Walking into Sephora, or even the beauty aisle in your drug store, can sometimes feel like a trip to the Wild West. There are so, so many options, and sussing out which colors work best for you—and are even available for your skin tone—can seem like enough of a roller coaster. But as we have begun to learn in the past few decades, some of the ingredients in personal care products are hardly beautiful.
Enter “clean beauty”— images of effortlessly glowing people, makeup products that double as magical skin serums, and lists of supposedly ethical qualities ranging from cruelty-free to fragrance-free to formaldehyde-free. But without regulations to back up what the word “clean” means, any company can use it without proving that their personal care products are safer than anything else you can buy at the store.
“Could the term ‘clean beauty’ be greenwashed? Absolutely,” says Nneka Leiba, leader of the Healthy Living Science team at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about this new trend, the movement behind it, and how to tell a pretty bottle from a pretty nasty list of ingredients.
Defining clean beauty as a movement
Clean beauty, in its essence, has two meanings: the one that defines a movement towards getting rid of some of the sketchier skeletons in personal care’s closet, and one that is more or less a marketing term.
In the past decades we’ve learned a lot about the icky ingredients lurking in our favorite personal products. Additives like long-chain carbons (aka PFAS), phthalates, and triclosan can wreak havoc on our hormones, and carcinogenic formaldehyde can still be found in shampoos and keratin treatments. And still there’s a lot that we don’t know.
“It’s unfortunate that the burden has fallen on consumers, but it really is a market response to a lack of government action,” says Melanie Benesh, an EWG legislative attorney who focuses on chemicals, cosmetics, and the FDA. People have believed products to be safe for their entire lives simply because they could be bought at the store, and knowing that isn’t necessarily the case has caused demand for options that aren’t going to hurt them in the long run, she says.
For many products, this movement has ended up with companies telling you not only what is in the bottle of shampoo, lotion, or sunscreen you pick up, but also the things that are left out.
“It’s not telling you the safety of what’s in there, but what it doesn’t have,” says Bhavna Shamasunder, a professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College.
Clean beauty—the marketing term
If this narrative of the government not doing enough to protect people clashing with the needs of consumers sounds familiar, it’s because this has happened before. Just think about all the junk foods in grocery stores labeled “natural” or “healthy.” But one thing remains the same: There aren’t any rules regulating who can say whether something is natural or healthy, and the same problem exists for “clean.”
“There’s no uniform meaning of clean beauty,” Shamasunder says. “What it means to one company or how one company defines it might not be how a different company defines it.”
The EWG has a personal care website that lets you check out different products and how well they measure up in terms of ingredient standards. Using a list of banned or restricted ingredients used in other countries with tougher regulations on beauty products, as well as ingredients flagged by toxicology groups, the website lets you see up close and personal what’s inside of your products.
If you take two different products both labeled “clean,” you may find that one “clean” foundation product could set off alarms for allergies and reproductive toxicity, while another foundation from a “clean beauty” company could literally receive the EWG seal of approval for being so safe.
And it goes beyond just looking past the marketing terms. Even if you walk around the store with Google open, looking at every single ingredient in a potential product, there are things you will miss.
“Shopping your way to safety is a very hard thing to do,” Shamasunder says. “You simply cannot avoid everything.”
One way that companies can sneak around disclosing certain ingredients in products, Shamasunder says, is by burying not-so-fun chemicals in the fragrance, which doesn’t have to be further elaborated—like “spices” in food. So even after looking up all of the unpronounceable ingredients in a product and checking out the ethics of its creation (like whether it’s cruelty-free), you only can get so far if the company decides not to be transparent about everything. And if a company isn’t—you are left fending for yourself.
In cases where access to transparent brands is limited, or you simply cannot afford more pricey “clean products”—let alone take the time to research every little detail in all of your purchases—there will be disparities in who can and cannot use safe products.
“We can have market change all we want, and people can do their research, and EWG can have a verified standard,” EWG’s Leiba says. “But until there is policy change, there will always be disparity in terms of clean beauty.”
How can we make all beauty “clean”?
The big question now is how do we make sure that everything that ends up on store shelves—no matter the price or how low-budget the store—is safe and “clean” for consumption. The reality is that the FDA doesn’t have the power to oversee what goes inside your bottle of shampoo, or any other personal product not considered a drug.
The last federal legislation granting the FDA the authority to regulate cosmetics in the United States was passed more than 80 years ago, and experts say that authority is woefully inadequate today for protecting consumers. This has led to various scandals over the years arising from cosmetic ingredients causing harm to the people who use them. Take, for example, the asbestos found in talc baby powder connected to thousands of cases of cancer—the potential danger of which the manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, knew about for over 40 years.
According to Benesh, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to intervene in situations like the talc baby powder case, even when it knows consumers are actively being harmed. Companies must voluntarily recall products, which often only comes after a bout of bad press.
If, for example, your shampoo causes people’s hair to fall out, the company doesn’t have to share that information, she says. The FDA only has the information that consumers share with them—and if your hair is falling out the first person you call to get upset at is likely the company at fault, not the government.
But other places like the EU, Japan, and Canada all have much stricter laws in place regarding what companies can and can’t sell to consumers, so much so that some US products literally aren’t allowed over there. “Without [strict restrictions], you have this piecemeal approach where consumers have to fight for themselves,” Shamasunder says. “It’s overwhelming.”
At the end of the day, companies from the cheapest drug store brand to the swankiest Goop-approved labels can call themselves “clean,” but until there are laws in place that ensure there aren’t harmful products still on the shelves, people—especially those who don’t have the resources or access to figure out which products are harmful—will be at risk.
“It becomes a question of why isn’t it that everyone can simply walk into a store and buy something and know it’s safe,” says Shamasunder. “That’d be a better model.”