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The Clean Beauty Conundrum


The Clean Beauty Conundrum, brands shown in photos; herbivore botanicals, kosas and ilia.

What is Clean Beauty?

Clean Beauty has no doubt been a big deal in the beauty industry. Consumers want to know what’s in their products and be sure that they can trust that it’s safe, one of the answers to this from the industry has been the idea of “clean” beauty. It’s often juxtaposed with “toxic”, “nasty” or “bad” ingredients. Brands make claims about their products being “non-toxic” and that they don’t have “no nasties” or “no bad stuff”. Clean Beauty is mainly focused on the ingredients, mainly what is not in the products. One of the causes for confusion around clean beauty is that everyone has their own definition of what “clean” means and there are countless variations of lists of which ingredients are no good. Even though there are a lot of good intentions, there is non consistent consensus about which ingredients are bad and generally which ingredients are demonized are not based in any science. When it comes down to it “Clean Beauty” is a marketing term.


What Clean Beauty is not.

There is a lot of confusion about clean beauty even from people working withing the industry. It’s often conflated with other concepts.


Clean Beauty does not mean that brands/products are:

  • Cruelty Free

  • Vegan

  • Sustainable

  • Natural

  • Organic

  • Hypoallergenic

  • Safe


Products from clean beauty brands can be any or all these things, but it has nothing to do with them being clean. Despite this there are often assumptions made that brands might be these things also when they claim to be clean.


Let me give you a small glossary:


Cruelty Free

Means that products are not tested on animals, generally brands that are owned by parent companies that test on animals are de facto not considered cruelty free by anyone that cares about the products they purchase being cruelty free. I’ll refer to my post about cruelty free cosmetics if you wish to learn more.


Vegan

Products that do not contain any animal derived ingredients. Most would not consider products to be vegan unless they are also Cruelty Free, even if there are no animal derived ingredients.


Sustainable

Products that have a minimal environmental impact. Think plastic free packaging or minimal packaging, mindfully sourced ingredients and promoting the use of less products. If you want to learn more I list a ton of resources in my post about greenwashing.


Natural

Products made from naturally derived ingredients, this term does not have an especially clear definition or standard. People mean that the ingredients are of natural origin but in actuality it doesn’t mean much when brands claim their products are natural. Natural is one of the most common descriptors that beauty brands use to describe themselves.


Organic

The ingredients come from organic farming practices. There are actual standards and certifications for this, and brands will and do get in trouble for using it if it does not apply to them.


Hypoallergenic

Products that aim to use as few possible allergens in their products to cater to consumers with very sensitive skin.


Safe

Weather something is safe or not depends on the interactions of risk and exposure, for an excellent discussion on this concept I would like to refer to Michelle Wong’s (Lab Muffin Beauty Science) video on the topic.


Many Different Standards of Clean Beauty.

There are many different certifications for clean beauty. There are also many retailers that have their own standards for what clean beauty means to them. In addition to this there are many brands that have their own definition too. (I have a lot of issues with EWG in specific, I'll make another post getting into that.)


Shows the logos for various clean beauty certifications and standards.


What is “The Clean Beauty Conundrum”?

When looking at statistics for Clean Beauty Brands there’s a problem you will run into, which brands do you count as “Clean”? I’m calling it “The Clean Beauty Conundrum”. Do you include all brands that call themselves Clean regardless of them living up to a specific standard? Do you include all brands that live up to a specific standard even if they don’t call themselves clean? What standard would we be using? If anyone is making claims of the revenue of “Clean Beauty” and they do not clarify what definition they are using, you should look at it with some skepticism.

A simple visual to help explain the clean beauty conundrum.

What problems are caused by The Clean Beauty Conundrum?

Without clearly defining what brands are counted as clean beauty or not we cannot meaningfully determine anything about the market share that clean beauty actually has. Often when I see articles making statements about the revenue of clean beauty, they are often wrongly using the statistics for natural and organic cosmetics.


Further, because the term Clean Beauty is so vague and the standards are so inconsistent, it makes it easy for corporations to co-opt the term and use it to sell their products while making minimal effort to change anything for the better. It’s much easier for a business to just not use an arbitrary list of specific ingredients than to make meaningful improvements to the sustainability of their products or the ethical impacts of their supply chain.


I do believe that people that earnestly believe in clean beauty want to have a positive impact on the world, but we also need to look at what impacts they are actually having. When we leave room for bad actors to take advantage of unclear terms, continuing to promote the idea of clean beauty risks giving everyone a free pass.


The fear mongering coming from the beauty industry can also be used in a way that is manipulative and unethical. People that are already worried about their own health for different reasons or neurodivergent people can have an increased vulnerability to this kind of manipulation.


What can brands do instead?

The best way to avoid the terms we use to be co-opted and misused is to be as specific as possible. This also helps avoid getting in trouble with marketing regulations. Say what you mean and mean what you say. I’m all for transparency and educating consumers about what’s in their products and why.



Thank you for reading.

//Jennifer Carlsson

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Portrait photo of Jennifer Carlsson, short neon green hair and rainbow colored eye makeup
Jennifer Carlsson
The Beauty Brand Expert

I'm Jennifer Carlsson, a 30 year old strategy consultant, competitive market researcher, data analyst and designer from Stockholm, Sweden. I know more about more beauty brands than anyone else and I'm an expert in what it takes for beauty brands to succeed.
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