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Clean Beauty: What Exactly Is It And Why Does It Matter?

Clean. Natural. Green. Nontoxic. Organic. Much like with food, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by buzzwords when you’re buying beauty and skincare products. Perhaps you’ve heard you’re supposed to look for natural, organic ingredients and steer clear of things like parabens and phthalates. But decoding labels and marketing jargon isn’t exactly easy, especially when there’s a new article every day warning about the dangers of such-and-such chemical or touting a new! organic! nontoxic! product. To make things worse, the FDA doesn’t really regulate personal care products, allowing companies to use potentially problematic ingredients (yes, even carcinogens) and slap whatever they want on the label.

So how do you know if your beauty products are safe? Here we break down what clean beauty means to us, why it matters, and how it differs from natural, organic makeup.

What Exactly Is Clean Beauty?

As we mentioned earlier, there isn’t an official, agreed-upon definition for clean beauty. Though many companies greenwash their products with labels like “natural” or “eco,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re nontoxic. If you really want to find the safest skincare products, you have to take matters into your own hands—and that starts with looking at the list of ingredients.

To us, clean beauty means products made without ingredients that have been linked to harmful health effects. The U.S. restricts only 30 ingredients from being used in personal care and cosmetic products. Compare that to the EU, which has banned around 1,400, and you’ll see why it’s important to look at each ingredient yourself and see what research (if any) has been done, so you can make the best decision for you. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database can be a good resource, but it’s worth noting the EWG errs on the side of caution when it’s lacking information, so take its ratings with a grain of salt.

Why Clean Beauty Matters

We know that some chemicals make their way into our bloodstreams through the skin, nose, and mouth. What we don’t know is how much of these chemicals actually get absorbed or the long-term effects they have on our health. However, several common personal care ingredients have been linked to endocrine (or hormone) disruption and cancer, and many others are irritants or potential allergens. We would rather be safe than sorry, so we prefer to avoid these potentially harmful ingredients whenever possible, especially when there are so many effective clean beauty products that don’t use them.

Another potential concern is body burden—the total accumulation of chemicals in our body from everything from cleaning products to pollution to, yes, beauty products. By limiting our exposure to these potential toxins where we can, such as by using clean skincare products, we may be able to lessen our overall chemical burden.

What to Look for on a List of Ingredients

Unfortunately, there’s no single list of harmful ingredients to avoid, and each company sets its own standards around what it will or won’t allow in its skincare products. One consequence of the FDA having very little control over the personal care industry is that many brands get away without listing everything on the label. Watch out for broad names like “fragrance” or “perfume”—they may be hiding less-than-stellar ingredients under the guise of it being a trade secret. Rather, seek out companies that are transparent about what goes into their products and don’t hide behind the label.

We believe the best clean skincare products are paraben-free, phthalate-free, sulfate-free, formaldehyde-free, dye-free, and talc-free. We also suggest steering clear of the following:

  • added fragrance
  • essential oils
  • mineral oil
  • drying alcohols
  • polyethylene glycol
  • silicones
  • EDTA

Instead, look for beauty products with nontoxic, science-backed ingredients such as glycolic acid (a powerful exfoliator), bakuchiol (a natural alternative to retinol), and niacinamide (vitamin B3, which soothes and strengthens skin).

The Difference Between Clean Beauty and Organic Makeup

Organic makeup generally means that the ingredients used were grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but it says nothing about the product’s efficacy or its safety. A beauty product can be organic and still contain potentially toxic ingredients or allergens.

Same goes for the term natural. In theory, natural cosmetics are made with nonsynthetic, plant-based ingredients, but just putting “all-natural” on a label doesn’t make it so (remember, companies can market their products however they want). And not only that, but natural ingredients aren’t necessarily safer or better for you. A good example used to illustrate this is poison ivy. Natural? Yes. Safe for your skin? No.

When we talk about clean beauty, on the other hand, we’re referring to skincare products that use safe, proven, non-irritating ingredients that actually work. Even better if they are vegan (no animal or animal-derived ingredients) and cruelty-free (never tested on animals).

Next Up: 5 Reasons You Should Choose Vegan Skincare Even If You're Not Vegan