Just How Clean is the “Clean Beauty” Movement?

by Enbacci Skincare 27/12/2023

A Sustainability Journey, Cosmetics, Health and Beauty, Personal Hygiene, Skincare

This is a sponsored article from SustainabilityTracker.com member Enbacci Skincare.

In the contemporary marketplace, where authenticity, inclusivity, and sustainability are paramount values for Gen Z consumers, the “clean beauty” movement has surged in popularity.

As Gen Z represents 40% of the global consumer population, brands are quick to capitalise on these demands by embracing labels such as “natural,” “organic,” and “clean”. The market for “clean beauty” was valued at an impressive $7.3 billion USD in 2022, with projections soaring to over $11.6 billion by 2027. However, behind the alluring facade of the clean beauty movement lies a web of ambiguity, where the absence of standardised definitions and regulatory guidelines raises questions about true authenticity and transparency.

Defining Clean Beauty

There is no standardised definition of “clean beauty” within the personal care industry. This is attributed to the absence of clear regulatory guidelines and legal framework from governing bodies, such as the Therapeutic Goods of Australia (TGA) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). This absence of a clear definition allows companies to employ the term liberally, resulting in a wide array of interpretations that can be subjective and open to manipulation. Clean beauty has become synonymous with terms such as “chemical free”, “non-toxic” and “safe”, so companies define clean beauty through a list of excluded common cosmetic ingredients that may be linked to possible human health or environmental issues. These may include (and is not limited to) parabens, phthalates, sulphates (SLS and SLES), formaldehyde and mineral oil.

These ingredient exclusions have resulted in the assumption that natural ingredients are inherently safer and therefore, better for you. However, it is important to recognise that some natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions or have adverse effects, highlighting the need for a nuanced understanding of ingredient safety. A common example of such is poison ivy. Although it is natural, it is most definitely not safe. 

The clean beauty movement also tends to vilify synthetic ingredients without considering the advancements in cosmetic science. Many synthetic compounds undergo rigorous testing to ensure safety and efficacy, which natural ingredients may be exempt from. It is important to consider that natural ingredients are more readily contaminated than their synthetic compound, meaning it is unsuitable to formulate with and must be disposed of. It is also important to consider that many synthetic ingredients are more environmentally sustainable than their natural counterparts. Dismissing all synthetic ingredients as harmful oversimplifies a complex issue and impedes innovation in the beauty industry.

Is Clean Beauty simply a form of greenwashing?

Clean beauty opens the door to “greenwashing”, a deceptive marketing practice where brands exaggerate or misrepresent their commitment to environmental and health-conscious values. Some companies may exploit the lack of clear guidelines by placing a “clean” label on their products without offering substantial evidence of the products’ safety or environmental sustainability.

Retailers have been the driving force behind the clean beauty movement. Retailers such as Target, Sephora and Ulta, implementing their own set of internal guidelines when it comes to “clean beauty”. Brands must abide by these internal standards in order to qualify for their programs. However interestingly, with growing consumer knowledge, we are seeing instances where consumers themselves are calling for clear definitions of clean beauty. 

On November 11, 2022, a class-action complaint requesting a jury trial was filed in New York’s Northern Federal District Court against Sephora USA, Inc. The class-action claims that Sephora’s “Clean at Sephora” program is false and misleading, creating confusion about what ingredients are in the products that fall under this program. The Plaintiff alleged that products advertised as part of the “Clean at Sephora” program contain ingredients that are “inconsistent with how consumers understand [the term] clean.”

Changes within the Personal Care Industry

The US Congress passed the Modernisation of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA) on December 23, 2022. This will see significant expansion of the FDA’s authority over cosmetics. However, it provides comparatively little guidance on the types of marketing or promotional claims brands can make about the safety or purity of their products. Consequently, these issues are expected to remain the subject of intense scrutiny and costly litigation, as evidenced through the Sephora case.

The question of whether Australia will follow suit remains. The release of the ACCC’s greenwashing guidelines is perhaps a starting point for the “clean beauty” market. However, will we see greater regulations imposed by the TGA for pharmaceutical and cosmetic labelling claims. Undoubtedly, the intention behind the clean beauty movement is honourable. However, the ambiguity surrounding the definition of the term creates an environment for breeding misinformation and manipulation. To truly empower consumers, a standardised definition and clear regulations must be established. This would provide consumers with the assurance that products labelled “clean” adhere to specific criteria, fostering transparency and accountability within the industry. Until then, it is in the interest of the consumer to undertake their own research into a “clean beauty” brand, understanding how that brand defines clean beauty, and determining whether that definition aligns with their own values.

By Yong-Li Zhou

This is an article from a SustainabilityTracker.com Member. The views and opinions we express here don’t necessarily reflect our organisation.

by Enbacci Skincare

This a sponsored post published on behalf of Enbacci Skincare.