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Cosmetics Ingredients

Clean Beauty: What Does it Mean in 2021?

Yolanda Grunewald – Jul 27, 2021

TAGS:  Sustainability / Natural Cosmetics   

This is a UK mineral makeup brand free from all those nasty ingredients mentioned above.

These are my own words from when I used to write a beauty blog 8 years ago, and I was referring to a brand’s free from list, which read “Bismuth oxychloride, Talc, Preservatives, Parabens, Mineral oil or any petroleum-derived products, Perfumes, Oils and Fragrances, Alcohol, Dyes, Animal-derived ingredients such as carmine or silk, nanoparticles.

UK Based Mineral Makeup Brand

Even before looking at the date of this post, it was evident to me that I must have written this before I started studying for my Bachelors in Cosmetic Science. The word “nasties” is an interesting one, and I’m surprised I used the term as early on as April 2013, which is when this blog post is dated. It is a word often used by Clean Beauty brands as a way of describing ingredients in free from lists.

Today, I know that what is more relevant than broad and vague ingredient categories is:

  • The level of exposure, the quality, transparency on what ingredient is used, and
  • Most importantly – the individual consumer’s right to make an informed choice on what ingredients they would like to use in their products.

For consumers to be able to make such a choice, transparency and clearly defined terms are the key.

So how did we get to a point where undefined and unregulated terms such as Clean Beauty are so widely used, and let's begin with what Clean Beauty actually mean?

What Does Clean Beauty Entail?

The word clean, of course, has the opposite meaning to the word dirty. Thus, the obvious implication here is that in a product from a Clean Beauty brand there is an absence of dirty ingredients, as opposed to regular products which may contain dirty ingredients. Dirty ingredients in this case are likely to be those most frequently seen in the ever-growing free from lists, with the most disliked ingredients being parabens, petrochemicals and their derivatives, and SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate/Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate) & SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate).

Retailers such as Niche Beauty have whole product categories on their websites dedicated to Clean Beauty brands, where the products shown must adhere to a strict free from list in order to make the cut. They clearly define what they mean by Clean Beauty and their definition is as follows – “Clean means: "Free from" - but not "Better than". Clean does not mean: vegan, green or free of synthetic ingredients. Clean means: free from the most frequently criticized ingredients (authorized or unauthorized), which you can now view here [links list].” I believe this is a fair and responsible way of catering to this consumer requirement.

What’s interesting, however, is that when I asked around to understand a little bit better what people perceived Clean Beauty to mean, I understood that this has become somewhat of an umbrella term, and there is a wealth of positive product characteristics associated with this word.

These ranged from safer, more ethical, higher quality products, more thought through and deliberate ingredient list, more environmentally friendly ingredients, and even a more ethical and sustainable company. Now all of this may sound good, but the reality is that when you are marketing your product using terms such as Clean Beauty or Clean products, knowing that the consumer has all of those positive associations to the word, there is also an underlying message that other, “regular” products do not possess these same characteristics. This could be considered to break the EU Cosmetics Regulation’s (Cosmetics Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009) fairness criteria for product claims, where “Claims for cosmetic products should be objective and should not denigrate the competitors, nor should they denigrate ingredients legally used”.

» Green or clean beauty? – Hear from Sabine VIC, Consultant at FORMULA&SENS

Is the Cosmetics Industry Unfairly Judged?

Beauty brand Deciem recently launched a campaign with an article and an educational YouTube video where they explored the topic of Clean Beauty and conveyed one very clear message – everything is chemicals. They asked, “So what is it about defining a substance by its chemical composition that makes it “unclean” when compared to its common name? What makes vinegar and baking soda cupboard staples, but acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate dangerous substances?“.

This is a great question, which leads me to an interesting phenomenon where after a product recall or product safety scandal, our memory tends to be relatively short when it relates to food items. Simultaneously, we are a little less forgiving when it concerns cosmetic products and the personal care industry.

In 2020, in the UK, the Food Standards Agency issued recalls of several food items from major grocery stores with concerns of salmonella contamination and non-disclosed ingredients. Despite similar issues being frequent occurrences, most of us put them down to one-offs and don’t think twice about continuing to consume the items in question. Considering this regards products that we ingest – one could wonder why we take the opposite approach to cosmetic product items for which we have lower exposure to, due to the nature of the application.

Parabens are Good But Still Killed?

We’ve seen multiple times how a mere accusation or a single study can hugely impact our view on specific cosmetic ingredients. A study in 2004 by Dr. Darbre suggests a possible link between the use of cosmetics containing parabens and breast cancer. Despite many other researchers and industry professionals critiquing the study and pointing out that it does not show a clear correlation, this study acted as a catalyst for the free-from movement.

Dr. Chris Flower, who at the time was Director-general at the CTPA (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association in the UK), commented that “Extensive research available to our members continues to indicate that there is no proven link between rising breast cancer rates and the use of antiperspirants or deodorants. Dr. Darbre’s research is based on an extremely small sample of 20 breast tumor cases and does not include any reference samples from normal tissues.” Cancer Research UK states on their website that “No. Parabens do not cause cancer in humans, including breast cancer. Parabens are used in personal care products as a preservative. This means that they allow products to last longer on the shelf. Some small studies in rats found that paraben might act like the hormone estrogen, which is linked to breast cancer. But there’s no good evidence linking parabens to breast cancer in humans”.

Despite all of this, 17 years later, parabens are almost a complete no-go in any new product formulations, and phenoxyethanol (for which less research on its safety has been conducted, than for parabens) has replaced parabens as one of the most popular preservatives in personal care, solely due to consumer demand.

The Future of Clean Beauty


Moving forward, I would love to see Clean Beauty progressed into a clearly defined term with set criteria for which a product/brand has to meet in order to use this term – perhaps in the form of standardized product certification? Ingredient list minimalism is an interesting trend and one I’d like to see more of as I think it challenges formulators to only use raw materials which are absolutely essential for the product to fulfill its function. As a formulator, this is something I have attempted myself and it’s a lot harder than it seems – as many raw materials are blends consisting of several different ingredients already. Transparency is also something that I would love for more brands to adopt, especially with a focus on transparent supply chains.

Transparency in supply chains
Supply Chains Focus on Transparency


In 2019, Haircare brand Aveda pioneered the use of blockchain technology within their Madagascan vanilla supply chain. The technology was developed with their raw material supplier alongside a blockchain innovation company to aid with ingredient traceability within their supply chain. I will be following this closely and hoping that this technology can be further developed and eventually widely adopted throughout the industry.

Aveda blockchain technology
Aveda Pioneered the Use of Blockchain Technology within their Madagascan Vanilla Supply Chain

Less Water Consumption

Another interesting beauty tech innovation is the “Water Saver – a new technology that makes sustainable water use available to everyone” created by beauty giant L’Oréal and Swiss innovation company Gjosa. This technology was created with the aim of reducing water consumptions both in salons and at home and claims to use up to 80% less water.

Water saver technology
Water Saver Technology – Claims to Use Upto 80% Less Water

How can Companies Best Approach Clean Beauty?

If a consumer has made an informed decision to avoid certain ingredients based on trustworthy research, own experiences, religious or dietary reasons, then this is completely fine. Choosing to use ingredients of mainly natural origin is also fine as a preference. Who doesn’t love the idea that the earth has provided us with all the raw materials we could possibly need for cosmetics? It’s safe to say that most of us would still prefer synthetic urea in our foot creams as opposed to its natural version, which is excreted in animal or human urine.

For brands concerned with the safety of their consumers, it is responsible to stick to all relevant regulations and to be as transparent as possible. Therefore, it is advisable that if you must use terms such as Clean Beauty – make sure that you have clearly defined what this term means to you, on-pack, on the website and social media channels.

As it isn’t a regulated or defined term, the better option would be for brands to ditch such terms until they are clearly defined and/or regulated and instead focus on transparency in their marketing messages. Focus on what is in the product, the quality of your ingredients, the research you have conducted and outline your sustainability plan if you have one – all of this is clear enough! If you are a brand focusing on natural ingredients, convey clearly what this term means, compile and obtain thorough technical documentation which details the natural origin of your raw materials.

What can we do to Restore Consumer Confidence?

As you learned at the beginning of the article, I, myself was an avid “free-fromer”. Passionately arguing my points to anybody who would listen and convincing them that SLES is too harsh for your scalp and Mineral Oil is bad (just because). But whilst I was washing my hair with Sulfate-free Shampoos, every morning and evening I was still brushing my teeth and possibly ingesting small quantities of SLES’s much harsher cousin-SLS.

I was right about SLES being a harsh detergent, but I was missing a lot of information in order to understand the full context. This is true for consumers today who are very knowledgeable on ingredients – it’s just that sometimes, they are missing the full story. As formulators, product developers and marketers in the industry we need to find new ways of conveying ingredient and chemistry knowledge to consumers in ways which are credible and are not condescending.

Regain Consumer Confidence
Finding New Ways to Acknowledge Your Customers About Ingredients & Chemistry

If consumers were better informed on the whole process of placing a cosmetic product on the market – they would know that avoiding all SLES due to the possibility of impurities from the Ethoxylation process (like 1,4 dioxane) is like avoiding all sweeteners and milk due to the possible contamination mentioned earlier in this article.

I do understand the innate desire to believe that what the earth provides us naturally and without our interference, must always be better. But this is simply not the case, not even for Shea Butter which is one of the most amazing emollients nature has given us. It most definitely does not appear in the form we are used to – straight from the Shea Nut and requires many steps of human processing to get the soft, smooth butter-like emollient we all love.

Shea Butter from Shea Nut
Shea Butter from Shea Nut

Sustainability in Cosmetics: What it means for Formulators

Take the course by Jen Novakovic (leading cosmetics formulation consultant, Director of Eco Well), who will help you explore the whole sustainability concept in cosmetics and its impact through all phases of the cosmetic product life cycle. She will also explain how can you can confidently & ethically claim your sustainability goals by substantiation!

Sustainability in Cosmetics


  1. https://www.mirror.co.uk/money/lidl-iceland-sainsburys-waitrose-issue-22781931
  2. https://drugsdetails.com/safety-and-efficacy-of-parabens-in-skin-care-products/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14745841/
  4. https://www.loreal.com/en/articles/science-and-technology/loreal-water-saver-the-new-sustainable-haircare-system/
  5. https://www.aveda.com/living-aveda-article-our-blockchain-pilot-program-launch

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