Keeping Cosmetics In Check: Purging the Confusion from Clean Beauty

This article discusses the history of clean beauty, the definition of clean and how both terms are used today. It also debates whether or not clean beauty simplifies cosmetics.
This article discusses the history of clean beauty, the definition of clean and how both terms are used today. It also debates whether or not clean beauty simplifies cosmetics.

Clean beauty has become a widely used claim for a cosmetic formulation benefit, yet it begs the question: what benefit? The term clean in beauty dates back long before the current trend, emerging perhaps most prominently in the 1960s with CoverGirl’s “Clean Make-up” campaign1 – a reference to the fresh-faced, no-makeup look, ostensibly implying no cosmetic had been applied. To this author, it appeared as if a company were trying to sell a high-priced designer dress by telling a woman that nobody would notice she was wearing it.

Defining Clean

In the 2000s the word took on new meaning with the launch of skin care lines such as the British brand Ren — meaning clean in Swedish. The line was created to be free of “harmful” ingredients. Since then, the clean movement has been evolving as demand grows with the rise of the broader wellness movement; e.g., the clean eating lifestyle.2

When the term first appeared, it seemed to be related to the natural products movement. Clearly, others were lost in its ambiguity, as a recent column in this magazine by Grabenhofer summarized attempts by industry groups as well as her own discussion with a veteran industry formulator to set guidelines or definitions for what clean beauty really meant.3

In relation, the retailer Credo created the Clean Beauty Council and a clean standard that guides the company and its suppliers on safety, sourcing, sustainability and ethics. Harper's Bazaar describes clean beauty as safe for people and the planet. Also, in July of 2022, the Guangdong Cosmetics Association released a general principle of clean beauty that specifies basic principles, design, production, packaging, storage, use, recycling and other requirements.4

A few years earlier, in 2019, Cosmetics & Toiletries also attempted to define clean beauty from a tangible formulation standpoint,5 settling on three generally accepted tenets:

  • Ensuring safety for the user and environment;
  • Removing unnecessary ingredients; and
  • Omitting ingredients that, for whatever reason, have been blacklisted.

Transparent labeling and eco-conscious packaging also were identified to play roles, but these were separated from the actual formula properties.

While industry groups and experts had trouble defining clean beauty, some consumers did not. A class action complaint in the U.S. Northern District of New York Court on Nov. 11, 2022, against Sephora USA alleged that the "Clean at Sephora" program was misleading to consumers and takes advantage of the vague regulations enforced in the cosmetics industry.6 The suit argues that with this label, consumers assume the products were formulated without parabens, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oils, formaldehyde and others.

The ISO has shown it is possible to set definitive guidelines for some vague terms being used in the cosmetic industry. It has proposed guidelines for calling ingredients or cosmetic formulations natural, naturally derived or organic and established very clear standards.7 Perhaps clean beauty could learn from this natural example.

For the full article read the June digital edition of C&T magazine.


  1. Stauffer, S. (1969, Dec). This is it: Clean make-up. Available at
  2. ElBoghdady, D. (2020, Mar 11). ‘Clean’ beauty has taken over the cosmetic industry, but that’s about all anyone agrees on. Available at
  3. Grabenhofer, R. (2022, Oct 19). Do recent moves in clean beauty mandate a sanctioned definition? Available at
  4. Xu, W. (2022, Oct 26). Asia-Pacific regulatory update: Testing, clean beauty, personalization, CBD, ingredient restrictions and more. Available at
  5. Gleason-Allured, J. and Grabenhofer, R. (2019, May 20). Clean beauty decoded. Available at
  6. Rizzi, C. (2022, Nov 15). Class action claims certain Sephora cosmetics not as ‘clean’ as advertised. Available at
  7. ISO 16128-1:2016. (2016, Feb). Guidelines on technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients and products — Part 1: Definitions for ingredients. Available at:

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