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Clean Beauty Isn’t Defined, Here is How it Should Be

The beauty marketing landscape is and will always be filled with buzzy marketing terms like “natural”, “green”, “clean”, “organic”, “responsible” and yes even “blue” beauty. When consumers are trying to find brands that match their needs and values, marketing terms and certifications can be helpful…until they are not.

As the clean beauty market has grown, more people are asking for the term to be defined because it can fall prey to greenwashing, a concept where companies misuse unregulated marketing terms in order to sell their products.

I think clearly defined marketing terms would greatly serve the industry and it’s why I’ve been pushing and actively lobbying Congress for a legal definition of marketing terms like “clean” and “natural”. While we wait for the federal government to act, it’s important for brands to clearly define what clean means to them.

[For example, you can check out how we clearly define “clean” here—full disclosure, this is my day job—providing endless layers of information for the discerning consumer.]

Here’s how clean beauty should be defined & understood by consumers

Clean beauty’s origins are focused on formulas being absent of harmful ingredients with a sharp focus on ingredient safety, regardless of if the source is natural or synthetic. Many companies who consider themselves clean understand that “all natural” doesn’t automatically equal safe. Clean beauty is the new and upgraded term to signal to consumers the company vetted the ingredients carefully for safety.

Clean beauty brands should be screening every ingredient for any health impacts including:

  • Carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants (CMRs)
  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)
  • Developmental toxicity
  • Organ system toxicity
  • Persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity (PBTs)
  • Allergies and immunotoxicity
  • Eco and aquatic toxicity
  • Impacts to vulnerable and overexposed populations like pregnant women, children, people of color

I would argue that clean beauty also needs to include: full ingredient transparency, a path to address human rights issues for high risk raw materials, responsible sourcing practices, and sustainable packaging.

Movement to legally define “natural”

As the term implies, some companies choose to only use natural or naturally derived ingredients (meaning the origins are natural but they have gone through some sort of processing before being used in the product).

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to create a legal definition of beauty products labeled as “natural” by Representative Maloney. The Natural Cosmetics Act is a great first step in helping create a level playing field for companies who choose to formulate with natural or naturally derived ingredients. There are some exceptions for certain preservatives, since products need to be preserved and there are limited natural preservative options that work for all products.

Given my policy and science background, I believe it would be nearly impossible to effectively define “clean beauty” without first establishing an existing regulatory framework that empowers the FDA to screen ingredients for safety. Congress must act to pass legislation that starts to articulate which ingredients are safe and unsafe to use in personal care products.

Under this scenario, a legal definition for clean beauty could be established. Until then, it will be up to brands to tell us how they define clean. Rest assured, I’ll be looking for more than a simple banned ingredient list, which only tells me what’s NOT in their products. I’m much more interested in what’s in a brand’s products and how they decided it was safe.

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