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What Does Clean Beauty Mean? An In-Depth Analysis of Key Terminology in the Beauty Industry

What Do You Mean by Clean?

Sephora, Ulta, Target, and various beauty retailers have stringent requirements for products that can be approved and marketed under their “Clean Beauty” category. But, the prerequisites are vastly different from retailer to retailer. Why? 

“Clean beauty” is a commonly used term in the beauty space, but the definition for this classification is all too uncommon. We plan to define and clarify “clean beauty,” all of the buzzwords that are used in the clean beauty space, and provide you with a basic list of “clean beauty” ingredient no-no’s.

Defining “Clean Beauty”

What is the definition of “clean beauty” you ask? 

Well, there is no definition… No official definition, to be clear. The beauty industry has no legislative regulation on the term “clean beauty,” despite the label’s increasing popularity.

Since “clean beauty” is essentially a marketing term, there is no steady foundation from which to measure a product as “clean” or “toxic.” One brand’s “clean beauty” label may not qualify under another brand’s “clean beauty” label, and so forth. 

“Clean beauty” is often used interchangeably with “natural,” “organic,” and sometimes “non-toxic,” but these terms all have their own meanings with independent, third party certifications popularly recognized as “the gold standard” of the industry. The good thing is that these buzzwords do have a slightly more established definition, so we can kind of use them to create a picture of a perfect “clean beauty” product. 

“Clean Beauty” Buzzwords

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

If you browse the “clean beauty” section of your local beauty store, you will find a wide range of buzzwords from “natural” to “green” and everything in between. The most commonly encountered buzzwords are: “natural,” “organic,” “non-toxic,” “green,” and “cruelty free” or “vegan.” 


“Natural,” “all-natural,” and “naturally derived” are all popular buzzwords in the clean beauty space. Natural and all-natural qualifiers refer to products formulated with ingredients from nature (plant, mineral, or animal) while naturally derived products refer to formulas with natural ingredients that have endured chemical processing. 

It is important to note that most natural substances cannot be used as is in formulations without some sort of chemical processing. Natural is not always better; in fact, some natural substances can be harmful to your health with either topical application or oral consumption. 

When browsing natural, all-natural, or naturally derived products, make sure to look for either the Ecocert COSMOS certification or the Good Housekeeping Seal since both institutions verify all product claims and, with Ecocert in particular, ensure at least half of the ingredients used in the product formulation are plant derived.  


“Organic” refers to a product produced without pesticides, which have proven harmful to humans through consumption or topical application. “Organic,” unlike “clean beauty,” is a regulated term. The USDA-Certified Organic seal ensures product formulations contain at least 95% organically cultivated ingredients while the NSF Organic Certification ensures 70% organic ingredients.  


“Non-Toxic” and “chemical-free” are clean beauty terms that have a reputation of being overly broad. Chemical-free products are formulated without harmful chemicals including the ingredients on the FDA ban list and some of the ingredients listed in the next section, below. Non-toxic products are products formulated with ingredients that are not toxic to humans. 

Both the “non-toxic” and “chemical-free” labels are considered unreliable. The non-toxic label holds very little weight since most substances, including healthy substances, can be toxic to humans with overconsumption. Additionally, chemical-free is an unsubstantiated label since every substance is made up of chemicals, whether natural or synthetic (including the human body). 

Green or Sustainable

“Green” and “Sustainable” products are developed with the least amount of impact on the environment as possible. The labels cover a wide range of business practices including packaging, R&D, production, distribution, and more. “Fair Trade” is another clean beauty term that is often used alongside “green” and “sustainable” and means that a product is developed in any capacity by workers who are paid and treated fairly. 

The “green” and “sustainable” labels are only valid if verified by a third party institution; the Cradle to Cradle certification is a reliable certification to look for when browsing green and sustainable products. “Fair Trade” also requires a third party verification for validity of the claim; the Fairtrade International, Fair for Life, and Fair Trade USA certifications are the most reliable certifications. 

Cruelty Free and Vegan

“Cruelty free” and “vegan” are clean beauty claims most often grouped together on product packaging. “Cruelty free” means that absolutely no animal testing was conducted during the development of a product or on any of the ingredients featured in the formula. “Vegan” products are products that do not contain any animal-derived or animal byproduct ingredients. 

“Cruelty free” and “vegan” are not regulated, so skincare brands can create their own icons if they so choose. However, if “cruelty free” and “vegan” are important claims to you when it comes to your skincare products, it is best to look for the Certified Vegan seal and the Leaping Bunny seal. 

A Very Basic List of “Clean Beauty” Ingredient No-No’s

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned 11 ingredients from inclusion in cosmetics formulas. The EU, on the other hand, has banned more than 1,300 ingredients from use in cosmetics and personal care products. 

Most (not all, but most) “clean beauty” brands in the United States have eliminated the following ingredients from their cosmetics products as inspired from the comprehensive EU list:

  • Parabens. Parabens are chemicals that have been widely used in cosmetics for over 100 years as artificial preservatives. Parabens have been linked to hormone disruption, fertility and reproductive health interference, and increased cancer risk. 
  • Sulfates. Sulfates are synthetic chemicals made from sulfur that are often found in hair care products, facial and body washes, and some cleaning products. Sulfates act as surfactants that bind to grime and rinse away with water. Sulfates have been linked to skin irritation, especially for those with dry or sensitive skin, though the FDA approves small amounts of this chemical for safe use. 
  • Formaldehyde. More specifically, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives can be found in various personal care products. Formaldehyde is an odorless gas used as a preservative in personal care products, and it has been linked to cancer and allergic reactions on the skin. 
  • Phthalates. Phthalates are used frequently in fragranced lotions and body washes to increase the longevity of fragrances. Phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, and interference with reproductive and developmental health. 
  • Talc. Talc is a mineral used in a variety of personal care products and has been known to contain trace amounts of asbestos, which has been directly linked to cancer, more specifically mesothelioma.  
  • Fragrances. Fragrance is a general term that refers to a wide range of fragrant ingredients not required to be disclosed on the ingredient label. Fragrances are generally listed as: fragrance, parfum, perfume, essential oil blends, and aroma. Some known fragrances have been linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, allergies, and reproductive issues.  

There are a few reliable resources available to help you analyze the ingredients in your favorite skincare products: SkinCharisma, MadeSafe, and EWG’s Skin Safe provide comprehensive ingredient analysis on popular skincare products and have a feature that allows you to search specific ingredients found on product labels. 

Knowledge is Empowering

Photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash

The skincare industry is a $141B industry with new brands entering the market at warp speed. A basic understanding of key skincare marketing categories and key buzzwords in the beauty space can radically change your shopping experience. Imagine what you could do with an in-depth understanding of the chemistry of skin, popular and obsolete skincare ingredients, advanced skin care techniques, extraction, exfoliation, and more?!

At Avenue Five Institute, we are all about empowerment. Empowerment through pursuit of your passions, and empowerment through knowledge in your designated field of study. Our 750 Hour Hybrid Esthetics Program is the perfect place to hone your interests. With our YourTime™ hybrid learning program, we incorporate both online, distance learning and in-person training to better align with your full plate. Explore your interest in skincare, facial massage, lash and brow tinting, facial treatments, skin analysis, and SO much more. 

The time is now.