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Clean beauty is all the rage but how clean is it really?

Daniela Sirtori-Cortina
Daniela Sirtori-Cortina • 4 min read
Clean beauty is all the rage but how clean is it really?
A lack of clear guidelines in the beauty industry may open the door for a new kind of greenwashing
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"The only all-natural skincare treatments would be the equivalent of smashing up an avocado and putting it directly on your face as a mask”
Joshua Zeichner

A lot has been said about how the pandemic is motivating people to be more discerning about what they put in their bodies. But the crisis may also be having a big effect on what they put on their bodies.

The concept of so-called clean beauty — makeup and skincare products marketed as free of harmful, artificial ingredients — is the latest catchphrase in a burgeoning world of items sold as sustainable, environmentally conscious or simply safer.

Demand has spiked over the past year. According to a July report by The NPD Group, some 68% of consumers say they are looking for skincare brands that highlight “clean” ingredients.

“Consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about what they’re putting into their bodies and onto their skin, and there’s a desire to make healthy and environmentally-conscious decisions,” said New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner.

While the US Food and Drug Administration regulates cosmetics to make sure they are not adulterated or misbranded, the agency is not tasked with approving most of these products before they hit the shelves.

Even though the phrase is often associated with naturally-derived ingredients, there is no standard definition for “clean” beauty. In many cases, purveyors focus on what is not included, as well as in environmentally-friendly formulations and packaging, according to NielsenIQ.

The fuzzy definition of “clean beauty” has not stopped skincare giants from climbing aboard. In the first half of the year, sales at department and beauty specialty stores of products perceived as “clean” climbed by about 33% to US$1.6 billion ($2.1 billion) compared to the same period last year, according to NPD. Skincare and makeup alone experienced volume growth of more than 20% each.

Major retailers such as Sephora and Ulta Beauty designate as “clean” everything from face cleansers to eyeshadow if they omit ingredients known or suspected to harm humans or the environment, the companies said.

Formulations that are vegan or do not involve animal testing are also candidates for inclusion, and environmentally-friendly packaging also comes into play, according to Ulta Chief Merchandising Officer Monica Arnaudo.

At Sephora, such “clean” products range from lip gloss to foundation, sold under its own and third-party brands. “The landscape can be challenging, due to the vast number of terms or claims — natural, green (or) organic,” said Sephora vice-president of skincare merchandising Cindy Deily.

Consumers should also know natural does not automatically mean better or safer, said Zeichner, the dermatologist. Ingredients such as essential oils can trigger allergic reactions, especially for those with sensitive skin.

Moreover, most beauty products require preservatives to avoid microbial contamination, making formulations without any artificial ingredients hard to come by. “The only all-natural skincare treatments would be the equivalent of smashing up an avocado and putting it directly on your face as a mask,” Zeichner said.

As far as what is excluded, many of these products tout a lack of phthalates, which can be found in nail polish, hair spray and plastic packaging, and parabens, which is used as preservative.

The European Union has taken a more aggressive stance on some of these chemicals, while the FDA is still evaluating whether they are actually harmful to humans. Meanwhile, more than half of beauty and personal care products sold in the U.S. are already paraben free, according to NielsenIQ.

Still, the “free from” category is driving growth, the research firm said. While the ingredients aspect of “clean” beauty may be nebulous, the packaging part is a little more black-and-white.

Personal-care product consumers are increasingly focused on sustainability across production and disposal, says NielsenIQ senior vice president of customer development Tara James Taylor.

“It’s not just about the ingredients anymore, but about what is better for society,” James Taylor said. “We see accelerating sales growth for products that are ‘better for we,” which include a positive environmental impact.”

Moving forward, NPD beauty industry adviser Larissa Jensen sees the next frontier involving “cleanical” brands, or those that build their lines around laboratory-tested benefits and ingredients while promising “clean, safe, synthetics.” — Bloomberg

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