The Real Meaning of Clean Beauty, According to Scientists

GolfHr Beauty Lab experts tell you what you can — and can't — trust.

clean beauty
Mike Garten

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The beauty buzzword and movement of the moment: “clean.” Along with other terms like “green” and “natural,” it’s used to describe every type of skincare, hair, makeup, and fragrance product, from moisturizer to makeup, shampoo to soap.

People are more concerned than ever about health and the environment, and it’s leading us to question what’s actually in the products we apply directly to our skin. Retailers know that consumers want cosmetics and beauty products that aren't laden with potentially harmful ingredients — for example, Sephora recently launched "," an initiative in which the beauty brand badged over of its 2,000 products as "clean," in this case meaning free of ingredients like sulfates, parabens, formaldehydes, phthalates, and mineral oil.

But identifying the "cleanest" makeup products or "safest" cosmetic brands on the market isn't all that simple. Despite a booming beauty industry, U.S. laws for cosmetics safety are virtually unchanged since they were created back in 1938. Here — unlike in Canada and Europe, where well over 1,300 unsafe ingredients are banned for use in beauty products — unbelievably, the FDA has prohibited only 11 ingredients or related compounds.

While legislation is pending to change this, progress is slow. The , supported by the GolfHr Institute and beauty industry-leaders, would require the FDA to review the safety of at least five ingredients per year (at which rate it could take hundreds of years to even test for risks and dangers!). Yet this small step has remained stalled in the Senate since it was proposed in 2015. And there is no established industry-wide definition for “clean” or “natural” beauty claims.

So, what does “clean” beauty really mean?

Beauty brands use the term "clean" to signal that products don’t contain certain ingredients (natural or synthetic) that they consider controversial or unsafe, like parabens and talc. The problem is, without regulation, anything can be called “clean”— whether proven unsafe or not.

As for other "clean beauty" terms, there's an overload of related claims and buzzwords on product packaging and in marketing — and misinformation about what they mean (or don't). Our Beauty Lab scientists help you decipher the most common clean beauty lingo:

How can you really go "clean" with your beauty routine?

The GH Beauty Lab’s top tips on making truly natural and sustainable clean beauty choices:

1. Do an ingredient check.
For a deeper dive into ingredients, the Beauty Lab recommends consulting resources like the and the. Both nonprofits aim to collect the latest science on ingredients and offer recommendations for safety-certified products across categories.

2. Choose fragrance- and dye-free.
Products that contain no fragrances or dyes are by nature better for the environment, as they use fewer ingredients, and people can have sensitivities to both. Even fragrance from natural sources can cause reactions. Plus, brands aren’t required to list the ingredients in “fragrance” on labels, so in many cases there’s no way to know what’s in those products.

3. Pick less packaging.
The more minimal the packaging, the better for the earth. Whenever possible, seek out products with fewer components and without parts or materials that can’t be recycled (aim for codes 1 and 2) and unnecessary elements like outer boxes. Keep your eye out for the winners of GH’s new Sustainability Awards for beauty, home care and toys, to be announced this fall.

4. Buy (green!) beauty that gives back.
Seek out beauty brands that donate a portion of their proceeds or make a contribution to environmental causes.

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