Is it Time to Change the Clean Beauty Conversation?

Beauty’s biggest trend right now is clean beauty. It’s dominating the industry everywhere we look, from skincare to makeup to hair care—some nail polishes even fall into the category of clean beauty now. With this whirlwind of clean beauty around us, it’s easy to fall into thinking clean beauty is the end all, be all. But is it really? It’s time to ask ourselves what clean beauty actually is, if it’s really helping us, and what the future of the movement looks like.

So, what is considered clean beauty exactly? Well, that’s the big question and is where it can get confusing. Because clean beauty is everywhere, brands have created clean beauty products without any apparent set of guidelines or consistency, leading some brands to consider clean beauty one thing and other brands consider it another. In the community, the general understanding is that clean beauty products are at least mostly natural. And it goes without saying that clean beauty should mean cruelty-free products. But after that, there’s not much consensus. Some consider clean beauty to be all-natural products, while some consider it to be products just mostly void of synthetics. Some want clean beauty to be organic. Some people believe in parabens and some don’t. There are people who believe clean beauty should encompass sustainability as well, wanting brands to consider sustainable packaging, renewable resources, and recycling programs also. Because of the demand within the clean beauty and lack of regulatory oversight, there’s no singular answer to what clean beauty actually is.

Emma Lewisham founded her eponymous natural skincare brand to set the new standard in beauty, with an emphasis on sustainability as well. She launched the brand after she was unable to find a natural alternative to a hyperpigmentation product that had scientific-backed results. From the very start, she wanted to build a sustainable brand, after discovering that the beauty industry contributes to so many of the environmental concerns we see today.

“It’s quite an empowering thing to put something on your skin that’s completely natural… I probably approached it from a very positive point of view. When I went looking to find natural skincare that had science-backed results, that’s when I could see that there wasn’t anything on the market that really had that reference point,” Lewisham said. “The brand from inception has not just been about the ingredients, but the sustainability. And I could see that somewhere along the way, it became an acceptable standard to act in such a linear model, a take-make-dispose of [model], and a very untransparent model as well.”

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Skinshield, a daily face sunscreen with antioxidants, is one of Emma Lewisham’s favorite products right now

Emma Lewisham

Drunk Elephant is a brand that has dominated the beauty industry for years. A bestselling brand, cult-favorite, and staple on almost every shelfie, Drunk Elephant has made a name for itself through clean products and Insta-worthy packaging. Rather than claiming to be non-synthetic or all-natural, it instead focuses on biocompatibility, which means the product is able to get into your skin. By focusing on biocompatibility, the result is healthy pH levels, formulas that our skin recognizes, easily absorbed products, and ingredients that maintain the skin’s acid mantle. So founder Tiffany Masterson doesn’t necessarily feel like the label of “clean” is the right label for her brand.

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“I was very excited about my philosophy [when I launched Drunk Elephant], but I didn’t know what to call it. And at the time, the term ‘clean’ was not being used. The main term that was being used in 2013 was ‘non-toxic.’ And I found that to be sort of negative,” Masterson said. “When I had to do my merchandising for Sephora, they needed a three word description of what the brand is. So what I came up with at that time was clean, compatible, clinical product.”

As Drunk Elephant became more popular, the term “clean” became more popular too.

“So all of a sudden clean started popping up everywhere,” Masterson said. “I was super frustrated and I didn’t really know what to do because it was this moment of ‘Wait a minute, stop. That’s not what I meant by clean.’ And not that I dictated what or how to use the word clean. It was just that other brands were starting to use it as well. And what they meant by it was completely different than what I meant by it.”

Since then, Masterson, like many others, has come to realize that “clean beauty” doesn’t really mean anything. As such, Drunk Elephant has moved away from that label and instead labels itself as biocompatible skincare.

“Clean is not clearly defined. Clean is not regulated. Clean is not a word that means anything anymore to the consumer because it’s so diluted and it can mean anything anybody wants it to be. Now it’s just a trendy buzzword. So we’re trying to move away from clean,” Masterson said. “To me, clean beauty is just a mishmash of anything the brands want it to mean. So, let’s describe the brand as exactly what it is.”

So then why did she go with the narrative of biocompatible skincare?

“Consumers care. They want to use good things for the health of their skin and they want to know what ingredients we’re using and why,” Masterson said. “So let’s use ‘biocompatible,’ which means the skin organ, or the living material, can respond well to, absorb, use, and benefit from, these ingredients without the typical associated congestion, irritation, or sensitization that skin may get when using ingredients that are disruptive or can confuse skin.”

In keeping with the theme of biocompatibility, Masterson also created the term the “Suspicious Six,” which are six products—essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, fragrances/dyes, and SLS—that Masterson discovered were irritating her skin. She wanted to look at the brand from a consumer perspective.

“Clean is not clearly defined. Clean is not regulated. Clean is not a word that means anything anymore to the consumer because it’s so diluted and it can mean anything anybody wants it to be.”- Tiffany Masterson

“[The Suspicious Six] are not dangerous. They’re definitely not toxic… I’m not ever fearmongering. I’m really troubleshooting. You know when your cable’s broken and they tell you to do one, two, and three? It’s the same thing. Remove these six categories of ingredients. See what your skin does,” Masterson said. “Once you’re free of these six categories of ingredients that potentially can be disruptive, then look at what you’re really dealing with. Are you really dealing with an oily T-zone or are you really dealing with sensitive skin? And then that opens the door to be able to start using acids and things that really can impact and affect the health of your skin.”

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The Protini Power peptide Resurf Serum is coming soon and will be a lactic acid formula that allows for everyday use

Drunk Elephant

Wellcare and community space Pink Moon Co. is also navigating the clean beauty industry. Founder Lin Chen has spoken candidly about the movement for a long time. She feels that the clean beauty space has changed and lost its way and instead prefers the term sustainable or eco-beauty. Chen discovered the eco beauty space more than a decade ago as a result of an appreciation for the healing and beautifying capabilities of plants coupled with supporting small artisanal brands. Yet since then, she feels the movement has grown into something focused on “fear, shame, and control,” as she puts it on Instagram.

“We [at Pink Moon] call it sustainable beauty and eco beauty because… natural beauty products [are] about celebrating nature and connecting with Mother Earth, rather than what’s not in the products and what’s potentially harmful, what’s potentially toxic, because everyone has their own definition of what’s potentially harmful to them. It’s very subjective,” Chen said.

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Rather than creating an exclusionary and judgmental space, she wants Pink Moon to “be a safe haven from the corporatized green beauty ‘movement.’ We aspire to reconnect to the roots of what this movement once was. That’s why you’ll never see a banned ingredients list, fear-mongering, greenwashing, or shame tactics used in our messaging,” Chen wrote on Instagram.

So with some brands using fear mongering marketing tactics, is clean beauty really helping us out?

In short, absolutely. Before there was the formalized term of clean beauty, there was just the idea of natural beauty, which often referred to products sourced from natural ingredients with a focus on holistic health and ethical products. Natural beauty ushered in a new wave of beauty and an era in which we’ve seen everything from clean beauty to green beauty to organic beauty and much in between. With time, the term has expanded to become an umbrella term that refers to natural skincare made with naturally derived ingredients. As expected, there tends to be a lot of overlap between them all. But at the crux of it, the movement, however muddied it may be, has created healthier options for products we put on our skin. Brands have moved away from including carcinogens like coal tar in beauty products.

The balance between informing consumers and scaring them is a fine line, one that Masterson is very aware of.

“I know I’ve been accused of [fear mongering because] I’m the one who identifies six categories of ingredients that I want people to avoid,” Masterson said. “But I’m not saying it’s for everyone. I’m not saying every single person has a problem with every single ingredient. I’m saying, ‘Hey, look, if you remove some of these ingredients from your team, it could be that those were causing your issues and you didn’t know it.’ To me that’s a positive, hopeful message… It’s like, ‘Hey, instead of suffering with skin issues, try removing these six and it could be that that’s your answer and that’s your solution.”

And the intelligence of consumers is really what’s changing the industry for the better. By constantly questioning and pushing the world of clean beauty, consumers and new brands have created discourse around how to make the industry more transparent, welcoming, and accessible.

“Consumers are becoming really savvy and smart,” Lewisham said. “The consumers can be the ones that really drive change in the beauty industry.”

And Masterson agrees.

“You can also decide which brands are right for you, which products are right for you, and then you’re the savvy consumer that’s putting more pressure on all brands to make sure they’re not using ingredients that potentially could be disruptive,” Masterson said.

Emma Lewisham is focused on result-based, scientific-backed, sustainable skincare. Rather than fear mongering—which Lewisham doesn’t believe brands are necessarily doing on purpose—she wants to focus on the science.

“Brands have a point in educating the customer… It just needs to be done in the right way and with the right language, and scaremongering isn’t the approach. Yes, we’re a natural brand, but we focus more on our results and our science,” Lewisham said.

Chen echoed that sentiment, sharing that she would like to see the industry focus on something that creates excitement and positivity.

“I talk to customers, and they tell me they prefer the natural beauty products because of the smell and the way that their skin feels when they feel this nature on their skin,” Chen said. “During a time of a global pandemic, we can’t really get outside as much… What creates excitement for people [is] to use these natural beauty products, but also on top of that, using products that are artisan and made by people who truly care about the environment and animals and people’s health.”

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Midnight Melody Body & Hair Oil is one of Lin Chen’s favorite products from her Pink Moon shop

Pink Moon Co.

Will there be a space in the future for a more regulated clean beauty industry? It’s unlikely, but Lewisham sees the possibility for regulation in one area: recycling and sustainability.

“If there’s any area that governments can regulate on, it would be around single use plastic,” Lewisham said.

Ideally, by regulating single use plastic, the demand for recycled plastic will grow, creating more room for recycled plastic and ultimately making it the norm. Emma Lewisham already partners with TerraCycle to recycle beauty products as part of the brand’s circular model.

“Brands have a point in educating the customer… It just needs to be done in the right way and with the right language, and scaremongering isn’t the approach” – Emma Lewisham

“The other aspect of it all is our passion to move up to a circular model and away from this take-make-dispose of model, which is just something very destructive, and ignorant now, with where we are with climate change and being in a climate emergency. In beauty, the biggest contributor to carbon is our packaging. And of the 120 billion units that are produced every year, 95% of it will be burnt or go to landfill our oceans. So to me, that just makes no sense. And no one can now turn a blind eye to that,” Lewisham said. “The most important thing to me is that [beauty] moves to a circular model of operating with brands taking ownership for what they produce, and ensuring that it’s brought back to them.”

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Recycling and sustainability is high on the priority list for Drunk Elephant as well.

“It’s a huge priority for me. It has been for a couple of years. The sad part about that is that you can’t always make it happen as fast as you want to,” Masterson said. “We’re moving forward with recyclable packaging. We’re almost there rolling it all out and from now on, it’ll always be sustainable and recyclable. We’ll never choose to go into any kind of package that’s not going forward.”

So what does the future of the industry look like? Recyclable and sustainable packaging will be a big part of it. Chen sees the future including more natural and vegan products as well.

“I don’t really think it’s really going to go back to the way it was when I was a smaller community where it was about celebrating nature and celebrating green beauty, sustainable packaging, and whatnot,” Chen said. “I think more and more people will start to care about using natural or vegan products or even become vegan. I think it’s just going to keep growing, this market’s going to keep growing. But of course, there’s always going to be that small community of people who have been in this space for so long.”

Meanwhile, with savvy consumers everywhere, Masterson sees the future of beauty focused on education.

“Brands are going to be held accountable now for ingredients that they use,” Masterson said. “We’ve got to give them the tools through education. The onus is on us, if we want to be a transparent brand that gains the consumer’s trust, to listen to them. We have to do the research ourselves and we can’t be so black and white about it. And we have to start having that relationship where we build that trust, because that’s really what having a brand and being sustainable is all about.”

Moving forward, it’s time to rethink clean beauty. The bottom line is that it looks like the beauty industry should continue to fully embrace sustainability and recycling while moving away from fear mongering marketing tactics. But more than that, it’s time to make terms like biocompatible, natural, or eco beauty more commonplace. While the idea of clean beauty is a good idea in theory, it really is an umbrella term that needs to be broken down into more specific aspects of beauty. While a lack of regulation may continue, brands can take it upon themselves to continue educating its consumers and describe their products using terms that actually mean something concrete. Between taking more responsibility and moving away from negative messaging, the beauty industry can make waves of change for the future.