In the early and mid-2010s, clean beauty was converted from crunchy to cool. Every celebrity, influencer and new-age brand told you that you needed to overhaul your entire routine to make it as “clean” as possible. While marketing claims, advertising strategies, celebrity endorsements and pretty packaging used to be the top priority before, skincare consumers began paying attention to what’s on the inside of their skincare tubes, tubes, bottles and tubs too. 

What is clean beauty?

Clean is a vague term, and its meaning is subjective. In the beauty world, there’s no official definition for clean (or natural or non-toxic). It is usually up to the brand to define what these terms mean for them. Clean beauty usually includes both synthetic and natural formulations. But, it includes a no-list of ingredients that could harm you in any way. The thing is, brands create their own description of what clean means to them since it’s not a regulated term. Most brands will try to formulate products without ingredients that could be harmful to your body. So if an ingredient could cause hormone disruption, disease or irritation, it is usually nixed. But this can be relative.

Take polyethylene glycol (PEG), which is an absolute no-no for some clean beauty purveyors because its byproducts can be carcinogenic. It is considered safe (and clean) by others because it is used in minimal amounts and can serve as a great emulsifier and emollient. Essential oils too! Some brands will consider them the crux of their clean skincare and a great alternative to synthetic fragrances (“it’s been around for ages!,” they’ll say) while others will say that it is highly sensitising and irritating to most skin.

Silicone is another ingredient that garners great controversy. Some say that its slip and emollience makes it an ideal ingredient to improve texture. Others say that it can’t be clean because it is harmful to the environment. Retinol is a synthetic ingredient that is rumored to have carcinogenic properties when exposed to sunlight. But in reality, it is an anti-ageing powerhouse that has gone through rigorous testing and proven safe for use. Elsewhere, hyaluronic acid, for example, is perceived as natural when it is derived from the umbilical cords of cow. However, a lab-made version is just as biocompatible and effective without harming any wildlife. 

Are natural skincare products clean?

Natural skincare refers to ingredients that are products of nature (like water, coconut oil or green tea). Greenwashing in the mid-2000s made people believe that because it came from the earth, it was the best for you. Chemicals were the reason everyone was falling sick. If it came from nature (like your food does), it had to be safe. But now research is proving that if something is natural, it doesn’t mean that it is safe, superior or better for you. Natural ingredients can be difficult to work with in a formulation. Their efficacy and safety cannot always be guaranteed, because you’re contending with changes in weather, water, soil and seasons. Since you can’t get the same results every time, you can’t be sure you’re getting the best possible product.

On the other hand, since synthetic ingredients are made in a lab, they can be tested (and then re-tested) to ensure that they work, are safe and won’t cause any harmful reactions. There’s a caveat—this doesn’t mean that some natural ingredients (like honey or green tea) aren’t great. It’s extremely important to read labels. More so, to shop from brands that carry out clinical testing to demonstrate high levels of purity and consistency. 

What is greenwashing and why is it so prevalent?

In the beauty industry—where the competition is strong and the formulations can be similar, the biggest thing brands can do to set themselves apart is marketing.

Do you think products housed in green bottles, with no fragrance and as few ingredients as possible are the safest for you? You might be victim to greenwashing. Thank the fear-based marketing that is telling you traditional beauty products are bad for you, and that you’ll want to choose ones that don’t have chemicals instead. It’s all in the word play: If you say a certain product is clean, that implies that others are dirty. This could have been legitimate if brands were really always telling the truth. But the term ‘organic’ can be slapped on a label even if only certain ingredients really are. Without oversight, it doesn’t actually mean much of anything. 

There might be some upside to this. The pressure forces beauty brands and chemical formulators to come up with safer, more effective products that are non-sensitising to larger swathes of the audience. Transparency is the name of the game.

What should you pick?

When thinking of clean, we are thinking of a mixture of synthetic and natural ingredients which are clinically tested and shelf-stable. So they really work. So when it comes to picking, if you have an ingredient that really works for your skin, don’t lose it. The good news is that there are many beauty brands leading the charge and creating skincare products with ingredients that they can prove are worthy and won’t harm you. You may just have to do your own research, and decide which path you want to stake your claim to.