A recent class action lawsuit against the Clean at SEPHORA program showcase fundamental issues that are worth unpacking. I wrote a shorter version of this on LinkedIn after the lawsuit was filed. Class action lawsuits are filed against beauty companies every day, why is this one garnering so much attention?
Clean Beauty (and Many Other Marketing Terms) Aren’t Defined
In the article Clean Beauty Isn’t Defined, Here’s How it Should Be, I discuss that clean is simply a short way of showcasing to consumers that a product was made without toxic ingredients. It’s important to note that while clean isn’t defined in the beauty industry, neither are “natural”, “dermatologist approved and tested“, “pharmaceutical grade”, “blue beauty”, “green” and many other terms. Beauty editors obsession with harping on the fact that “clean” isn’t defined feels misguided without properly sharing with companies that these other marketing terms are not. In the case of this class action lawsuit, SEPHORA clearly defines what clean means to them in their standards. Absent a legal definition, companies need to be explicit and SEPHORA has done so.
Clean Isn’t the Same as Natural
The person who instigated the class action lawsuit is upset by the use of a synthetic ingredient in a mascara she purchased as part of the clean program, but it’s not a “natural at SEPHORA” it’s a “clean at SEPHORA” program. There is an important distinction. The term clean didn’t come out of thin air, it was in response to a body of science that showed us that natural beauty wasn’t going to be the safest path forward to better products. This science shows that some natural ingredients can be toxic and many synthetic or lab made ingredients can be safe (and more sustainable). If the program was touting only natural ingredients I could see the justification, but what this shows is the larger misunderstanding that natural ingredients are always safer (there’s a term for it, called the appeal to nature fallacy).
Marketing is Only Part of the Story, Ingredients Must be Screened for Safety
Clean is the term of today, but as we have seen across sectors, new marketing lingo will be invented and will also need to be defined (there were class action lawsuits a decade ago over the use of the term “natural” as well). The greater desire to avoid greenwashing underscores what work needs to happen long before marketing copy is written: beauty brands need to screen ingredients for safety.
Safety too is a subjective word, so let’s get explicit about what I mean. Brands need to screen ingredients for safety informed not by outdated toxicology, but based on environmental health research that shows us chemicals are more complicated than we originally thought (hormone disruption compounds can be more harmful at low doses, PFAS are persistent and never leave our bodies or environment, asbestos was still showing up in talc supplies like in children’s makeup).
And finally, it’s time for the FDA to be granted the power to screen ingredients for safety prior to approving them for use in beauty products. There are only 33 ingredients partially restricted from beauty products in the United States and this authority (FDA assessing ingredients for safety) was not included in the recently passed Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act. Finally, clearly articulated federal definitions could cut down on all the noise about “clean” and focus us on what really matters, making products with safer ingredients and more sustainable packaging.