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Is ‘Clean Beauty’ a Bubble?

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This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

The Clean Awakening

In 2012, the wellness movement swept through California like a tornado. Health food stores and vegan restaurants replaced neighborhood dives, and many Hollywood A-listers dove in head first. Then the logic became, if you’re cleaning up your diet, why not clean up the rest of your life, too, including your beauty products? Or so the story goes. “Clean beauty started in the California wellness movement, but it also came from people describing really simple, plant-based products,” says Josh Rosebrook, founder of his eponymous skin-care brand. “You know when someone says they only eat fruits and veggies, and you say, ‘Oh so you have a really clean diet’? That’s where it came from. Then people started seeing anything synthetic as bad, and in 2013, the Instagram community began using ‘clean and green’ to describe beauty products, and the terms were used interchangeably for a couple years. The movement came from an earnest place.”

Then Beautycounter launched in 2013. “It was basically all man-made formulas, but they were deemed ‘safe,’” recalls Rosebrook. “That’s when clean started to be associated with synthetic ingredients, but then green didn’t equal clean because green was solely plant-based.” In 2015, Credo opened its first store in San Francisco, positioning itself as a “clean beauty retailer” (now the largest in the world). “Back then, clean was referred to as a trend,” says Annie Jackson, cofounder and COO of Credo. “Now, it is a movement.”

The Great Divide

Somewhere along the way, however, many beauty enthusiasts fell off the clean bandwagon. These are five of the top reasons why.

Uncertain Terms

One of the biggest gripes, says beauty journalist Nadine Bagott, is that the term “clean” isn’t defined. “It really is almost impossible to categorize and describe, as it is a made-up marketing term with no regulated definition and made-up lists of ‘nasties’ to avoid,” she explains, noting that “nontoxic” is another unregulated term that should be tabled.

“We know clean can mean a number of different things, and we know 75 percent of consumers wished it was easier to identify clean products,” says Monica Arnaudo, chief merchandising officer at Ulta Beauty, which chose the term “Conscious Beauty” instead of clean, though “Clean Ingredients” is one of the platform’s five pillars. “As a result, our approach is holistic in that it empowers choices across clean, cruelty-free, vegan, sustainable packaging and positive impact.”

Private Label

“Clean has become such a problematic, polarizing label because it implies the opposite is dirty—no one wants to be dirty,” says Rosebrook, noting that although his brand is considered clean, he’s tried to stop using the term altogether. Additionally, he points to retailers who separate “clean” products from the rest of the bunch: “Does this mean the hundreds of others that don’t meet that standard are dirty or bad?”

Hit List

According to cosmetic chemist and founder of Lab Muffin Science, Michelle Wong, the confusion grows when you consider every brand and retailer has a different “no-no” list. “It’s also not entirely clear how each brand determines their list,” she says. “As far as I know, none of them are really in conjunction with toxicologists or scientists, outside of the EWG. And one of the big problems with the EWG is the way they assess the toxicity of beauty ingredients. It’s not a method that’s recognized in toxicology, and it’s what’s known as a hazard-based approach. Basically, if something contains an ingredient that can potentially cause harm, it’s labeled ‘dirty.’ They don’t take exposure into account, which is extremely important. For example, if you rub half a drop of something into your skin, the effects will be very different than if you inject half a liter of it into your bloodstream.”

Jackson recognizes the confusion and says that’s the reason she and her team at Credo have clearly laid out what ‘The Dirty List’—its ban of more than 2,700 ingredients linked to health or environmental issues—means for its customer base. “This is the foundation for our Credo Clean Standard, the document that guides our company and our 130-plus brand partners who sign and comply with it.”

Fear Factor

Another sore spot for the clean opposition is the idea that many clean brands use fear-mongering to market their products. “They perpetuate the myth that the beauty industry is not heavily regulated and is somehow out to harm you, your skin, your family and the world. That is infantilizing to consumers,” says Baggott. “Twenty years ago, the worst you could ever say about a beauty product was that it didn’t work— that it oversold and underdelivered. Now, consumers think their beauty products can kill them. More people need to stand up and ask, ‘Where is the evidence for this?’”

Science Class

Jen Novakovich, a formulation chemist and founder of The Eco Well, is frustrated by the abundance of pseudoscience associated with clean beauty. “Instead of listening to relevant scientific expertise, clean brands often seek out fringe viewpoints to support biases and encourage conspiratorial thinking around regulations. Cherry-picking data and science washing is the name of the game here. Instead of looking at the body of evidence, they find that one obscure study to support their notion, which is a red flag for pseudoscience.”

Wong believes this is one reason why more scientists and chemists are getting involved in the beauty industry. “I remember when I first started about 10 years ago, there were maybe three scientists making content about beauty, and now there are a lot more,” she says. “I think it’s partly because they are so annoyed with clean beauty and the direction the industry has been headed, that they’ve been motivated to make content.”

Full Transparency

Though clean remains in the hot seat, the demand for ingredient transparency isn’t going anywhere. “Every beauty company should be transparent: they have INCI lists by law and inserts for this reason, and they strive to make their products effective,” says Baggott, noting, however, that some brands are more straightforward than others. As such, many are taking proactive steps to add ingredient glossaries to their websites, educational content to their social channels and clearer descriptors to their packaging.

Nonetheless, Rosebrook says there’s a point when transparency meets trade secret. “We answer every question the best we can without teaching our trade secrets, like sourcing and production tricks,” he explains. “People demand a certain amount of information, but that can also create more confusion. Unless you’re the apprentice of a cosmetic chemist for 10 years in a lab, you will still not understand the nuances. There comes a point when brands have to say, ‘If you don’t like or trust what we’re selling you, don’t buy the product. Learn to trust the brands you like.”

The Future of Clean

For some brands falling under the clean umbrella, like Clove + Hallow, the pivot away from the term has already begun. “When we first entered the clean beauty space, terms like natural and green had already come and gone,” says founder and CEO Sarah Biggers-Stewart. “‘Clean’ caught on fast and sounded snappy, but from the onset we operated with the idea that brands that take a puristic approach to clean beauty do customers a disservice by creating unnecessary fear. We felt it was possible to still operate within clean beauty without fear-mongering, but the progression of the industry felt hollow: Brands preached about safety, yet left preservatives out of water-based formulas; they also failed to think about the ecoimpact of their operations and continued to spread misinformation.” As a result, Biggers-Stewart chose “Conscientious Beauty” instead, which she says better depicts her brand’s holistic approach.

Experts interviewed for this story predict this will be the case for other brands going forward. Novakovich says it comes down to brands focusing on their individual missions rather than being part of the clean crew. “If you are trying to tell me that your product is more efficacious, back it up with clinical or consumer studies,” she explains. “If you are trying to tell me about a product’s sustainability profile, tell me about your supply chain, social outreach, or consider investing in a full-on LCA [Life Cycle Assessment]. Actual substantiation in this way is a lot more meaningful than meaningless and misleading marketing phrases.”

Lastly, there’s a clear push toward sustainability. “I get a lot of comments from people on social media saying they want clean beauty, but they don’t care as much about the toxicity part; they care more about the sustainability,” Wong says. Jackson expects to see huge strides in sustainability as well, primarily focused around more sustainable packaging. “Customers are demanding this, and we are committed to real, actionable change,” she adds. “Last month we prohibited single-use items and sample sachets, which is a huge first step.”

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