“Clean” is the beauty buzzword of the moment. It’s everywhere. A whole host of “clean” brands, like Tata Harper, Ilia, and Kosas, have entered the spotlight; large retailers, including Sephora or Net Sustain (by Net-a-Porter), are providing “clean” stamps of approval; and new entrants, like Victoria Beckham Beauty, promise to be “super clean” (whatever that means).
“Clean” doesn’t have a universal meaning in the beauty world, but it does sort of feel good – who wants to buy something “dirty”? This makes the concept of “clean” confusing and often misleading. So, here’s how to navigate “clean” product claims:
1. Be sceptical. Yeah, “clean” and “super clean” sound good, but are they actually better? Remember brands are trying to sell you stuff and “clean” claims are pretty sexy right now.
2. Do some homework. If a brand really is “clean”, they should define exactly what they mean by this. Dig a bit deeper; don’t just accept a “clean” claim without understanding what it means to them.
3. Be doubly sceptical. (Have you detected a theme…?) Once you understand how a brand defines “clean”, apply more scepticism. It’s easy to write long lists of the ingredients “we never use”, or make generic claims about caring for the environment. This doesn’t actually tell you what’s in a product or the steps a company is taking to protect the planet.
So, if we should be sceptical of “clean” or “super clean” (thanks, Victoria B) claims, what should we look out for?
Complete ingredient transparency instead of scaremongering and buzzwords
Lots of us don’t recognise the long words on a cosmetic product’s ingredient list, and this makes them seem scary. However, just because you can’t pronounce something, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you – did you know the INCI for Shea Butter is “Butyrospermum Parkii”?
There’s also lots of misinformation out there which get perpetuated through things like “we never use” lists. For example, as a universal statement: “parabens are bad”, is simply not true. Parabens, in the right dose, appropriately used, can act as a really valuable preservative, ensuring products remain stable and free of contamination.
It’s not good enough to rely on other buzzwords like “non-toxic”, “natural” or “chemical-free”. Why? “Non-toxic” is just unhelpful. As a kid, did you ever hear that “you can overdose on bananas”? It’s true – in sufficient quantities (like really massive quantities), bananas are toxic to humans; so is salt, and water. It’s a myth that “natural” is better than synthetic. Nature has some great ingredients, but also has some really harmful stuff – just think about what happens to your skin if you touch a totally natural nettle leaf. And “chemical-free” is just BS. EVERYTHING is a chemical.
Instead of scaremongering and using ill-defined buzzwords, brands need to provide clear explanations about ingredients and why they are used. They should empower us to understand what we’re putting on our skin; not scare us into buying things.
Clear explanations about manufacturing and safety testing
Where and how something is made makes a huge difference. If a product gets contaminated with harmful bacteria or fungi, it definitely isn’t “clean”. You want products made in established factories, subject to health and safety standards. Counterfeits are a scary part of the beauty world: they are often made in unregulated manufacturing facilities in Asia and contamination is a real issue.
Brands should be clear about safety testing. Products should go through dermatological testing based on internationally recognised standards for skin reactions and ocular safety. Claiming to be “clean” without going through these processes, is just not enough.
The bigger picture
Right now, “clean” is, generally (and there are some notable exceptions), associated with the ingredients used. To me, we need to view “clean” as part of the bigger picture:
1. Beauty products should be formulated with raw materials sourced from supply chains that respect human rights, avoid child or forced labour, and pay a fair price.
2. We need to end excessive packaging, reduce reliance on packaging made with materials that are difficult or expensive to recycle and look towards biodegradable, compostable or “circular” packaging solutions.
3. We need to respect our planet, its resources and fragility, ensure the sustainable extraction and supply of raw materials, and conduct operations in a manner that are at least carbon neutral.
“Clean” beauty is confusing and complex. I think companies need to be more transparent and stop relying on buzzwords that sound good to sell stuff. Over the next few months, we’re going to take a look at some “clean” brands and deep-dive into whether we think they deserve this accolade.