What Does a Clean Beauty Label Really Mean?

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Clean beauty encompasses a section of the skincare industry that limits its product ingredients to only those that are ethically sourced, non-toxic, and cruelty-free. The rate of growth for clean beauty products is larger than that of any other subcategory of skincare, which has led many companies to invest and get more creative in the products they offer. According to one report, the estimated worth of the beauty industry is approximately $148.3 billion, with an expected worth of $189.3 billion by 2025. This growth is mainly due to the rise in demand for natural and organic products.

With the increasing interest in clean beauty products, many have raised questions about what qualifies as clean, whether there is a universal definition, and are there beauty brands using the "clean" label deceptively.

Categorizing the Labels

Broadly, clean beauty is known for including beauty products that have safer ingredients. Advocates and experts can tout varying claims of what is and is not safe, which is why the information can, at times, be complicated and contrasting. Here's a comprehensive look at each of the terms you might encounter on your clean-beauty search.


The organic label has been known to attract customers willing to pay a premium for the perceived added value of the product. While organic cosmetics are not regulated by the FDA, the term "organic" is regulated by the USDA concerning agricultural products. This makes it one of the easier subsets of clean beauty to identify and substantiate.

The USDA states that produce is considered organic if it has been grown on soil that had "no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest." The prohibited substances would include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The "made with organic ingredients" label would mean that at least 70% of the ingredients had been organically produced. It also cannot contain any ingredients that are genetically modified.

Unfortunately, the USDA doesn't supply a label for "made with organic ingredients" products. Instead, the product label should display the name and address of the certifying agent.


A non-toxic claim indicates the absence of harmful chemical ingredients. The FDA has banned 11 chemicals from being used in cosmetics. Most proponents of clean beauty and non-toxic skincare do not feel this is enough. They often use other countries' lists of banned chemicals as examples to strive toward.

The European Union, for example, reportedly bans over 1,300 chemicals. There are a few legal ingredients in conventional beauty products that natural beauty advocates suggest be avoided. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has developed a list of twelve chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer. A few common ingredients they say to avoid are formaldehyde, parabens, petroleum/mineral oil, and fragrances.

However, groups such as the Personal Care Council refute such claims. In a 2019 press release, they stated that cosmetics are considered to be low-risk products and that there are many myths related to the toxicity of personal care products. Similarly, the dangers of parabens are said to be exaggerated by many. Research shows parabens are preservatives with low toxicity, in addition to their low cost, biodegradability, and apparent chemical inertness. However, parabens continue to be challenged because studies have shown they are potentially estrogenic.


Green beauty promotes ingredients that have very little impact on the environment while being non-toxic. Organic products would also fall under this label, although not all green products are organic. The green label seeks to intertwine the cosmetic industry with environmentalist's connection to nature. Even so, this doesn't necessarily mean a product is all-natural.

Those that are interested in green beauty might stay away from products containing microbeads. Even though microbeads in rinse-off products were banned in the United States by the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, some companies are still using them in other ways.

There are also other ingredients known to be harmful. Triclosan is an antimicrobial that was often used in toothpaste, deodorants, shampoos, and sunscreens. It also has been banned in rinse-off products but can still be found in hand sanitizers and wipes. UV filters also fall into this category. UV filters are used in products for skin protection but, when rinsed off, can contaminate waterways and disturb aquatic life.


It is important to note that, natural does not equal safe. However, the concept of natural beauty products centers around non-toxic natural ingredients. An all-natural label signifies that the product is devoid of synthetic ingredients. This label often accompanies claims that it contains ingredients you can pronounce.

There is no legal or regulated definition of "natural". Though, it is most often used to describe a product that has at least one ingredient that has been derived from a plant. The International Organization for Standardization's guidelines for organic and natural cosmetics states that anything labeled natural must come from "plants, animals, microorganisms, and minerals." This does, however, include genetically modified materials. So, a natural product may not be organic. Also, The ISO is not a regulating body; rather, they create guidelines used to help governing bodies create policy.

"Cruelty Free"

The number of people adopting vegan lifestyles is on the rise, as are cruelty-free labels. Testing on animals for cosmetics has been banned in the European Union and several other countries. Cosmetic companies will display cruelty-free labels more than other clean beauty labels. However, cruelty-free is not synonymous with natural, organic, or chemically safe.

True cruelty-free products will have trademarked logos from reputable organizations. A couple of common ones are the leaping bunny and PETA's bunny logo.

Criteria for Clean Beauty

A common criticism is that clean beauty and its related terms are not clearly defined or regulated. This makes it difficult for conscientious shoppers to know exactly what they are getting. With this in mind, you should stick with brands that you trust. Because each brand will have its own definition, you may have to do a little digging to determine if their definition mirrors your values.

Thankfully, there is a multitude of organizations out there that are making it as easy as possible for people to choose thoughtful products. The EWG does a lot of research and also has compiled a database of products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics also seeks to educate consumers and give them ways to help advocate for safer products.

How to Choose Clean Beauty Products

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To help you wade the ever-widening cavern that is clean beauty and avoid greenwashing brands, here are a few tips for choosing clean beauty products.

Look for Third-Party Certifications

Having a certification from an outside organization outside is a great way to verify that the brand means what they say. Third-party certifications mean someone else has tested the products and looked into the manufacturing process or supply chain.

These certifications may include a Fair Trade label, PETA cruelty-free logo, organic certification, or even sustainable palm oil certifications.

Read Every Labels

Some companies will use words such as "clean", "green", and "natural" to draw in consumers. Always double-check the labels and if the product lives up to its claims. If you are unsure of what some of the ingredients are, keep a list. There are several apps available to help guide you through the process. In fact, the Environmental Working Group has its own app called Skin Deep.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask

When in doubt, send the company an email or message on social media and ask them what an ingredient is and what it does. You'll want to purchase from companies that are transparent with you. Some people are calling for organic ingredients to be labeled as such so that shoppers know exactly which ingredients are organic and which are not. In the meantime, respectivefully reaching out to a brand will help answer your questions.