What is Clean Beauty?

Clean Beauty? Be sure to remember the name of this new trend, which will soon be as famous as organic and natural beauty. Clean Beauty states that it is cleaner and more responsible, with beauty products that are greener, sustainable, fairtrade, environmentally responsible and ethically sound.

What is this new trend, exactly? What is Clean Beauty?

Clean Beauty is a substantive trend to which health and environmental responsibility are central. It is the materialisation of this profound change in consumers who are seeking reinforced transparency and safety, and better health for their skin and the planet.

What is the definition of Clean Beauty?

There isn’t one, as it is neither a label nor a brand, but a profound movement ramped up by environmental and public health crises.

A nebulous notion

This notion of “Clean Beauty” is a nebulous one since it has, as yet, no official definition. It can only be subjective, with each brand taking ownership of these two words in its own way. Going beyond beauty products, Clean Beauty has become a generic term. Clean Beauty is all about virtuous beauty, and these days encompasses the formulation itself, the packaging and also the whole value chain, ethics and transparency.

A holistic concept

Being clean, beyond the product itself, also means not exploiting children, and being cruelty free… Note that China has at long last, as of January 2021, lifted the animal testing obligation for French beauty products entering the Chinese market. A revolution!

Clean Beauty also takes the product’s whole ecosystem, packaging and environmental impact into account.

The origins of Clean Beauty

At first, the whole paradox of its native America lay behind these two words, clean and beauty.

Very different laws from continent to continent

In the USA, only eight substances are prohibited from use in formulations by the mighty FDA (Food & Drug Administration). Whereas under EU regulations, 1,383 ingredients and families of ingredients are prohibited! This makes the EU the world’s most stringent zone in terms of beauty industry legislation. Which is reassuring.

A concept born in the USA

So it is not by chance that, in the absence of rigorous regulation, it was in the USA that the concept of Clean Beauty was born, in the year 2000. There was certainly a void to fill in terms of reassuring consumers who are keen to have information, transparency, honesty and sincerity, and who are above all worried about the health of their skin and that of the planet.

So brands started to boast the absence of particular ingredients in their products, and to embrace “free from” marketing from the early 2000s onwards.

Why is there such great enthusiasm about Clean Beauty?

It was really born out of a health issue, and the relationship between health and beauty has become even more glaringly apparent since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Increasingly sensitive skin

Consumers are concerned about their skin, which has never been so sensitive and prone to irritation, or even allergies. The sharp rise in footfall that dermatologists are seeing bears witness to it. Stress and pollution are also factors at play.

The use of multiple ingredients on the skin, and the (sometimes harmful) interaction between them, also accounts for this increase in the occurrence of sensitive skin.

The awakening of the environmental conscience

Today’s consumers, who are concerned about their health and their environment, are thirsty for the truth and are seeking reassurance. They ask for firm commitment from brands, and boycott them if they are not meaningful.

Formulation composition: a growing concern

The figures on Clean Beauty prove it. A study conducted by Kantar in late 2019 shows that 44% of the French population pay attention to the composition of hygiene and beauty products. Further, a study conducted by Prisma Media Solutions in September 2020 states that “62% of the French population show interest in natural, organic and vegan beauty”. 44% are said to buy such products already. What’s their motivation?” Taking care of myself and my health” (68%), ”acting in line with a holistic approach to responsible consumer habits” (60%), or ”opting for products suitable for problem skin” (27%).

Though Clean Beauty appeals first and foremost to young social media users, more than a third of consumers are still unsure what to make of it (Prisma Media Solutions study).

Clean Beauty features

Clean Beauty stands for new consumer habits which rest on principles such as transparency, traceability of ingredients, kindness towards the skin and the environment and recycling of packaging.

Clean Beauty formulations

The composition of “clean” products must be pared down, and must not include certain undesirable and controversial ingredients. More specifically, it features:

  • A short list of ingredients, without superfluous substances.
    The INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) list appears on all products, using Latin names, and it indicates what the ingredients are in reverse order of proportion. So it’s most important to check the first ones listed.
  • Organic or natural ingredients as an alternative to synthetic ones
  • Non-controversial ingredients, which rules out the following families of ingredients:
    • Carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (CMR) ingredients
    • Ingredients suspected of being endocrine disruptors
    • Ingredients suspected of suspected of various degrees of toxicity
    • Nanomaterials
    • Irritant, allergy-promoting and pore-blocking agents
    • Allergens

List of unwanted ingredients to avoid:

  • Parabens and phenoxyethanol
  • Mineral oils made from petrochemical oil (which are thought to suffocate the skin)
  • Silicon (a heavy pollutant)
  • Certain sulphates like SLS, a surfactant (foaming agent) which is thought to be an irritant
  • Aluminium salts (which are thought by some scientists to be potentially carcinogenic)
  • Alcohol, due to its drying effect on the skin
  • Fragrances that contain allergenic molecules
  • EDTA, a preservative that’s considered toxic
  • PEG polymers, which are obtained from pollutant toxic gases

Clean Beauty’s methods of manufacturing

  • In terms of the de production process, clean Beauty of course favours green chemistry, referred to as sustainable or renewable chemistry. This production method applies the principles of sustainable development to the chemical industry. It cuts out the use or production of substances that are harmful to the environment. This green chemistry is considerate of the economic, social and environmental balance of the area in which it operates.
  • Short supply chains are recommended, to limit environmental impact. Hence the success of the ‘Made in France’ label.
  • Some brands also make choices about formulations that are meant to be more eco-friendly. Beauty products exist in solid form, with shampoo bars (like bars of soap), or powder cleansers that are designed to be applied to wet skin. They make it possible to leave out the preservatives that are rendered necessary in conventional beauty products by the water content in the formulations. Beauty products in solid form also offer the advantage of using less plastic, since the formulations don’t need to be bottled.

Clean Beauty packagings

Packaging - Clean Beauty - WE ARE CLEAN

This is probably one of the most difficult points to address because there is no perfect model, as yet, but producers are working on it.

  • Packaging that is considerate of the environment
  • Environmentally responsible by design, with a minimum of packaging material
  • Recycled, recyclable, re-usable, refillable, biodegradable
  • With a small carbon footprint 
    When it comes to packaging choices, glass and aluminium are favoured over plastic.

The Clean Beauty philosophy

The requirement of sound ethics generally, both human and environmental, lies at the heart of Clean Beauty.

  • For people: the industry’s brands and producers help towards worker protection, the creation of responsible streams and putting fairtrade arrangements in place. They finance social welfare causes and embrace a humanitarian approach. It goes without saying that Clean Beauty ethics prohibit any form of child labour.
  • For the planet: some beauty companies help towards planting trees, offsetting carbon emissions, marine and wildlife conservation. Others favour local supply chains, considerate water management… All initiatives whereby brands vie with one another to protect the planet.

Clean Beauty apps

Developed thanks to artificial intelligence, they provide summary product information. Here are the best-known ones:

  • Clean Beauty was created by a pharmacist. Her app analyses the composition and therefore the ingredients, but doesn’t assign scores to products.
  • INCI Beauty offers a product data sheet with a score. However, the database is more limited and products are categorised according to how popular they are.
  • Yuka, a variant of the food industry version, has a database on 500,000 beauty products. It assigns a score to each product, applying a penalty for each controversial ingredient.
  • Quel Cosmetic (UFC-Que Choisir) screens for undesirable substances based on the barcode (but doesn’t stay up-to-date as formulations change).
  • Claire was launched by the French beauty industry association (Fédération des Industries de la Beauté – FEBEA) in late 2020. It scrutinises each ingredient and sets out the reasons for any contention.

These apps don’t all have the same criteria and currently only take product formulations into account, which accounts for the different results returned from app to app.

Other sources of information on Clean Beauty 

So as not to rely solely on apps and their very all-or-nothing verdicts for information, it is advisable to approach other players who provide nuances and explanations:

  • There is an increasing number of specialist Clean Beauty shops. The benchmark player in this area – Oh My Cream! – is the precursor of concept stores that offer a select line-up of high-end international clean brands, with strong focus on providing advice to customers.
  • Online multi-brand platforms dedicated to clean products, like Botymist, a site on which you can search for a product based on its ingredients.
  • The many Clean Beauty benchmark blogs and sites, like the Ohmycream blog.
  • Influencers, of course, who very actively extoll the virtues of Clean Beauty on Instagram, like @naturellement_lyla and @peau_neuve.
  • The beauty industry. It’s beneficial to see what FEBEA has to say.

Beware of « clean washing » !

As is often the case when a new trend emerges, some opportunist brands try to ride the wave, and their marketing departments give in to the temptation of “clean washing”. In that case, Clean Beauty is nothing more than an overblown sales pitch that doesn’t represent things as they really are. Because clean is meant to be underpinned by honesty, sincerity and a genuine nature. And also humility, because again, the perfect Clean Beauty does not exist.

So there you have it – it’s all a question of compromises and of “best possible” solutions that you have to seek out for yourself. Look out for clean ingredients, by all means, but also environmentally-responsible packaging, traceable products, local sourcing, transparency and brand ethics. And if you had to single out just one takeaway from this? Being clean is about being minimalist. Avoid any formulation with too long a list of ingredients, and favour simple skincare routines. Less is more.

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