What does “Clean Beauty” really mean?

The evolution of the term clean beauty began as a way for beauty companies to identify products without harmful ingredients. But as marketing teams and cosmetic companies jumped on the trending bandwagon, it became so common that the term itself has actually lost its meaning. The term clean beauty has become gravely overused, but it still covers headlines, taglines, and beauty displays everywhere. In fact, some agencies have begun to fight back by banning the term all together to avoid any misunderstanding. 

How many of us choose our beauty products influenced by the term ‘clean beauty’? While social media and social circles have boasted about being ‘clean’, the term doesn’t actually have a universally accepted definition. The term is relatively new to cultural conversation and as questions mount, consumers are beginning to demand better standards. We wanted to help clear up the confusion and give a much-needed breakdown of the misunderstanding surrounding ‘clean beauty’.

Let’s start with how we, at 3 Graces Beauty define clean beauty.

Our approach is focused on clean meets chemistry. It’s great to have “clean” ingredients, but none of it works without the chemistry behind it. Let’s address that all too common elephant in the room, science does not mean bad, dirty, or any other antonym that may be floating around. Science allows beauty creators to effectively combine ingredients so that the user benefits. The science of clean beauty is more about where the ingredients come from and that type of transparency is what we at 3 Graces are proud of. 

So here are the facts that currently face the beauty industry. 

The Federal Drug Administration passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938 to monitor the ingredients used in various products including those in the beauty industry. But in all those years, and in all those advancements in science and technology these standards have never been updated. These types of regulations differ by country, and while the US only bands around 11 ingredients, the EU bands more than 1,300. This Act is also the only US government regulation that monitors cosmetic ingredients. What’s more concerning is that the FDA relies on self-regulation to address the risks posed by the personal care products industry. Although FDA regulations require companies to ‘substantiate’ the safety of their products, FDA does not review or have routine access to substation records. 

It’s not simply the lack of regulations, but the ingredients that are sneaking through the system. Although not harmful in small doses, it is the repetitive use of such harmful chemicals that present the biggest worry. The Environmental Working Group (or EWG) is an advocate for consumers battling the government to update its standards and list of banned ingredients. Senior VP Scott Farber testified in congress that 617 cosmetics makers have reported using 93 chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm in more than 81,000 products. 

FACT: “The average woman in the US uses 12 cosmetic products containing 168 chemicals on her body each day” 

With so many terms being thrown about without any set definition, beauty lovers everywhere are left to make their own. Claims of ‘clean’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, and hypoallergenic’ can be misleading, so industry experts like 3 Graces Beauty have adopted its own standards of clean beauty working from those of larger, more accepted brands or news outlets like magazines. In fact, we make our products and ingredients to meet some of the strictest beauty standards in existence. 

What are some of these clean beauty villains and why should we avoid them?

Paraben-free, fragrance-free, and so on are touted with pride amongst beauty brands. So, in turn, as a consumer, we know that we must want these because clearly parabens are bad. But why, what do they do? Millions of studies are done all over the world to try and answer this very question and the results are evident. Parabens, for example, are often included in beauty products as an antimicrobial because they prevent bacteria growth in beauty products. But studies confirm that this little chemical “mimics estrogen in the human body, with evidence linking it to reproductive organ harm, thyroid disruption, hormone-related cancers, and obesity.” 

Fragrance is another term that gets tossed about frequently. And while some consumers simply avoid added smells out of preference, there is in fact a reason for the desire of ‘fragrance-free’ skin care. Fragrance is a universal term and can disguise up to 3,000 synthetic or natural ingredients. But, under regulations, fragrances don’t have to be disclosed and are considered a trade secret. What’s more is that it is often left off and hidden behind the term phthalates which has been linked to reproductive and hormonal harm in children and men. This term (often abbreviated as DEP, BBzP, DBP, or DEHP) is a group of chemicals known to keep products such as nail polishes and hair sprays pliable.

So where did the term clean beauty come from?

While the exact origin is unknown, the most widely accepted first appearance of the term is a 1970 Cover Girl Ad called the ‘Clean Make-up” campaign. With a bright-faced model showing off her flawless complexion, the ad used ‘clean’ to refer to the ‘natural’ no makeup, makeup look (while in actuality the makeup contained Noxzema medication to treat blemishes). In the 90’s, Whole Foods began to expand past its border of Austin, TX and introduce society to beauty isles of aluminum-free deodorant and lavender-sprig soaps. This was the introduction of clean that went past makeup and into our everyday skin care. The final, and perhaps propeller that sprung the term ‘clean beauty’ into the mainstream was Gwyneth Paltrow’s launch of a Goop Newsletter in 2008. A brand that would pioneer the standard for ‘clean living’ and redefine beauty, self-care, and beyond. GOOP’s current definition of clean beauty includes “products made without ingredients shown or suspected to harm human health.” 

Are there any official standards for clean beauty?

There are 2 main organizations that have created a set of standards to differentiate ‘clean beauty’ products from all of the rest: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Leaping Bunny certification program. To be endorsed by either entity, is to review every ingredient that is in a product and make sure it meets their definition of ‘clean’. 3 Graces Beauty is Leaping Bunny Certified, which means our products have been peer reviewed and we meet the standards they have set forth. Many companies such as Sephora have created their own set of standards for clean beauty, and only the brands that meet these requirements can call these retailers home. Some say it has helped the industry and some say it just creates more confusion. But ultimately, there is no government-regulated standard for clean beauty, it has been driven by consumers demanding transparency from the products they are using.

Clean Beauty versus Green Beauty

As a notable reference, there is a difference between clean beauty and green beauty. While there has not been an established universal definition for either, the general consensus is that green beauty is sustainable and sourced with environmental responsibility towards the planet. According to green beauty expert and author of ‘Gorgeously Green’ Sophie Uliano, green beauty refers to products that won’t harm skin, animals, and the earth. Clean beauty isn’t the opposite, but it does take a slightly different approach. In general consensus, clean beauty contains non-toxic ingredients both natural and man-made. Basically, some of the ingredients are made in a lab and some or made by nature. Let’s just put it out there, scientifically created or man-made ingredients do not immediately mean bad for you. In fact, most companies include synthetic ingredients in products. Clean beauty simply sets the standard that these man-made substances are not harmful to the consumer in any way.