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May 07, 2021 Melissa Sansone
May 07, 2021
Foodism360 via Unsplash

When hearing the term “clean beauty,” most people will think about beauty products that are all natural, cruelty free, and contain less harsh chemicals. But today, "clean beauty”is defined as so much more than what’s inside the bottle—from formulation to packaging, to manufacturing and supply-chain footprint.

The term was first popularized in the ’90s when Whole Foods began selling its aluminum-free deodorants and Burt’s Bees’ popular beeswax lip balm. Since then, the clean beauty movement has rapidly increased its following, including celebrity supporters like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, and Miranda Kerr.

Its growing popularity can be seen on social media, where posts in the US using the hashtag #CleanBeauty grew by a staggering 623% between 2016 and 2019. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by beauty brands, whose offering of clean beauty products grew by 69% between 2014 and 2019 and is expected to be worth $22 billion by 2024.

So what is clean beauty really? And how has the industry responded to this fast-growing movement?

It’s what’s on the inside that counts

While there is no official definition of clean beauty, there is a common goal within this category for products to be more consciously formulated and without ingredients that can pose potential health risks to users, from allergic reactions to respiratory problems.

The typical clean beauty consumer today not only wants to look good, but also wants to ensure the products they select for their routines offer more than cosmetic benefits. There is an expectation that their products offer them both beauty and wellness benefits as those worlds collide and become interchangeable in many regards. How a product makes you feel is a question often asked ahead of consumer conversion.

This became even more apparent during COVID-19 as the general public’s growing concern for hygiene and safety products caused beauty consumers to be more critical of the ingredients in their beauty products. Vague ingredient claims are no longer enough. The consumer understanding and appetite for validation and proof points of what goes into a product is now 360.

The beauty industry has been listening and taking note. In 2018, Sephora launched a clean beauty section in its online store, which included a designated section for products that had Sephora’s verified stamp of approval, i.e., they were free of 13 questionable ingredients, like SLS, parabens, formaldehydes, and phthalates.

Beauty news destination Byrdie also announced its first annual Eco Beauty Awards in 2017, which was awarded to beauty products that were either free of 15 specific ingredient classes, were vegan, cruelty-free, or used sustainable packaging. Since then there’s been an emergence of multiple clean beauty awards, such as Glamour’s awards for The Best Clean Beauty Products and Allure’s Clean Best of Beauty Seal, further highlighting the growing demand for clean beauty options. Celebrating the strides these incredible brands—such as Westman Atelier, Klorane, and Pai Skincare—have made showcases tremendous steps forward, though there is still a long road ahead.

Let’s get ethical

As the clean beauty category has risen in popularity over the last decade, it has also become a wider issue that now considers beauty’s effect on the environment, from sustainable sourcing of ingredients to the use of recyclable packaging It is key to consider that eco-conscious decisions start with ingredient sourcing and production, followed by packaging and shipping, before ending with post-consumer solutions such as recycling. Suffice it to say, the path to better sustainability is uncharted, leaving room for exploitation, error, and missteps by brands.

For example, when sourcing natural ingredients for use in beauty products, the impact on the environment must be considered. If those resources aren’t replaced, it can put massive pressures on natural habitats.

Water for example—a popular ingredient used in beauty products, but an increasingly dwindling resource. With two-thirds of the world’s population facing water shortages by 2025, Klorane was inspired to expand their waterless offerings to include the Shampoo Bar with Mango and 2-in-1 Mask Shampoo Powder with Organic Nettle. The brand also committed to continuing their efforts in offering products that aid in water conservation, and partnered with Water is Life to donate filtration straws to the organization’s partnering schools in Africa—and to organic waste recycling company Detroit Dirt.

As a result of the efforts made by beauty brands like Klorane, waterless shampoo online searches are predicted to increase by +10.5% in 2021. Studies also show that 70% of consumers say they are looking to save water in their beauty routines, illustrating that the efforts taken by brands can have a positive ripple effect among consumers.

Several years ago, it used to be that the consumers were not thinking about certain steps in the life cycle of the product (such as manufacturing and supply chains), whereas more recently you see the strides towards understanding the full end to end. Further, the demand to show long-term commitment to the sustainability cause is a key driver in converting a loyal consumer base.


The lack of a legal definition and lack of regulation of terms like “clean beauty,” “natural,” “organic” and “nontoxic” has resulted in many brands taking it upon themselves to define them according to their own needs and agendas.

This lack of standardized metrics has created confusion and provided some brands with a false veil of accountability when it comes to their sustainability practices. Through “greenwashing,” they have been able to claim to be putting certain practices in place to entice consumers without the research and proof to back it up. This is a massive problem in the beauty industry as it gives consumers a false impression or misleading information about how their products and practices are more environmentally sound than they really are.

Take K-Beauty brand Innisfree’s recent greenwashing faux pas for example, where the brand claimed to use an eco-friendly paper bottle for a product that was actually in a plastic bottle. While the brand issued an apology for its misleading wording, many of its followers did not think it was sufficient.

Another recent example of greenwashing is beauty brands’ use of essential oils in their products to create a false perception of being “clean,” when in reality they have just used one drop of the essential oil and mixed it with fillers and synthetic fragrances. Because essential oils are natural plant extracts, these can also convey a false perception of being safe when they can actually cause strong allergic reactions if used incorrectly, which shows that natural doesn’t necessarily mean risk free.


Although the sustainability conversation within beauty is becoming more prevalent, there remains a massive gap in transparency around standards and methods. Perhaps this is why 61% of women feel that beauty products that are labelled as “clean” do not contain sufficient information about the ingredients, and why 97% of women say they want beauty brands to be more transparent about the ingredients in their products.

There’s been a massive industry push to combat brands using tactics like greenwashing to create a false perception of being clean, such as the rise of third-party ingredient-checking websites and apps like Think Dirty, CosmEthics, and CosDNA that hold brands accountable by helping consumers find out exactly what is in their products and empowering them to make better and more informed decisions when it comes to beauty.

Thanks to the growing access to information and rise of social media, beauty consumers are more informed, engaged, and connected than ever before, and they expect and demand more from brands than they have done in the past. Consumers also hold more power over brands, with the ability to cancel them if they don’t live up to certain values or expectations.

And their voices are being heard. Garnier for example recently announced its commitment to transparency as a response to greenwashing and confusion about “green beauty” within the beauty space, and revealed that it will publicly track its progress through a sustainability progress report available to anyone on their website. Clean beauty brand Innersense Organic Beauty also just announced its partnership with Climate Neutral, an independent nonprofit organization that helps companies measure their carbon footprint in a bid to become more sustainable and transparent.

Organic skincare brand Pai Skincare is another great example of a brand that champions change in terms of transparency and supply-chain visibility by making strides in their manufacturing facilities and processes to ensure they are setting, if not exceeding, any industry standards.

Ultimately the brands who greenwash and aren’t transparent about their products and practices will lose out as more beauty consumers aim to expand their understanding, placing a higher value on those companies who can prove these claims and showcase real, tangible change and commitment. Brands that will embrace all aspects of going clean in its more holistic sense (natural, sustainability, transparency, etc.) and weave their commitment into everything they do, will win the race for long-term relevance and growth.

Up until recently, consumers didn’t think about certain steps in the life cycle of a beauty product, but we are increasingly seeing greater interest and moves towards understanding the full end-to-end journey. Brands no longer have carte blanche when it comes to decisions around product, packaging, and production, and their consumers will aim to keep them accountable and demand proof points.

While it’s great to see more conscious efforts by brands to be more clean, the industry as a whole needs to take a step back with a collective aim to align on a universally agreed definition of what clean beauty really is. The lack of a clear definition for the term means that each brand’s interpretation will look different—from using sustainably produced and sourced to using fully recycled packaging—and prevents next steps forward for the industry as a whole.


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