conventional beauty brands and their use of possibly dangerous ingredients such as:

  • Parabens
  • Synthetic fragrances
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS)
  • Phthalates
  • Artificial colours
  • Formaldehyde
  • Aluminium compounds
  • Hydroquinone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Triclosan
  • Refined petroleum
  • Talc
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

From the outside, clean beauty can easily be seen as something positive as it shows a concern for our health and the planet.

However, the term ‘clean beauty’ has no official definition.

What’s considered ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ when it comes to skincare ingredients varies depending on the brand. That’s where it starts to get murky and prone to misuse.

Woman with a fresh face and yellow backgound

Clean beauty essentially means clean of harmful ingredients

The growing trend in clean beauty products

The clean beauty movement has risen in tandem with the wellness industry, specifically ‘clean-eating and detoxification which saw an increased demand in products with stripped back, minimalist and ‘clean’ ingredients.

It also stems from the consumers’ growing awareness of tougher regulations on cosmetic ingredients and more knowledge about irritant causing ingredients.

Now more than ever, consumers want to know what’s actually in their skincare and whether they can trust it to go on their face and body. As a result, the clean beauty movement boomed.

Let’s look at some of the ways clean beauty improves the skincare industry and some of the toughest concerns that make this movement not so clear cut.

Pot of skincare product on a marble counter

Irritant causing ingredients is thought to have accelerated the clean beauty industry

The movement started mindfulness around ingredient list research

The clean beauty movement was first to shine a spotlight on just what exactly we were putting on our skin and hair every day.

It encourages consumers to question ingredients, particularly those that are toxic, cause irritation and in worse cases are carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors.

Before clean beauty, most consumers didn’t pay much attention to what was in their skincare and whether it could potentially be harmful.

It’s thought that the rise in skin sensitivities and knowledge of possible irritations caused by synthetic ingredients have been large factors in this change of behaviour.

Now, consumers want skincare products with honest and minimalist ingredient lists.

As a result, labels are being read more carefully and a more mindful approach to understanding skincare ingredients has been adopted.

The clean beauty movement encourages you to question what's in your skincare

It holds skincare brands to account

By reframing the focus on the ingredients in our skincare and pushing for more natural, sustainable, and better quality ingredients, clean beauty holds conventional brands accountable for their use of potentially dangerous and toxic ingredients.

Consumers are no longer satisfied with taking skincare ingredient lists at face value now that they have insight into what to look for.

Conventional brands are feeling the pressure to step up if they want to still appeal to their customers.

Daisies floating in water

Conventional skincare brands are being held accountable

Environmental impact and transparency in the skincare industry

The clean beauty movement has been attributed to starting the conversation about environmental sustainability in the industry.

Before it took off, not many conventional brands were talking about the impact of packaging on the environment or the importance of ethical ingredient sourcing, partnering with non-profit organisations or tackling environmental problems.

Once clean beauty emerged, we started to see more options on the market for recyclable, zero waste and reusable packaging, alternatives to plastic, eco-friendly inks and certified sustainable cardboard.

In fact, clean beauty raises awareness of the environmental impact of some of the industry’s top ingredients. Some offenders include:

  • Oxybenzone and octinoxate: chemicals found in UV blockers like sunscreen that contribute to coral bleaching
  • Triclosan: an antibacterial agent that’s toxic to aquatic bacteria, algae and dolphins
  • Parabens: a family of preservatives that have been known to disrupt hormones
  • Siloxanes: known to bioaccumulate in aquatic food chains
  • Plastic microbeads: microplastics that get consumed by marine life

Although clean beauty methods aren’t always clear cut, it has started to pave the way for more ingredient sourcing transparency in the industry.

Clean beauty brands like The Body Shop and Neal’s Yard Remedies have dedicated pages on every ingredient they use.

They go into detail about how it’s used, where it comes from, the labour involved in extracting it and what’s being done to ensure that it’s not unsustainably depleting natural resources.

Other brands have tackled the problem of unethical ingredients in skincare by replacing them with ethical alternatives. One big example of this is squalane, an ingredient used to balance oil production in skin.

This ingredient is a lipid that can be found naturally in all our skin as well as plants but the cosmetics industry sourced it from shark liver oil and added it to everything from anti-ageing cream to lip gloss.

Now, thanks to the greater demand for transparency, more brands are using synthetic and plant based squalane which is far more ethical and sustainable.

Three soap bars stacked on top of each other

Consider the environmental impact of your skincare product choices

The problem with natural skincare

The clean beauty movement isn’t a simple answer to making the beauty industry more environmentally friendly. It too runs the risk of driving unsustainable sourcing in their extraction of natural resources.

By increasing demand for natural ingredients, natural skincare brands increase the risk of forced slave labour and unethical work conditions.

Examples of this have been found in India with the use of child labour for mica mining. Mica is a mineral used in everything from makeup to car paint due to its sought after shimmery quality.

They can also contribute to the depletion of natural resources in those areas, leading to the destruction of the environment and disempowerment of local communities that rely on these resources.

Palm oil is one of the biggest culprits. The ingredient is used in practically everything from shampoo to food products but it’s contributing to the destruction of rainforests and loss of animal habitats that could eventually result in their extinction.

However, boycotting palm oil isn’t the answer either. Alternative oils like coconut, soybean and rapeseed require significantly more land and resources to provide the same yield.

If our dependency on palm oil switched to one of these alternatives, the environmental impact and loss of biodiversity could be much more severe.

Certified and strictly regulated ingredient sourcing is the key to ethical and environmentally conscious skincare brands whether or not they call themselves clean beauty. The use of safe synthetic ingredients is also a more eco-friendly beauty solution.

Natural isn't always better in the skincare industry

An industry prone to greenwashing

In the general sense, clean beauty refers to skincare that uses mostly natural or naturally derived ingredients with some safe synthetics.

Seems pretty good, right?

The problem with this is that the term has no real regulatory definition. It’s ambiguous and varies depending on the brand.

There are no legal definitions for terms like ‘naturally derived,’ ‘natural,’ ‘renewable’ or even ‘sustainable’ so brands can make these claims without needing to back them up, resulting in greenwashing.

They can simply put the words ‘clean ingredients,’ ‘non-toxic,’ or ‘natural’ on the box and call it a day.

What’s more, the clean beauty movement vilifies safe ingredients in skincare on the basis that they are chemicals.

Whether an ingredient is safe or not isn’t so straightforward. Defining toxic ingredients depends on where in the world you are. For example, the EU has banned over 1300 ingredients from cosmetics whereas the US has only banned around 30.

You also have to consider that every ingredient in the world can be toxic in the wrong dose. Even water and oxygen.

Clean beauty advocates tend to be concerned with synthetic chemicals and preservatives. When they label a product as non-toxic, it generally means that it doesn’t contain any ingredients that have been found to be toxic at any level.

However, the alternatives are not always better. Some brands use high concentrations of essential oils and denatured alcohol as well as highly irritating ingredients that increase skin sensitivity and even skin damage.

Some essential oils could even be processed with synthetic chemicals or sourced from plants that have been subjected to heavy pesticides - rendering them toxic.

The bottom line is that naturally derived ingredients aren’t always best for your skin. Synthetic ingredients can actually be safer and more effective.

Towel and toiletries on a white background

The skincare industry is unregulated so brands can say whatever they like

Busting buzzwords in the clean beauty industry

As we’ve already mentioned, clean beauty brands are prone to greenwashing as there are little to no regulations holding them accountable.

This is taken a step further with the use of triggers or buzzwords to hook consumers into the movement.

These trigger words are:

  • Clean
  • All-natural
  • Chemical-free
  • Synthetic fragrance-free
  • Non-toxic

These terms reveal nothing about the actual formula. Again, brands could still be using high concentrations of skin irritants that actually do a lot more harm than good.

Hand holding bubbles

Look out for buzzwords that don't mean anything

Our verdict on the clean beauty movement

In many ways, clean beauty is a controversial topic due to its ambiguity and lack of real definition.

However, it’s worth remembering that the movement started out of a genuine need for more transparency and better quality ingredients in skincare.

This movement encourages us to challenge what we’re putting on our skin and whether it’s truly necessary.

Clean beauty goes beyond the skincare products themselves to consider the greater impact on health, the environment, and ethics. It’s a step in the right direction for the industry and for that, it should be applauded.

Discover 13 of our favourite vegan and organic skincare brands

A bathroom sink with soap next to it

Although the clean beauty industry isn't perfect, there are still some great benefits

How to tell if clean beauty skincare is genuine

The best way to work out if a skincare product does really do what it says on the packaging is to look for external certifications that prove they’re holding their claims to account.

The main certifications to look out for include:

  • Ecocert
  • Soil Association
  • USDA
  • EWG
  • Demeter
  • NaTrue

Certified organic skincare in particular proves that all ingredients in the products are free from harmful pesticides.

Another useful tactic is to pay attention to brands that actively encourage you to look at their ingredient lists so that you can make your own informed decisions about what you want to avoid.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed or just want some quick answers about what’s in your skincare products, apps like Skin Deep by the Environmental Working Group and Think Dirty can help.

Cutting through the clean beauty hype can take time and involve more research but finding brands that do take health and the environment seriously makes it 100% worth it.

If you want more skincare advice, we've summarised everything you need to know in a free skincare guide. Sustainable Skincare: Everything You Need To Know In One Handy Free Ebook!

Download, read, enjoy and change the world!

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