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What does "clean" actually mean?
There's no doubt about it — when it comes to cosmetics, "clean" has gone mainstream. You can find the term "Clean" alongside other popular terms like "organic" and "natural" on items ranging from makeup to hair care to underarm deodorant.
"Clean" products meet the burgeoning demand for healthy, non-synthetic ingredients in both our food and our cosmetics. Much like the clean eating movement, clean beauty is all about stripped back and simple ingredients.
Mounting evidence shows that many of the chemicals we use every day are indirectly harming our health, leading to short term effects like skin irritation to more serious long-term effects like hormone disruption, or even cancer. Clean beauty is also about an ethical concern for the negative effects that these toxic ingredients have on the environment.
For all these reasons, you could argue that clean beauty goes well beyond skin deep. In fact, it might actually be the most important — and impactful — beauty trend of our times.
Unfortunately, identifying truly "clean" cosmetics isn't as simple as looking at a label. The personal care industry in the US is alarmingly unregulated. The last law regarding cosmetic safety standards was passed in 1938! This lack of regulation has given marketers the green light to use any adjective they want to describe a product with no government oversight. As a consequence, claims like "green", "natural", "hypoallergenic" — and, yes, even "clean" — are wide open to misuse.
Why is clean beauty important?
The fact that the personal care industry is one of the least regulated industries in the US means companies can more or less make its own rules about what's safe and what's not. Here's a sobering statistic: Europe and Canada prohibits over 1,300 unsafe ingredients from being used in cosmetics. The FDA, on the other hand, has banned only 11!
The EWG reports that women are exposed to an average 126 chemicals every day, mainly from cosmetics, cleaning supplies, food, and pollution. Many of these chemicals are potentially harmful, and the long-term effects of exposure to them is largely unknown.
Toxins aside, dermatologists also report increasing rates of skin sensitivity, which is also driving the trend toward gentle products with honest labeling. And a study by Mintel reports that 21% of consumers in the US opt for skincare products with simpler ingredients.
EWG's Skin Deep helps people find safer personal care products with as few hazardous (or potentially hazardous) ingredients as possible. It provides easy-to-navigate ratings for tens of thousands of products, comparing product ingredient lists with information gleaned from over 60 regulatory and toxicity databases.
You can also look for the EWG VERIFIED™ mark. When you see it on a product, you can be sure it meets the strictest health standards and is free from chemicals of concern.
The Dirt On "Clean" Beauty Terms
It goes without saying that in recent years, the personal care industry has cashed in on the craze for non-synthetic products. Adjectives like natural and green once meant "derived directly from nature", but as the demand for these products picked up, the words began appearing on products that were anything but.
A claim that a product is "chemical-free", for example, is downright nonsensical. Why? Every ingredient is a chemical by definition, whether it comes directly from nature or is concocted in a lab. It just sounds good, and consumers are buying it — literally!
In this world of misinformation, mislabeled products and unfounded claims, here's a quick guide to deciphering the lingo you might see on a supposedly "clean" beauty product.
"Green" or "Sustainable"
What does it imply? This product claims to have a minimal impact on the environment, both now and in the future.The broad terms cover everything about a product, from its ingredients, manufacturing, packaging, distribution and disposal.
Can you trust it? Certain certifications, like Green Good Housekeeping Seal and Cradle to Cradle, validate both sustainability and performance. Opt for those.
What does it imply? The ingredients of this product are manufactured without the use of toxic pesticides.
Can you trust it? Most likely. This is the only clean beauty term that is regulated by the government. If it's USDA-Certified Organic, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. If it's NSF Organic-Certified it must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
What does it imply? This product doesn't contain harmful chemicals, like lead, formaldehyde and toluene.
Can you trust it? Only when the claim is ingredient-specific, e.g. "paraben free". Every ingredient, natural or synthetic, is technically made of chemicals.
What does it imply? This product is developed or manufactured with methods that do not involve animal experimentation.
Can you trust it? Unfortunately, there are no legal definition for the terms "cruelty-free" or "not tested on animals". It might simply refer to the finished product, but not the ingredients or formulations themselves. The only way to be certain the product or it's ingredients have not been tested on animals is to look for the official Leaping Bunny Program seal.
What does it imply? This product isn't harmful to humans.
Can you trust it? This term is wide-ranging and meaningless, unless it's ingredient-specific. Anything can be toxic — even water, if you drink it in large enough quantities!
How can I start a "clean" beauty routine?
Here are a few top tips on making truly clean (and sustainable) beauty choices.
1. Check the ingredients
The first step toward going "clean" is educating yourself on what ingredients to avoid. Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database lets you dive deeply into a product's ingredient list in an instant. You can also look for the EWG VERIFIED™ mark for EWG-approved products.
Here are just a few examples of ingredients that don't make the "clean" cut:
Parabens, which are preservatives that have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive harm.
Examples: ethyl-, methyl-, butyl-, propyl-
Phthalates, whichare emulsifiers that can be absorbed through the skin. They're commonly found in hairsprays, nail polish, synthetic fragrances.
Examples: BPA, DEHP, DBP, DEP
Mineral oils, which not only clog pores, but are also a cheap by-product of the crude oil industry.
Examples: petrolatum, petroleum, paraffinum liquidum
Sodium lauryl sulphate, or SLS,whichis a foaming ingredient that strips moisture from both hair and skin.
2. Go with dye-free and fragrance-free.
By their very nature, products that contain no dyes and fragrances are better for the environment, and therefore better for you. Not only do they use fewer ingredients, but people tend to be sensitive to both — even the all-natural varieties. Furthermore, brands aren't required to list what ingredients make up a "fragrance" on their labels, which means there's no way to know for sure what's actually in these products.
3. Opt for products with minimal packaging
The less packaging, the less damage to the earth. According to a 2018 report by the Zero Waste Week campaign, 120 billion units of packaging are manufactured each year by the cosmetics industry worldwide — that's a lot of trash. Seek out products with fewer unnecessary parts and materials that can't be recycled, wherever possible.
4. Buy beauty that gives back
One of the cleanest choices you can make is purchasing green products that donate a portion of their proceeds to environmental causes. It's a win-win for the environment and for you.