The global clean beauty industry is growing faster than ever. But is it actually clean?

By Tahmina Begum

Published Nov 18, 2019 at 12:57 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

You must have seen the words ‘clean beauty’ while walking through a beauty aisle at your local Boots or checking out Amazon’s recommended face masks in an attempt to get rid of all your Saturday night regrets. But if you haven’t noticed, let me tell you, ‘clean beauty’ has definitely been on the rise. In fact, the global organic beauty market is set to be worth $54 billion by 2027.

That’s a lot of mullah for products that haven’t been around for that long. From decades of beauty trends that sell you ‘this’ new magic ingredient, it seems as though consumers are trying to be more conscious—and beauty and skincare brands see that. It’s actually what brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh as well as thousands of other millennial skincare brands sell themselves on: blurring the lines between clean beauty and the wellness industry. So what is clean beauty? And what makes your bathroom cabinet dirty?

After Goop explained why clean beauty is important, the beauty buzzword kept appearing next to skincare and make-up that’s also marketed as being sustainable, organic and natural. When searching for clean beauty products, these descriptions become interchangeable, and though they appear to be mindful, all those terms have completely different interpretations.

Being a sustainable beauty company can mean anything from looking after its carbon, energy, water and waste and environmental impacts to having sustainable working conditions for its workers. But when it comes to clean beauty, no one seems to agree with the definition.

According to Goop’s definition, ‘clean beauty’ is not the same as ‘natural beauty’. Clean beauty products aim to be as toxic-free as possible, whereas natural ingredients can also be harmful. For example, a natural beauty product could contain only one natural ingredient, meaning that even if the product claims to be 100 per cent natural, it might not be 100 per cent great for your skin.

Research conducted by Holland & Barrett found that a fifth of women in the UK felt their beauty products would be less effective if they had fewer chemicals, and as many as 15 per cent admitted that looking good on the outside was more important than being healthy on the inside. Yet, somehow, the guilt of not buying clean products is very much there for a lot of women, along with the fear of ruining their Glossier-esque skin with chemical beauty products from the high street. This is exactly what drives the clean beauty industry forward.

Screen Shot spoke to Clare and Darren Cooper, founders of vegan and cruelty-free brand Made By Coopers, who believe clean beauty can also be natural, only if we stop using fillers, such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (what is commonly found across cheaply made beauty products) or mineral oils and non-vegan ingredients in them.

After a three-month yoga expedition in India where the duo used oils that benefited their minds as well as their skin, the Coopers started their first small-batch of modern apothecary, using what they learned from nature and the culture of taking care of your emotional wellbeing. When talking about what they think of the new beauty trend of being ‘clean’, they explained how this new wave of beauty came from the vague definition of ‘natural beauty’, “A brand can say ‘natural’ if it contains just a tiny percentage of natural ingredients and the rest could be made up of synthetic, harmful ingredients or even cheap filling ingredients with zero benefits such as water.”

On the other hand, head of beauty at Holland & Barrett, Joanne Cooke defines ‘clean beauty’ as all aspects of the product, “from non-toxic ingredients to packaging to a sustainable and ethical approach.” The leading health and wellness retailer’s own approach to clean beauty is more filtered. According to Holland & Barrett’s standards, a list of 155 ingredients are considered ‘unclean’—anything that may compromise a consumer’s skin, hair, face or body.

Yet just like ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘eco’, ‘clean beauty’ is not a universal definition, as ‘clean’ products are not tested nor measured by EU regulations in any way. And still, there is a clearly defined movement towards using only squeaky-clean, transparent beauty products.

From Glossier and MILK to Beauty Pie, even the packaging for beauty products has changed. Looking au naturel is in. But Brooke DeVard, host and creator of Naked Beauty, the podcast bearing all things beauty, and a natural beauty hack who doesn’t put anything on her skin and in her belly that she can’t pronounce, believes this can be a cop-out for brands green-washing their products. “They know people barely read labels so they just need to create the impression of ‘clean beauty’, even using images of plants or lots of neutral colours in the packaging to signal it’s ‘eco-friendly’.” 

Yet the optimist in DeVard believes this move towards clean beauty is a good thing, “The less harmful, synthetic ingredients we have on our skin, the better. Corporations are driven by profit so they’ll only create what they believe consumers want, but their investment in this space shows how much our purchasing patterns have changed.” Cooke also explained how large this trend is as “natural beauty has become the fastest-growing category in Holland & Barrett’s 800 UK and Irish stores.” This recent growth shows that more and more consumers are looking for beauty products that have a clean and conscious approach, understanding that these will be absorbed by the skin.

Still, the choice of seeking out clean beauty can feel like a luxury to some. Not only do products that tend to be ‘clean’ come with a hefty price tag (with Goops’ Luminous Melting Cleanser starting at £80), but going through an ingredient list itself is time-consuming. Maybe it is time we start demanding more transparency from beauty brands. As beauty podcast host DeVard said, “it’s the tools of self-education that will make the most difference when it comes to the future of non-harmful beauty.”

You can start by using the Think Dirty app, where you can scan beauty items and see any harmful ingredients they might contain, but until beauty brands are clear about what each ingredient does and its need to be in the bottle, clean beauty will always remain murky.

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