Cleaning up their act: What exactly does clean beauty mean?

What exactly does ‘clean beauty’ mean? Rachel Marie Walsh reveals the ingredients to avoid – and the best brands to know.

Cleaning up their act: What exactly does clean beauty mean?

What exactly does ‘clean beauty’ mean? Rachel Marie Walsh reveals the ingredients to avoid – and the best brands to know.

Clean beauty, like the ‘wellness’ movement, can sound confusing but there are so many reasons to check it out.

Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (beauty and personal care products are a major contributor to its 81,000 tonnes of plastic) and other environmental disasters, teamed with health concerns about certain ingredients and a greater awareness of how cosmetics affect animals or workers without our privileges are enough to get anyone googling.

The term may put you off completely, and not just because it’s ambiguous. It can sound unglamorous and independent research on suspicious ingredients is not yet extensive.

Besides, isn’t it kind of insulting to imply that if you do not shop these products your beauty regime is somehow unclean?

Thankfully, the opposite of clean beauty is not ‘dirty’. ‘Clean beauty ’ has no legal definition, it is just a vaguely positive umbrella term for brands that produce with one or more of the above concerns — or even some more recently trendy ones, like respecting skin’s microbiota — in mind.

“While ‘clean beauty’ offers many opportunities in terms of ingredients and marketing angles, it can also be overwhelming for consumers to understand all the different types of product positioning — especially with the lack of consistent legislation,” says Sarah Jindal, Senior Global Analyst for Beauty at Mintel.

“Brands should join their efforts to create one certification stamp.”

And while no such stamp exists, it is still up to the consumer to ask: “Which kind of clean am I?”

In a trends report in February, the UK-based Soil Association calls 2018 “the year sustainable beauty went mainstream,” with more and bigger brands signing up for COSMOS certification (which indicates production to the highest standards for organic and natural cosmetics) and greater retail interest in sustainable stock than ever before.

The Sustainable Beauty Awards, run by ethical product consultants Ecovia, and The Beauty Shortlist Awards, which celebrates stand-out launches in ethical beauty, are both good, sponsor-free guides to brands that practice what they preach.

Dublin-based skincare brand Nunaïa took a BSA for their Nourishing Radiance Serum (pictured right, €79 at, an oil rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. Nunaïa is Irish-manufactured but sources botanicals from the Peruvian Andes and Amazon basin.

"I believe that true ‘clean beauty’ ensures no one and nothing suffers from what we put on our skin,” says founder Nicola Connolly.

It’s really about a triple bottom line approach that takes into account people, planet and profit.

"So not just the customer, who is guaranteed a ‘safe’ product free from ingredients like sodium lauryl sulphate, etc, but the growers and workers along an ethical supply chain.

The natural environment is also protected through sustainable, ethical farming practices which don’t damage delicate eco-systems.

Ren Clean Skincare, which has an SBA for their Atlantic Kelp And Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Wash, €25 at, is serious about reducing plastic consumption and launched a ‘Clean Beauty Initiative’ and its first bottle made entirely of recycled ocean plastic in 2018.

Ren has pledged to go zero-waste by 2021 and took another award, from international recycling giant Suez, for their mineral sunscreen in March.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website was an early advocate of ‘clean beauty,’ even publishing Goop: Clean Beauty, by The Editors of Goop, in 2016.

The editors’ list of troubling ingredients is extensive. Lest their book/website make you afraid of your bathroom cupboard, it is important to note that the EU bans about 1,270 cosmetic ingredients that are legal in the US, so there are many in/on there you don’t need to worry about while you shop here.

Moreover, while I greatly admire the work those raising awareness about potentially problematic ingredients, I see why media coverage of their efforts gets confusing.

I recently met with the very charming founder of a US wellness brand who rattled off several ingredients she regarded as toxins but could not point me to concrete research (only wellness websites), so my reporting them as such felt like scaremongering.

She may be completely correct in her concerns, I respect her instincts and experience, but a dearth of independent research is a real challenge to the credibility of both the wellness and clean beauty movements.

Some brands hedge by acting on consumer concerns. Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson, based in Texas, handles worries by not using ingredients she calls ‘The Suspicious Six’ (essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, fragrance/Dyes and sodium lauryl sulphate).

Some of them, such as fragrance and alcohol, have been found to sensitise and irritate skin over time but she avoids parabens as a result of consumer demand rather than a personal belief they do harm.

Masterson’s new bronzing liquid, D-Bronzi Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops, €35.58 at, is coloured with raw cocoa powder but she does not prize natural ingredients over synthetic.

High biocompatibility (which makes for effective interaction with skin) is key for DE.

With so many worries about ingredients, however, the urge to go natural with ingredients is, well, natural. ‘Small batch’ and locally based brands can give you peace of mind about content and often offer a no-waste shopping experience big companies can’t provide.

“We need to ensure that what we put on our skin is nontoxic, as what we choose to use is absorbed through our skin and into our bloodstream,” says White Witch Connemara founder Ruth Ruane, whose Wildflower Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser, €20.50, refines with certified organic fine oatmeal, chamomile and marigold petals.

However, it is important to note that natural is not always superior. Organic alcohol is just as drying as the regular kind. Rose-Marie Swift, founder of organic makeup brand RMS Beauty, points out that even natural fragrance can be irritating.

“I don’t use essential oils,” she told me in 2017.

They are great for therapeutic purposes but can interact poorly with cosmetic ingredients and also cause irritation, especially around the eyes.

Swift’s “Un” Cover-up, €39 at SpaceNK, is a moisturising concealer with a mild coconut-oily sheen. It makes the eye area look bright and well-rested in complete comfort.

Bacteria are a fascinating element of clean beauty. Skincare trends sometimes follow what is happening in health food and with increased interest in what’s going on with our guts (Dr. Giulia Enders is awesome) came products that respect skin’s own ecosystem.

Repurposing your Benecol is unhelpful, unfortunately, as the skin’s surface is physically and chemically distinct from the intestines.

I’m no expert in how the microscopic bacteria, archaea and fungi (ew!) on my skin are doing but switching just one organic product (cleanser) for a fragrance-free prebiotic (Murad Hydration Prebiotic 4-in-1 MultiCleanser, €40 at, pictured left), for a fortnight made my face noticeably calmer and softer.

Perhaps the most interesting formulas in this category are by Mother Dirt, the consumer brand of AOBiome, a Massachusetts biotechnology firm researching the role of Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria (AOB) in skin health.

These ‘peacekeeper bacteria,’ as AOBiome dubs them, once lived on our skin but have been eliminated by modern skincare.

AOB once consumed the irritating components in sweat and, when reintroduced to the skin microbiome, can keep things clean, calm and clear.

AOBiome focuses on using it in treatments for inflammatory skin conditions including acne, eczema and rosacea, while Mother Dirt offers us AOB in a fragrance and preservative-free mist.

‘Clean beauty’ is still relatively new and woolly terms undermine the credibility of brands and retailers alike.

There is a lot about this movement that is positive — greater transparency of sourcing and production, for example, and supporting the planet and workers in developing countries — so protecting credibility is key to momentum.

On the retail front, stores could create product filters/sections that allow consumers to select the kind of ‘clean’ they want to be — prebiotic, vegan, etc, rather than presenting ‘clean’ as a homogenous category.

Providing full (instead of ‘key’) ingredients lists on e-commerce sites should really be legally required, as it is on product packaging in physical stores.

Marketing language could be more authentic. Organic, ethically-sourced and cruelty-free products can be certified as such independently but terms like ‘toxin-free,’ for example, don’t mean much to a customer who can’t identify what skincare toxins are (or what the brand/store in question perceives them to be) and it is excessive to imply by contrast that products not similarly positioned are toxic.

Better, then, to get specific, offering consumers what they do want instead of confusing them for the sake of casting a wider net. Truly clean beauty is more than cosmetic.

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