Does Clean Beauty Have to Be All-Natural?⁠

5 min readMay 4, 2022



Clean beauty has been around for a while, but the movement is rapidly growing. For a long time, products containing only natural ingredients were considered the all-stars of clean beauty. “Preservative-free” is another buzz word surrounding natural beauty.⁠

But, the answer to this question is NO, clean beauty doesn’t have to be all-natural.⁠

It’s the twenty-first century, and the science of beauty has evolved to include a plethora of safe synthetics, safe man-made ingredients, and even safe preservatives.⁠

In fact, ALL cosmetics should contain some form of safe preservation to maintain the stability of the formulation.⁠

As long as certain synthetic ingredients are non-toxic chemically and medically clean and proven to have no harmful effects, they can be incorporated into clean beauty products.⁠

Many skin-care products and other cosmetics claiming to be natural, organic, green or some combination thereof have come and gone on store shelves and websites without leaving much of a mark. But it wasn’t until products started calling themselves “clean” that a critical mass of customers started poring over ingredient lists with the diligence of parents checking their children’s hair for lice.

The result has been a revolution that is reshaping the beauty industry. But why has the clean label — for which there is no regulatory definition — so captured the public’s devotion? Why are dermatologists so disdainful of the concept? And what does it mean?

The term popped up in the 1970s with CoverGirl’s “Clean Make-up” campaign, a reference to the fresh-faced, no-makeup look. Fast forward to the 2000s, and the word took on new meaning with the launch of skin-care lines such as the British brand Ren — the Swedish word for clean. Ren was inspired by the wife of the co-founder, who suffered skin irritation from conventional products while pregnant and disliked the all-natural alternatives because of their undesirable texture and lackluster performance. The line was created to be “clean of harmful ingredients,” said Arnaud Meysselle, Ren’s chief executive. The clean movement has been evolving since then and “accelerated within the past three or four years,” Meysselle said.

Today, there’s consensus in the industry that clean refers to products that favor natural ingredients yet often incorporate synthetics that have been deemed safe for people and the planet. In other words, clean does not necessarily mean chemical-free, which is what sets it apart from brands that claim to be “natural.”

Natural can be clean, but clean is not always natural; it’s just free of certain hot-button, man-made ingredients — such as parabens and formaldehyde-releasing agents. In Ren’s case, 95 percent of its ingredients are naturally derived, and the rest are safe synthetics, Meysselle said. But brands and retailers don’t always agree about which ingredients are problematic.

All of this is made more complicated by the fact that not only does the Food and Drug Administration not have a definition for “clean” or other cosmetics terms, it is also not required to test or pre approve cosmetics and their ingredients, with the exception of color additives.

The demand for clean dovetailed with the rise of the broader wellness movement, specifically the “clean-eating” lifestyle that embraces unrefined and minimally processed foods. The European Union, for instance, has banned approximately 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics, a category that covers makeup, lotions, hair dyes, deodorant, nail polish, shaving cream and other beauty products. By contrast, the United States — where the average woman uses 12 such products containing 168 chemicals on her body each day — bans and restricts only 11, according to the Environmental Working Group, a health advocacy group that has helped spearhead the clean beauty movement along with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

First came small indie brands — think Tatcha, Drunk Elephant and Indie Lee — that developed a loyal following but individually could not make a dent in the overall cosmetics market….

But once the number of brands reached a tipping point, clean-only beauty retailers such as Follain, Credo and the Detox Market emerged to showcase them.

Beautycounter broke into the market with its own line, sold primarily by independent consultants. Each retailer pledged not to sell any products that include ingredients on their no-no lists.

Eager to snatch a share of this increasingly lucrative market, big-name players followed suit. Within the past two years, Sephora and Target created icons to distinguish their “clean” products, based on their own lists of forbidden ingredients. Walmart and Amazon debuted their clean skin-care lines last year. And in January, Revlon unveiled a clean skin primer, its first product to meet EWG’s standards. Other industry behemoths snapped up buzzy brands.

Skeptics say clean beauty is nothing more than a marketing ploy that unnecessarily demonizes a host of safe and effective chemicals: “Clean has become the price of admission.”

But it still lacks a regulatory definition. Legislation winding its way through Congress would beef up the FDA’s oversight of the $60 billion cosmetics industry for the first time in more than 80 years and require the agency to evaluate at least five ingredients of concern each year, which might clear up some confusion about safety claims.

For now, it’s difficult for consumers to evaluate what they’re getting. Credo’s “dirty list” (with 2,700 ingredients) does not neatly overlap with the lists maintained by Beautycounter, Follain and others. Some products with the “Clean at Sephora” icon get mediocre ratings on EWG’s Skin Deep database or the Think Dirty app, both of which churn out hazard scores for cosmetics. And some brands, such as Tatcha and Drunk Elephant, have the Sephora’s clean seal but contain ingredients that are restricted on Credo’s and Follain’s lists.

Yep, it is bit messy and unregulated.

To make the matter worse, there’s a lot of disagreements in this space, even among ingredient experts.

When assessing the safety of a chemical, it’s important to consider the concentration and where they are coming from. Although some chemicals can be dangerous in very high concentrations, the low doses found in cosmetics do no harm. Furthermore, there’s no scientific evidence to support claims that the cumulative effect of exposure to many chemicals daily can be toxic.

In an editorial for JAMA Dermatology, Courtney Blair Rubin and Bruce Brod of the University of Pennsylvania wrote that “clean beauty evangelists” seem to be haphazardly denouncing ingredients to lure shoppers. Their embrace of botanicals and their intolerance of parabens and other preservatives has been associated “with a new epidemic of contact dermatitis,” an itchy and potentially debilitating skin rash that can lead to massive medical bills, time away from work and a diminished quality of life, they wrote.

According to Brod, the industry began shunning all parabens after the E.U. banned five of them, none of which were commonly used in cosmetics. The remainder were deemed safe by U.S. and E.U. regulators. But because of consumer backlash, he said, the industry turned to alternatives, such as methylisothiazolinone, a synthetic the brands consider safer, even though it has led to severe allergic reactions.

That chemical is still in use, “but the industry is starting to pull back,” said Brod, a clinical professor of dermatology at the university’s medical school. “Surprise, surprise: They’re switching back to parabens.”

What are your thoughts on “all-natural”, “clean” beauty?⁠




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