Clean beauty: everything you need to know

Excerpts from the original post in Vogue France by Ellen Burney

The clean beauty movement, once a niche trend championed by the likes of Goop, has gone mainstream. A new report, released in February 2019 by the British Soil Association Certification, announced that conscious consumerism pushed the UK organic beauty and wellbeing market to an all-time high, with millennials and Gen Z leading the way. “There is no doubt the tide has turned on sustainable beauty and wellbeing,” says CEO of Soil Association CertificationMartin Sawyer. Beauty products in Europe certified with Soil Association COSMOS doubled last year to reach more than 10,000 products across 794 brands, pushing the sector into its eighth consecutive year of growth.

Major beauty labels are launching vegan skincare lines, plant-based formulas that are gentle on the environment and the users conscious.  When the big players in Beauty become converts, you can tell that the movement has really gained momentum and hopefully staying power.

How do you define clean beauty?

Clean beauty is still open to interpretation. “Claims such as ‘natural’, ‘clean’, ‘green’ and ‘hypoallergenic’ have no set definition as yet and without a standard, can be misleading and open to misuse,” says Année de Mamiel, founder of de Mamiel skincare and a pioneer of plant-based beauty. “Terms like chemical-free are silly because all ingredients are chemicals, whether they are from nature or synthetic.” Rose-Marie Swift, founder of leading organic makeup line, RMS Beauty, agrees. “Initially, the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ were used to describe products made with ingredients that came from nature. As soon as marketers learned that consumers enjoyed the idea of non-synthetic products, the words began to appear on all sorts of products, whether they were truthful or not.”

“‘Natural’ will no longer be enough of a credential for beauty brands in 2019,” Victoria Buchanan, senior futures analyst at The Future Laboratory adds. “As consumers continue to scrutinize what is in the products they put on their skin, zero-irritants will become the new standard of natural beauty.”

Where did the clean beauty movement come from?

Consumers are clearly making considered choices. The global wellness industry, according to the non-profit 2018 Global Wellness Economy Monitor report, grew in value from $3.7 trillion in 2015 to $4.2 trillion in 2017, an increase of 12.8 percent. “The wellness economy has grown at nearly twice the rate of global economic growth [3.6 percent],” the report confirms. Personal care and beauty accounted for $1.082 billion in 2017.

Buchanan says two things have changed the recent change: “An obsession with wellness and detoxification, both in terms of diet and products, is fueling a demand for stripped-back, ‘clean’ ingredients. Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about possible irritations caused by synthetic ingredients in fragrances and preservatives and are reading labels more carefully, a habit picked up from the grocery aisle.”

The second factor is the rise in sensitive skin. “Dermatologists are reporting a growing phenomenon of sensitized skin caused by increased exposure to pollution, stress and digital aggressors,” says Buchanan. The Environmental Working Group in the US reported that women are now exposed to a daily average of 126 chemicals from cosmetics, food, cleaning supplies and pollution. “For consumers, skin sensitivity is the new [buzz topic], ahead of anti-ageing, and this is driving a shift towards caring for skin with natural, honest ingredients,” Buchanan continues. She confirms Mintel reports that 21 per cent of US consumers now look for skincare products with as few ingredients as possible.

What qualifies as a toxic ingredient?

The toxicity of an ingredient depends on where in the world you are. While the EU bans more than 1,300 ingredients from cosmetics, beauty is one of the least regulated industries in the US, banning around 30. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic act is the only US government monitor of ingredients in cosmetics, and not much has changed since it was first passed in 1938 – meanwhile, the clean beauty industry has made its own rules.

Most clean beauty advocates are concerned with aggressive ingredients and synthetic chemicals.

A survey in 2016 by US beauty brand Kari Gran, entitled the Green Beauty Barometer, found that 55 per cent of women and 62 per cent of Millennials in the US read beauty product ingredient labels in order to avoid specific ingredients.

Artificial colors are avoided as they make the skin more sensitive; while mineral oils (petroleum, petrolatum, paraffinum liquidum) can clog pores, and are a cheap by-product of the crude oil industry; and silicones (such as dimethicone) can also congest the skin. Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) strips moisture; while phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP, BPA) – emulsifiers found in synthetic fragrances, hairsprays and nail polish – can be absorbed through the skin. Parabens (methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, propyl-) are a controversial preservative as they’ve been linked to breast cancer and reproductive problems.

The list of ingredients to avoid might be exhaustive but it is also open to interpretation.  More importantly, this movement is telling consumers to ‘wake up’ and be the master of their own destiny by becoming educated and informed to make the purchasing decisions best for yourself.  “Putting the power back in the consumer's hands is a big part of this movement,” says Kassandra Lefakinis, Co-Founder of botanical-oil-based skincare line Opuntia Luxury Oils out of Athens, Greece.  Ingredients on labels should be listed starting with the highest percentage and anything over 1 per cent has to appear on the label.  Anything over 1 per cent has to appear on the label – starting with the highest percentage ingredient, and following in order of amount.  Those less than 1 per cent ingredients may be listed in any order and are often listed scrambled to avoid the formulations from being copied. 

The difference between natural and organic products

Organic is a “better” label than Natural as Natural products contain ingredients from plants and nature and are processed minimally (all good!) but Organic products are made without GMO’s –from growth to harvest and manufacturing to preservation, free from chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and antibiotics – meaning fewer contaminants will be present.  Of course, these extra measures in control of quality and purity via the organic farming process means a higher price point.

Swift advises avoiding products with “derived from” on the label. “This indicates that something was done to your natural ingredient in order to turn it into something that is no longer natural. We use ingredients straight from nature, with all of their life-force energy still intact. What that means is we are not using fractionated, adulterated ingredients.” Avoiding heavily processed ingredients allows the plants natural healing properties – enzymes, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – to remain fully active. Swift also avoids water. “Water can actually cause a lot of trouble in beauty products, but is repeatedly used because it is free. It causes a product to be unstable and it has the tendency to grow bacteria very easily. Because of that, you have to use preservatives as well as emulsifiers, to join oil and water, which we all know don’t mix naturally.”

How to take your beauty routine vegan

A truly vegan product doesn’t contain any ingredients derived from animals – including honey, collagen, albumen, carmine, cholesterol and gelatin. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, vegan product launches have risen by 175 per cent from July 2013 to June 2018. Mintel’s global beauty analyst Andrew MacDougall suggests that consumers “will want to align their beauty routine with the rest of their lifestyle”. Among the latest launches, cult new US beauty brand, Milk Makeup, is paraben-free, cruelty-free and 100 per cent vegan; while Swedish haircare brand Maria Nila, is also 100 per cent vegan, cruelty-free and registered with PETAThe Vegan Society and the Leaping Bunny.

Hedda Mirrow, head of marketing export at Maria Nila says, of beauty products across the board: “It is very common to see the use of keratin [a protein derived from skins and bones of animals] for strength and repairing the hair; lanolin [sheep fat] and lanolin silk protein [from silk butterflies] for hair softening; and beeswax for emollient and hold.” At Maria Nila, however, they do things differently. She continues: “Instead, we only use vegetable proteins, butters and oils – including wheat protein, algaes to repair, shea butter for hold, moringa oil for nourishment and argan oil for softening.”

Aveda, too, is currently removing beeswax from its products and pledges that by 2020 all formulations will be vegan and silicone-free. “The consumer today prioritizes natural ingredients, cares about environmental responsibility and the need for global action to preserve and protect it,” Amanda Le Roux, vice president at Aveda International, tells Vogue“With a strong foundation of using botanical science to create high-performance products that are not harmful to the earth, we’re beyond excited for the future.”

What’s the latest in plant-based alternatives?

Lan Belinky, co-founder of the plant-powered skincare brand Boscia – credited with spearheading the activated charcoal trend – is currently making waves. “We’re working on some very exciting ingredient innovations, one being a cryosea blend that contains sustainably sourced ingredients, such as red algae, inspired by cryotherapy. Together this blend provides a cold-as-ice experience that lifts, tightens, plumps and increases circulation.”

Elsewhere, retin-alts are the new retinols – for sensitive skin and safe use during pregnancy. Bakuchiol – a plant-based retinol alternative found in the seeds of the psoralea orylifolia plant – appears in new products from Ole Henriksen and Omorovicza. Part of the vitamin A family, bakuchiol boosts collagen and elastin production. “Bakuchiol is an amazing alternative to retinol, which acts in a similar way, without any of the negative side effects [retinol can irritate the skin and cause pigmentation],” Henriksen tells Vogue. “It is a ground-breaking, age-defying, natural ingredient that helps to target fine lines, wrinkles, pores and dark spots, while brightening the skin.”

The environmental impact of your product choices

In 2018, the annual campaign Zero Waste Week, reported that 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, most of which are not recyclable. Even Tata Harper – the ‘Green Queen’ founder of the eponymous 100 per cent synthetic-free and certified organic skincare brand – admits that eco-packaging can be a challenge. “I find the biggest hurdle for both the industry at large and our brand is packaging. Clean cosmetic packaging has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. Finding options that look luxurious and are also sustainable is very hard – things that are sustainable are not luxurious, yet things that are considered luxury are non-recyclable plastic and acrylics that end up in landfills.”

Making steps towards sustainability, Harper continues: “The majority of our packaging is made of glass – it’s highly recyclable and can be reused over and over. What little plastic we do use is necessary for the function of the packaging and is as eco-friendly as possible. The plastic resin for our tubes is derived from corn, which means it is made from a renewable resource instead of petroleum and we use soy-based ink for printing.”

Some eco-conscious "green" beauty products even go so far as to donate to charities committed to the recovery of environmental damage, such as Opuntia Luxury Oils where each bottle purchased results in one tree being planted around the world, aiding reforestation.

The impact of specific ingredients on the environment is also a concern. 

Putting your products under the microscope

Download the following barcode scanning apps to investigate your ingredients:

Skin Deep by the Environmental Working GroupSkin NinjaClean Beauty by Officinea; and Think Dirty.


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