Why the Definition of Clean Beauty Isn’t as Crystal Clear as You Might Think

And how the confusion creates an opening for brands in what's become a growing category

beauty products on a background of water droplets and leaves
Since 2010, interest in the term 'clean beauty' has multiplied tenfold, says Google Trends data. Photo Illustration: ChefBoyRG; Source: Getty Images
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The last time that the United States passed regulations on the ingredients allowed in cosmetics, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his second term as president. The Wizard of Oz was still a year away from its theatrical release. And the beauty industry as we know it today was still in its infancy—which makes sense when you consider the fact that at the time, makeup had only recently gained widespread use. (Before, the only women who dared to wear it regularly were prostitutes.)

The year was 1938. And just five months after the bill’s introduction to the Senate by New York Sen. Royal Copeland, Roosevelt signed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act into law. It was then revolutionary: For the first time, the government was bringing oversight to the world of cosmetics manufacturing—up to a point. Unlike with food and drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not required to approve individual cosmetic products. Instead, it retains the right to remove products from the market, particularly when they contain unsafe ingredients or are inaccurately marketed.

Eighty-two years later, not much has changed in the U.S., even as other countries have steamed ahead. The European Union bans over 1,300 chemicals from being included in cosmetic products, and Canada prohibits 500—the U.S., on the other hand, just 11.

The United States, for example, hasn’t updated legislation to include more potentially harmful chemicals like parabens (preservatives found in makeup and lotion), formaldehyde (another preservative that’s also a carcinogen), oxybenzone (a common ingredient in sunscreens and lip balms) and phthalate (often used in fragrances and hairspray), among others.

Enter so-called clean beauty. The brands in this emerging category—typically young, independent and outspoken—have helped to create a larger consumer conversation around the ingredients in personal-care products. In the process, they’re educating consumers and challenging legacy players.

But if a lack of regulation created an opening for clean beauty, it also allows for interpretation.

“Everybody defines clean in a different way,” Larissa Jensen, vp and industry adviser for beauty at the NPD Group, tells Adweek. “There is no industry standard.”

Which begs the question, what are consumers getting when they buy into clean beauty? And how did it become what Formula Botanica estimated last year is a $36 billion industry?

How clean beauty blossomed

Ten years ago, clean beauty was tucked away, just a niche in a colossal industry that at the time was worth over $383 billion and ruled by giants like L’Oréal, Coty and Estée Lauder.

“When I started the company [in 2013], people thought I was crazy and told me that no one would ever care about [clean beauty],” says Gregg Renfrew, founder and CEO of Santa Monica-based clean beauty brand Beautycounter.

Instead, she was ahead of the curve, along with companies like Juice Beauty (launched in 2005), RMS Beauty (2009), Ilia Beauty (2011), Follain (2013) and Credo Beauty (2014). Since 2010, interest in the term “clean beauty” has multiplied tenfold, according to data from Google Trends. In recent years, in particular, consumers—especially millennials and Gen Z—have increasingly expressed concern about their health and the health of their planet, notes Laura Gurski, Accenture’s senior managing director and global lead for consumer goods.

What’s helped to propel this budding industry forward is the fact that these companies have for the most part remained independent and are therefore nimble. Few have been acquired by conglomerates like Procter & Gamble or Estée Lauder.

“In the last handful of years, we’ve had the local players start to shape the global markets,” says Gurski. “The local players are uninhibited by old infrastructure and old ways of thinking about brands and manufacturing, and they’re far more digitally native. They have a better understanding and a better pulse of the consumers.”

According to data from the NPD Group, clean skin care was a $758 million business in 2019, or about 13% of the total $6 billion total skin-care market. But it’s not the market value that points to clean beauty’s power; it’s the growth numbers: Clean skin care grew 39% from 2018 to 2019, while skin care overall grew just 6%. The total beauty market, on the other hand, remained flat.

“Clean beauty has gone from the crunchier Whole Foods brands to now luxury,” says Claire McCormack, editor of Beauty Independent, a beauty industry trade publication. “There isn’t one uniform look across clean beauty at all; it runs the gamut.”

Coming clean

Since there’s no legal, enforceable definition of  “clean beauty,” it’s at its core a marketing term, says Karen Behnke, founder of Juice Beauty. And as the category grows, brands see the value in applying it to themselves, even if it means something different to each of them.

At one end of the spectrum, there are brands that tout a lack of parabens or sulfates, says McCormack. Such claims have become commonplace in commercials for brands like Tresemme. But the claim doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Most brands won’t use those now,” notes McCormack. And the absence of parabens doesn’t make a product clean. And yet greenwashing, a term for the indiscriminate use of the “clean” label, is not uncommon.

“The law still allows people to claim that they are clean, pure botanical, green, organic, when they very well may be none of the above,” she says. “It’s not just enough to say you’re taking out one ingredient. Are you looking at all those chemicals of concern and really protecting the health of your client?”

“Natural” is another popular label that is similarly open to interpretation.

“Just because something is natural doesn’t also mean it’s 100% safe,” says Lily Tse, founder and CEO of Think Dirty, an app that advises consumers on whether products are actually clean or not. She often sees brands employing the color green or other earthy elements on their packaging to suggest healthfulness.

“Verifying a brand’s claim unfortunately does have to fall on the consumer’s shoulder,” says Tse. “But slowly brands are realizing that the consumer is smarter and they can no longer not have their ingredients back up their brand promise.”

Marketing what’s missing

One way clean beauty brands are trying to attract consumers is by making them aware of the lack of government oversight of cosmetics. Touting what’s not in their products can be as important as promoting what they’re actually made of.

“The climate is very much a ‘gotcha’ climate,” says Elaine Sack, CEO of RMS Beauty. “A lot of brands do focus on the what they’re free of.”

Others promote their high standards for ingredients. When launching Beautycounter, Renfrew started with a roster of 1,800 ingredients she dubbed the “never list”—never to be used in a Beautycounter product. Now, seven years into the brand’s existence, the focus is increasingly on “actually operationalizing the brand promise of clean to consumers by looking at supply-chain transparency, carbon footprint, recyclability of packaging and integrity of ingredients,” she says.

Beautycounter also lobbies for legislation around greater regulation of the beauty industry on Capitol Hill. Says Renfrew, “Advocacy is as important to us as commerce.”

Tara Foley, co-founder and CEO of Follain, says her company’s messaging focuses on the “ingredients that we do have that are really special and quite frankly unique to the clean space.” Those ingredients are Follain’s differentiator, while Sack says that at RMS, they’ve tried to lean heavily on founder Rose-Marie Swift’s experience as a makeup artist.

“At the end of the day, we really believe that people are interested in living sustainable lifestyles, and they’re really looking to brands to help them make better decisions,” says Behnke. “We really want to be the leaders in educating and making it easier to make those decisions.”

Mainstream acceptance

The future of clean beauty is, essentially, the future of beauty.

“It’s table stakes,” says McCormack. “We may not even need to say clean beauty as much because formulating in certain ways will just not really happen anymore.”

There are signs she might be right. Earlier this month, Follain announced a partnership to sell its products in Ulta Beauty stores, of which there are over 1,100 locations throughout the U.S. Anecdotally, since Juice Beauty’s 2005 founding, Behnke says she’s also seeing interest in clean beauty expand beyond the metropolitan hubs of New York and Los Angeles.

“Some of our best stores are in Iowa or Illinois,” she says.

Even the cosmetics industry’s major players have taken note. Covergirl recently launched a “clean” collection of foundations, and conglomerates like Unilever and Shiseido have been bulking up their clean offerings with the acquisitions of brands like Tatcha and Drunk Elephant, respectively.

As the number of people embracing clean beauty continues to grow, those big players have a major advantage: They’ve built their brand’s marketing on much more than their ingredient list.

But Follain’s Foley, for one, is confident that the independents will continue to have an edge.

“They’re always going to be leaders in terms of ingredient innovation because they were the ones who figured out how to formulate this way,” she says. “They’ll be positioned well. Their sourcing is the best, and they can tell ingredient stories in a more romantic way than anybody can.

“A huge beauty conglomerate in the U.S. may be doing it really right in terms of being nontoxic and free of all of these harmful ingredients,” she continues, “but they will never be able to source from some small farm in the hills of Romania.”

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.
Publish date: June 14, 2020 https://stage.adweek.com/brand-marketing/why-the-definition-of-clean-beauty-isnt-as-crystal-clear-as-you-might-think/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT