Clean beauty, just like “clean eating”, has become a popular buzzword in the realm of wellness. It is meant to describe cosmetics formulated without harmful ingredients. Unfortunately, clean beauty is a term that is not officially defined nor regulated anywhere in the world. Any retailer or brand can make a “clean beauty” claim with no oversight. The same goes for “natural,” “green,” and “eco” – all terms without clear definitions – that are used to market and greenwash potentially harmful products.
To help you navigate the jungle of these clean beauty buzzwords, we have compiled this guide to help you ask the right questions.
The clean beauty movement started in the United States where many consumers feel the government has not been active enough in restricting the use of toxic ingredients in cosmetics. And this is a real concern. In the United States the FDA has currently only banned 11 ingredients from cosmetics, while in the European Union, over 1,300 ingredients are banned from cosmetic use.
As a response to this lack of regulatory oversight, many newer beauty companies have started self-regulating and removing ingredients that they consider to be harmful to human health or the environment. The companies make what they call “dirty lists” of ingredients they consider harmful and wish to avoid. Some companies have also added aspects of sustainability and ethics to their definition of clean. This could, for example, mean only using ingredients that have been sustainably sourced using ethical workforce practices. Such developments in the beauty industry are extremely positive, and something we, at NUORI, applaud.
What is worrying about the clean beauty movement, though, is the complete lack of oversight. Firstly, clean does not necessarily mean natural. Many self-labeled clean beauty brands also use synthetic ingredients. Secondly, clean does not necessarily mean safe. Some brands use what they call “safe synthetics” - again a term that is not officially defined - others don’t even make this distinction.
For example, we recently examined a well-known US brand that calls itself “a clean luxury haircare” brand. They base this claim on the fact that their formulas are free from parabens and sulfates. But their formulas are full of synthetic ingredients including PEGs (polyethylene glycols). Depending on how they are manufactured, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen.
For these reasons, we at NUORI do not wish to label ourselves just as another “clean” beauty brand. Rather, we are an all-natural brand and want to be very clear and transparent about our ingredient policies. You can read more about our ingredient philosophy here.
As opposed to “clean”, organic is a term that is regulated by national government bodies and some international bodies. The most common internationally recognized organic certification in the cosmetics industry is the Cosmos Organic label given by the Ecocert organization.
Again, it is interesting to note that even certified organic cosmetics are not necessarily 100% natural or organic. For example, a Cosmos Organic certified product only needs to contain 20% of organic ingredients in the total formula (only 10% for rinse-off products).
Despite the huge growth in consumer interest for natural cosmetics, there is still no official definition of “natural” in the European Union nor the US. Many brands label themselves “natural”, but if you study their ingredient lists, they might use just a few natural ingredients in otherwise synthetic formulas.
To give an example, we came across a sunscreen product from a well-known international brand that had the following label on the front: “100% natural zinc sunscreen”. When we studied the ingredient list, it turned out this product did contain a small amount of natural zin oxide, but it also contained chemical UV filters, as well as a myriad of other synthetic ingredients. This is what is called “greenwashing” and is unfortunately very, very common. These purposefully misleading practices by many brands make it so difficult for consumers to make informed choices.
There are only two main categories of cosmetic ingredients that can be called natural:
- ingredients of natural origin
- nature-identical ingredients
Ingredients of natural origin include water as well as all ingredients made from plant, mineral, or animal sources. Based on the extraction and manufacturing process used, they can be further divided into naturally-occurring, naturally-derived, and naturally-modified.
The second category, nature-identical, refers to a final ingredient that is synthetically produced in a lab but is identical to the molecules found in nature. For example, vitamins that are added to cosmetics often fall into this category, because they cannot be directly extracted from plants.
NUORI has committed to producing formulas that are 100% natural. This means that we only use ingredients that fall into the two categories of "natural" defined above for our skincare products. Furthermore, we restrict the use of nature-identical ingredients to a bare minimum and only allow them if a variant made from plant origin does not exist or cannot be obtained in an environmentally sustainable manner.
What can you do as a consumer?
As a consumer, the best thing you can do is educate yourself. When you come across a brand that claims to sell clean, organic, or natural beauty products, turn it around in your hands and read the ingredient list. If you see ingredient names there you do not recognize, look them up online to determine whether you want your body to be exposed to these substances or not.
But reading ingredient lists is not always easy. Many cosmetic ingredients exist both in a natural and synthetic variant and unfortunately, they have the same official name on ingredients lists. If you want to be sure, contact the brand. Be an active consumer and ask questions. Here are facts you can ask a brand to disclose:
- What is your company’s “dirty list”?
- What percentage of ingredients used in this product are of natural origin?
So, stay curious, be demanding, and be a driver of change for the beauty industry.