What Does ‘Clean’ Beauty Really Mean? Beauty’s New Buzzword Explained

By Janetta Mackay
Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

When Kylie Jenner Instagrammed about her new skincare range last month, she gushed: “I got the best of the best for you guys! Everything is cruelty-free, vegan, gluten-free, paraben- and sulfate-free and suitable for all skin types.”

Reaction to the range has been mixed but its description is straight from the millennial manifesto for modern living. The only card she didn’t play (and without knowing the ingredient list one can only wonder why) is “clean”.

Clean — as in clean beauty, clean eating, clean fashion — is the trigger word for a movement influencing consumer consciousness, retailing and, of course, marketing. With its evocation of pared-back purity, what’s not to like?

Online searches for clean skincare, makeup, haircare and fragrance are rocketing. Global market research giant Mintel reports that product launches with clean beauty claims were up a whopping 340 per cent in the last year.

From the way celebrity clean-living advocate Gywneth Paltrow’s influential Goop site chimed with women interested in exploring healthier lifestyles, to how toxic- and cruelty-free has become an ingredient-list mantra, the rise of “clean” over the past decade has been remarkable.

In the last few years it has gone from an in-the-know term, to common usage, often in tandem with long overdue moves for more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. This, then is no fad.

Big beauty companies are snapping up successful start-ups to benefit from their clean credentials. Department store and supermarket buyers are shifting focus. A New Zealand market report from insights firm IRI on the pharmacy sector in 2018, identified that 53 per cent of shoppers were looking for natural products and 47 per cent tried to buy eco-friendly ones. While clean isn’t one and the same, it has become a significant prompt to purchase.

Customers are actively seeking clean beauty products, says the Mecca beauty chain, which is adding more brands to the “mindful” stable in its Australasian stores. Multinational Sephora, which will open its first beauty emporium in New Zealand next month, has instituted its own clean beauty seal for selected products. Leading day spa group, Forme, is also going clean.

In Auckland two wholly clean beauty sites have recently been set up by women whose personal and professional paths — seeking a more holistic approach and wellness — reflect common reasons for change. Their businesses add to an already strong representation of natural brands locally and a fast-growing number of clean(er) ones, many imported, on our shelves.

But what is clean?

“The beauty you want, minus the ingredients you might not,” is how Sephora describes clean beauty. Essano, the No. 1 natural skincare brand in the local grocery sector, has its own take: “Some people say ‘clean beauty’ is a smaller list of ingredients or that ‘if you can’t pronounce it, it’s not good for you’. However, we believe skincare is more complex than that,” says co-founder Shane Young. (That long name, for instance, might be a useful botanical extract rather than a questionable chemical concoction.)

Ecostore, which pioneered natural home and body products in our supermarkets, says an agreed definition would be good. That’s unlikely any time soon. Especially with the US regulatory regime around cosmetic ingredients being much laxer than that which applies in the EU.

With no official international definition of clean – as with natural, green and organic claims – the consumer is at risk of being greenwashed. It comes down to trust and, more instructively, transparency from sellers and brands and to doing your own research. The internet is a great tool here and keeps brands accountable, but it can also be an unreliable echo chamber.

Viva 2015. Photo / Guy Coombes
Viva 2015. Photo / Guy Coombes

There’s more agreement around what clean isn’t, than exactly what it is. Kylie was on the right “free-from . . . ” track. Parabens and sulphates are on the outer, along with around a dozen of the other so-called “nasties”, which may be irritants for the skin or aren’t eco-friendly. These include phthalates, formaldehyde releasers, certain preservatives, mineral oil and other petroleum derivatives.

Artificial fragrances and colours don’t belong, silicones are usually eschewed, but whether products are vegan, or not, is not a deal breaker — unless you’re vegan. Beeswax and honey are natural, but so too other natural substances that can cause nasty reactions, so for clean beauty, the guide is to use ingredients considered to pose no risk.

This means clean beauty brands may and do use synthetic substances (where these are considered non-toxic) and also engineered natural ingredients. As with vegetarian meat substitutes, there is a case to be made in beauty for synthetics. Some can replace ingredients in short supply in nature, or hard to get ethically, or in an environmentally responsible manner. Cost comes into it also.

The term “clean-clinical”, as used by cult skincare brand Drunk Elephant, and the widely used description “the best of science and nature” indicate tweaking in the laboratory. Tweaking enables higher concentrations or synergies of active ingredients, often through encapsulation for improved delivery. Some natural brands tweak natural ingredients too, but formulation through biomimetic means — where synthetic methods mimic natural processes — is the dividing line.

The more purist clean brands wouldn’t cross that line either, with the likes of RMS makeup founder Rosemarie Swift insisting not only naturals, but minimal processing.

The flip side

Clean beauty companies are apt to claim superior product results to naturals — the sector many consumers still associate with clean. This puts clean in competition with Big Beauty and cosmeceutical companies. The allure of clean with clout draws beauty junkies in. Clean has the feel-good factor, but also the results-driven promise of transformative change. Throw in the “cool” factor, Leaping Bunny logos and sustainability claims and it’s no wonder competitors are challenged.

For natural skincare companies — especially those that have invested heavily in certification processes and/or worked to grow credibility beyond niche status there’s the need to retain relevance. It must be tempting for them to simply rebrand as clean, but given the current vagueness of the term, this risks undercutting the positioning they have built up.

Mineral makeup brand Jane Iredale uses EcoCert ingredients and has been talc-, petroleum- and synthetic preservative-free from its inception. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the company is at pains to point out being clean is nothing new.

For big beauty companies, the problem with the clean beauty phenomenon is largely in the implication that the flip side of clean is dirty. That’s harsh on companies that have already come a long way in revising formulas and their supply chain.

L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, has pledged that by 2025 all of the group’s plastic packaging will be wholly refillable, reusable, recyclable or compostable. Buyouts by multinationals, such as Unilever’s acquiring both Ren and Dermalogica in 2015, bring new thinking to established giants, as well as grabbing them some clean-business action.

Ecostore’s brand manager Kathryn Avery observes that the focus on clean beauty is driving more mainstream brands to offer safer, less toxic and more natural products, long her company’s stock-in-trade. She’d like that matched with greater ingredient-list transparency.

While it’s good riddance to some cosmetic ingredients, the scientific case against others isn’t as clearcut as a quick internet search may suggest. But once a negative connection is made, especially if repeated enough online, the power of customer perception holds sway.

A case in point is the founder of Drunk Elephant, Tiffany Masterson, telling the Guardian newspaper in February that her brand cut out parabens, not because she thought the preservatives were bad, but because they were consumer poison. Hers was undoubtedly the smart — and clean — decision. Drunk Elephant is for sale, with market speculation it may fetch NZ$1.5 billion.

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