What Is Clean Beauty Anyway?
These days, there are countless brands, products, and services that tout themselves as "clean beauty" or a "green beauty" brand… but with a lack of appropriate regulations and standards for use of these labels, it can be challenging to understand what these popular phrases actually mean.
Confusion surrounding this clean beauty or green beauty topic is both understandable and utterly crucial to clear up given that conscious consumerism is an important part of promoting environmental sustainability. While individuals cannot fix the climate crisis alone - nor should they feel the burden to do so - consumer behaviors have the potential to shape the course of the beauty industry, which is necessary for creating large-scale collective change.
What you choose to buy and also what you choose to not buy sends a message to businesses in this billion-dollar industry about what we as consumers will not just tolerate, but what we will actively support. The idea of "voting with your dollars" is one empowering component at the individual level of working towards the type of world we would like to live in.
The more individuals come to expect from the beauty industry in terms of taking responsibility for their environmental impact, the more brands will need to realize they must align with environmental sustainability. This alignment is key if they wish to be successful in a world that is increasingly seeing more environmentally-conscious consumers. This wave-of-the-future wake-up call to corporations might seem like a lot to be asking from a lipstick, but that’s where you come in!
All of us have the potential to be a more environmentally conscious consumer. One more voice speaking up to challenge unethical practices, wrongful treatment of human and beyond human beings, and devastation of our planet, all of which has been happening in the name of profit and corporate greed for decades. Yet, there has never been as much discussion about sustainability in the beauty industry as there is now, thanks to people just like you!
If you’ve landed on this page, no doubt you’re looking for a way to help comprehend what green beauty is all about. Maybe you’re looking for tips on how to transition your current products in your skincare or makeup bag to more sustainable swaps (If so, you may want to visit An Insider's Guide to Switching to Natural Cosmetics. Or maybe you’re still looking for a specific swap that actually works well enough to sub-in for a "holy grail" product you used to love for how it worked but not for the havoc it wreaked on the environment.
Whatever you’re searching for, we hope you’ll find it in this section of The Eco Hub all about - you guessed it - Clean Beauty. Since so much about interrupting the status quo to challenge confusing aspects of Clean beauty is about posing critical questions, we’re categorizing these overarching topics using the Five Ws — who, what, where, when, and why.
The Eco Hub’s Five Ws within Clean Beauty
To start, we covered why clean beauty is important and when you’ll want to ask questions about items you’re buying. Turning to the brands and products themselves, we’ll use the remaining three Ws to cover overarching topics that brands need to be actively doing work on in order to actually align themselves with integral aspects of clean beauty.
You already have your why about why clean beauty matters, because you know that your voice is a vote with your dollars telling brands you support those that support our environment. Keep this why in mind! Then when you’re thinking about a purchase, ask yourself about these three overarching aspects brands align themselves with as part of clean beauty:
- What is in this product? (Ingredient Transparency)
- Where are responsible business practices being modeled by the brand? (Corporate Environmental Commitment)
- Who can access and use this product? (Inclusivity)
Use these overarching categories of What, Where and Who, explained below, to break this big beauty concept down into bite-sized info that, armed with your why, you can refer to when contemplating your sustainable beauty-related choices.
How We Approach Clean Beauty?
Ingredient Transparency: What is in the product?
This first overarching category of Ingredient Transparency related to what’s in the product has three main components:
- Natural and/or non-toxic ingredients
- Cruelty-free ingredients (and practices)
- Vegan ingredients
Natural and/or non-toxic ingredients
At the ingredient level, perhaps one of the biggest reasons why people make the switch to clean beauty brands is because of how ingredient transparency relates to your HEALTH. The product should be upfront about exactly what is in the product and detail specific amounts or percentages of active ingredients (like Vitamin C) that are in it. Read more about Canadian Green Beauty Brands That Are Killing It.
There are many terms that fall into this category. Some claims that you’ve likely seen include products labeled as "organic" or "natural" to refer to the ingredients in the product. Others use terms such as "non-toxic" or "toxin-free", "chemical-free" or "paraben-free", "SLS-free" and others to refer to ingredients that are NOT included in the product (often because the brand wants to highlight that they are not including ingredients that many people see as harmful).
Whether the label is telling you what is or what isn’t in the product, be wary of "greenwashing" - providing misleading information in order to appear more environmentally friendly. For example, skincare or beauty products that make claims related to being "organic".
These may ring some alarm bells as currently in Canada there are no legal requirements for using this word in a skincare product (unlike the use of the term “organic” in relation to food products, which requires third-party certification). This means that for skincare in Canada, a product can use this label without it actually holding much weight.
Two other wide-sweeping labels that the beauty industry loves to use but may be misleading are words like “natural” or “chemical-free, especially as these can often be lumped together and used to describe a single product. Chemicals can be found in nature, so something that is natural isn’t always chemical-free. The opposite is also at play - just because something may have a chemical ingredient, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is not a natural ingredient.
The important part here is to not rely just on broad-sweeping labels like “organic”, “natural” and “chemical-free”. Be sure to read the actual ingredient label and note the dose (amount or percentage) of specific ingredients if they are promoted as a key part of the product.
For example, if you are buying a product because you like that it specifically contains squalane, check out the label or the company website to read what amount of squalane is in the product. If it’s not an appropriate amount, then pass on the product and save your money for something that is more likely to be effective.
While “chemical-free” may be too broad of a claim, companies love this label as it makes consumers feel safe about the ingredients. When reading labels, there are some chemical ingredients to watch out for. These are ingredients that are categorized as harmful or even toxic to our health but are still widely available in mainstream products.
Known as the “dirty dozen” or “dirty thirty” depending on who you’re asking, there are helpful guides to explain and help you avoid these “dirty” ingredients. Popular examples include sodium Laureth sulfate (SLS), parabens, talc, etc.
Another support you can use to find out more information about a product - if you can’t determine enough info from their label or website - is to search for a product or brand in the Environmental Working Group (EWG) database.
This database can be helpful for determining and avoiding ingredients that are harmful but still legally allowable in products today. Did you know that there are currently 1300 ingredients banned for use in personal care products, such as skincare and beauty, in the European Union, but only 500 are banned in Canada? In the United States, there are currently only 11 (!) ingredients banned for use in personal care products. The EWG-verified mark identifies products that are certified by them as not including these toxic ingredients (see the bottom of the page for a note about third-party certifications).
The absence of these “dirty” ingredients is usually one of the first characteristics of a clean beauty brand. It is also a strong reason why many people turn to clean beauty brands rather than mainstream brands because they are looking out for their health. Some people also have specific allergies and sensitivities to chemicals or ingredients that are widely used in mainstream beauty products and seek out sustainable beauty alternatives with minimal ingredients.
Cruelty-free ingredients and practices
A second highly compelling reason why people make the switch to clean beauty brands is because of how ingredient transparency relates to ANIMAL TESTING.
A brand that claims to be truly cruelty-free means their brand:
- Does not test on animals at any point in manufacturing a product or test the final product on animals
- Does not use ingredients in their products that test or were tested on animals
- Does not sell their products in countries where animal testing is required by law
- Is not owned by a parent company that uses animal testing, ingredients that use animal testing, or sells products in countries where animal testing is required by law
Do you notice a cute little bunny icon on any of your sustainable beauty products? That mark means the brand has been approved by The Leaping Bunny Program. Leaping Bunny is a third-party certification program that is seen as the “gold standard” for identifying verified cruelty-free brands in personal care and household products.
Another helpful resource for finding out more information about the cruelty-free status of your favorite brand is to check out Cruelty-free Kitty. This website has been around since 2014 and has a 700+ brand database to make it easy to identify and shop cruelty-free sustainable beauty.
Check out some Canadian cruelty-free brands we love here like Basd, Wildcraft, and more in the Brand Directory.
You may be surprised that this third highly compelling reason of VEGANISM for why people turn to clean beauty isn’t included in the category above. While both being cruelty-free and being vegan are intertwined with animal justice, they are different!
A brand or product that claims to be vegan means it does not contain animal ingredients or ingredients derived directly from animal products or indirectly from animal by-products.
An example of this is found in our squalane example. Plant-based squalane is derived from olives, versus animal-based squalane which is derived from sharks. It can be difficult to know if an ingredient like squalane in your product is from plants or animals, so this is where it is important to read the labels and do some online digging for more info if needed.
It sounds a bit strange but a brand can be vegan without being cruelty-free or be cruelty-free without being vegan. Often in the industry, you won’t see brands that are not cruelty-free try to label themselves as a clean or green beauty brand. This is because animal testing is seen as such a key part of what makes a brand “green” or environmentally conscious (thank goodness!).
BUT you will see brands that are cruelty-free but not 100% vegan and this can be complex. There may be ingredients that are vegetarian (i.e., not containing animal flesh a.k.a. meat) but contain animal by-products like dairy. There may be ingredients that are vegetarian, non-dairy, and do not contain by-products from mammals but are not vegan because they do contain ingredients from insects or mollusks. Popular examples of this are products that contain honey or snail muchin.
Whether these brands that are not vegan should be seen as “clean beauty brands” can be tricky as there are no regulation standards. Some people feel that all forms of using animal ingredients or ingredients from living species like bees are also automatically a practice that is not cruelty-free. They would see this as vegan and cruelty-free going hand-in-hand. It is up to you to make that decision for yourself, though we have resources to help get you started. Check out brands like Lines of Elan, Lovefresh, and more in the Brand Directory.
Clean Beauty & Corporate Responsibility
Corporate Environmental Commitment: Where are responsible business practices being modeled by the brand?
This second overarching category of Corporate Environmental Commitment related to where responsible business practices are being modeled by the brand also has three main components:
- Ethical sourcing
- Environmentally-conscious packaging
- Corporate responsibility
At the brand level, one of the first important factors environmentally-conscious consumers think about in determining if a clean beauty brand is if the brand is ETHICAL.
A brand that claims to be sustainable or clean should be upfront about not just what is inside their products, but also all the factors that go into producing and selling them as well. Ethical sourcing primarily centers around ensuring that products are made in responsible and sustainable ways.
This includes issues of:
- human rights, to guarantee workers are paid fair wages and are operating within safe and clean working conditions
- environmental impact, to guarantee that climate-friendly production methods are being followed
- social impact, to guarantee that the people involved in creating the product are not marginalized or exploited and given tools for improving their futures
There should be a clear indication of where ingredients are sourced from and how they are sourced. Luckily there are some regulation certifications in place to determine if a brand is meeting ethical standards for sourcing its products.
For example, you may have seen the blue, green, and black Fairtrade symbol on your bag of coffee beans. This certification indicator ensures that workers are treated fairly (human rights), given opportunities to invest in their futures (social impact) and the corporation meets the criteria to adhere to environmental standards (environmental impact).
One important aspect to note is that regulation certifications can actually be cost-prohibitive to many small or “boutique” brands. There are clean beauty brands that could very well be engaging in ethical sourcing but don’t have the capacity to apply for third-party certification.
This capacity includes having both the staff time to complete the lengthy paperwork and the financial means to pay the fees involved in certification. Consequently, it’s always important to ask and connect with the people who are making your products instead if possible.
Think of this as similar to the slow food movement and connecting with a food vendor at your local farmer’s market. You want to know more about what you’re buying, so you ask questions to find out where and how they grow the fruits and vegetables they’re selling.
Reaching out to a clean beauty brand online, in-person or over the phone is a great way to find out this info if it’s not easily available through certification indicators. For more on this, see the note near the bottom of the page.
A second consideration of whether a company can really be seen as a clean beauty brand is all about WASTE. Waste minimization and management is a complicated topic all on its own. When applied to clean beauty, there can be a lot of nuances involved. For this specific section, we’ll talk about the waste involved in packaging, but waste created in the supply change is also something to think about.
For example, the term “zero waste” is a buzzword that arguably may not exist. We do not live in a circular economy and our western society’s treatment of waste definitely has a lot of room for improvement. As such, zero waste is not possible. Anyone or any brand claiming to be zero waste is likely not taking into account other aspects of waste that they may not see.
Instead, the term “low-waste” is more appropriate for brands that make strong commitments to minimize what is their packaging is destined for landfill. Check out 15 Sustainable Low-Waste Canadian Skincare Brands for a handy list of Canadian companies committed to supporting your low-waste lifestyle. When a brand says it sells its products in low-waste packaging, there are some things to think about.
First, you may want to ask: Is this packaging easily recyclable as is, or can it be easily taken apart by the consumer to properly sort and recycle?
Often beauty products are made from multiple materials and cannot be recycled as they are.
For example, even a glass bottle still typically has plastic or rubber parts to it (usually in a lid or a dropper for serums) and you can’t just throw this into your recycling bin. Brands with strong waste minimization values will tend to give clear instructions on how to disassemble their products for recycling, or how to reuse packaging once it's empty.
Another support is for brands to partner with Terracycle. Terracycle is a company that collects very difficult to recycle items and turns them into new materials to keep these items out of the cycle of waste.
For clean beauty, this is a way to take back packaging that a consumer cannot easily break down to sort and recycle properly themselves. Clean beauty brands who do this set up a Terracycle drop-off box in-store or communicate to consumers where they can drop off or send their packaging back to be recycled.
Another question to ask: Is this packaging made from recycled materials or from the waste itself? With so much waste in the world, sustainable beauty brands will demonstrate their values by packaging their product in a way that also combats our global waste problems.
Brands that do this actually collect and repurpose existing waste, removing it from our waterways and from landfill, to give discarded items a new purpose. An example of this is plastic packaging that is made from plastic littering our lands and oceans.
One of the biggest problems with plastic is that we aren’t disposing of it properly. But, changing how we manage plastic waste can help to take away its negative impact.
For example, The Body Shop’s partnership with the Plastics for Change campaign means their products are being packaged in the world’s first ethically-traded plastic. This plastic is sourced in India where women act as unofficial waste pickers since the country has no formal garbage collection.
These waste pickers are seen as some of the most marginalized women in the world. This campaign helps to support these women by ensuring they are receiving a fair wage and then using this plastic for The Body Shop’s packaging.
Another great question to ask: Is this packaging compostable - and does my local compost center actually allow this item into compost?
Some clean beauty brands will try to avoid recycling issues entirely by having fully biodegradable packing that can be composted. The key here is to ensure that your local waste management system (i.e., your waste pick-up or drop-off center) actually accepts these types of items in your local compost!
This can be frustrating because something can be biodegradable, but it must also be an allowable item in your area’s compost or organics center.
If it is not an allowable item, then it will be rejected from compost and marked as garbage. Assuming it goes to a landfill, once there, these items will not actually be able to break down properly. This is because they won’t be getting the appropriate exposure to moisture, bacteria, and oxygen needed to actually compost.
A final question to ask: Can I skip out on new packaging for this product entirely?
It may seem counterintuitive, but perhaps the greatest way to have sustainable beauty packaging is to have no packaging at all!
Some clean beauty brands do a great job of offering package-free items, such as shampoo tablets instead of bottles. There has also been a big shift to reusable sustainable beauty accessories to use with products, such as Reusable Cotton Rounds.
Others sell products that can be refilled, like the Canadian clean beauty brand Elate Cosmetics. You have the option to purchase their original product in gorgeous bamboo palettes, then switch out your empty eye shadows, blushers, and more for replacements that arrive with only the product, none of the excess packagings.
Another way to cut down on packaging waste? Use your own! Some clean beauty brands can even be purchased in your own container from refill stores that stock local clean beauty products in bulk (like Eco & Amour).
Overall, allow yourself to transition your clean beauty products to those with less packaging waste over time, not all at once - this won’t do your sanity or your wallet any favors! Instead, it’s important to do this slowly and have a plan - for support in doing this in a way that’s right for you.
A third and final consideration of whether a brand is a clean beauty brand is if it is aligned with ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY.
Typically, these brands are doing more to ensure that in making their product they are not making a mess of the earth. One well-known certification standard for corporate responsibility mixed with social and environmental standards is B Corporation. Clean beauty brands that are Certified B Corporations are legally required to run their practices with environmental impact in mind.
Many brands have also started to realize it’s not enough to just minimize their impact on the earth but to actively try to make the world a better place.
Through consumers demanding accountability, many brands are seeing the need to move from net-zero impact (that is, no negative impact on the earth) to a net-positive approach in which the company’s impact positively affects the earth for the better.
An example of this is providing carbon offsets to mitigate the negative effects of operating the business, or to offset flights for work-related travel.
Another way clean beauty brands are demonstrating corporate responsibility is through charitable giving. By donating a portion of profits to a designed charity or mission, these companies are able to show that they support justice for people and the planet.
Who can access and use this product?
This third and final overarching category of Inclusivity related to who can access and use the product also has two main components:
- Equity and cost (who can afford these products?)
- Representation (who do these products appeal to?)
Equity and cost:
Let’s face it - clean beauty doesn’t often come cheap! Mainstream consumerism is not (yet!) rooted in a default setting of ethical, cruelty-free, vegan, non-toxic, environmentally-committed practices that are always sold in affordable, eco-conscious packaging. Going plastic-free is difficult because of how pervasive plastic is in our lives.
This means that these clean beauty products are often priced a lot higher than non-sustainable options. Sometimes, the price differences can be so high that they are cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of consumers. This isn’t the fault of consumers. It is just an unfortunate reality.
For example - you may have found a product you love that is non-toxic, cruelty-free, vegan, and ethically sourced, from a B Corporation-certified, Canadian company - and it’s a product that actually works for you and is affordable. Sounds perfect, right?
BUT what if this product is available only in plastic and doesn’t have a refillable or minimal packaging option that is easier to recycle than through TerraCycle? Do you use it up only to never buy it again because it’s not “perfect” in terms of clean beauty?
Nope! We do not live in a perfect circular economy, and it is not fair to assume consumers are able to - or should have to - carry the burden of being perfect. Guess what? Perfect doesn’t exist.
This is why it is so important that choosing clean beauty (and making sustainability a part of your life overall) not be an all-or-nothing approach. There are compromises that can and need to be made, and it doesn’t make you any “less” of a conscious consumer for choosing the pathways into sustainability that make sense for you and your loved ones.
As Anne Marie Bonneau says, we don’t need one person doing zero waste perfectly; we need a million people doing it imperfectly in order to make a difference.
Foregoing guilt and shame tied to any one idea of how to “be” sustainable when it comes to clean beauty will allow the industry to be more inclusive overall as we work towards equity through affordable brands and products.
This last category of REPRESENTATION is perhaps the most important of all. The simple fact is that for a company to be a legitimately inclusive clean beauty brand, their products need to appeal to all consumers and all consumers need to be able to use their products if they wanted to.
Brands have missed the mark in the past by making assumptions about their audience. Typically this has been an assumption tied to the systemic racism that all consumers fit into one “type” of consumer, which is largely based on a white demographic and not on BIPOC.
Clean beauty brands that say they value inclusivity need to demonstrate this, for example, by providing a wide variety of shade ranges for foundations and concealers that are inclusive of BIPOC skin tones, providing hair products that work for different hair types, and valuing diversity in the operation of their brand.
Brands should be operating with a staff that reflects diverse voices and experiences. Marketing campaigns and promotional materials should also include BIPOC.
As an environmentally-conscious consumer, it is also important to be seeking out and supporting brands that are owned and operated by BIPOC. Here at The Eco Hub, we’ve featured brands that can help get you started; check out 10 Black-Owned Canadian Sustainable Businesses.
Keep in mind: A note about the 5Ws within the Clean Beauty approach
This approach to using the 5Ws within Clean Beauty serves as a starting point to help support informed choices you make in your daily life. As clean beauty evolves, so will the questions we ask of the industry and so will the possible categories that will emerge (e.g., more whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys).
The important thing is to keep asking critical questions and connect with the people behind the products you have purchased or are considering purchasing.
While it’s not about asking your one lipstick or one concealer to clean up the climate crisis, it is about checking for clarity in what is being sold to you and being a champion for sustainability in as many ways as you can. Through clean beauty, it really is possible to take individual steps towards environmental action that can start right in your makeup bag, in your bathroom, and in literally looking in the mirror. The next time you do that you can smile, knowing there is a whole community right here that has your back.
A note about third-party verifications (EWG, Leaping Bunny, B Corporation):
An important point to make is that third-party verifications like the EWG-verified mark, the Leaping Bunny program label, and others are a helpful way to identify brands that are compliant with their requirements. These certifications are usually seen as appropriate for identifying a brand as a sustainable beauty brand.
However, just because a company is not certified does not automatically mean that it is not a clean beauty brand. These certification processes can be lengthy and expensive, involving a lot of paperwork and fees. It may mean that some great companies, especially small boutique companies, are not certified because they do not have the resources to go through this process.
Don’t count these companies out! Real clean beauty brands have real people with real visions and missions that they stand behind in their products - and they will want to share this information with you. The best thing you can do is contact a brand to ask questions about their sustainability-related policies and practices and find out for yourself if this is a brand you feel good about supporting.
Final Thoughts On Clean Beauty
In summary, clean beauty can refer to multiple aspects of a brand’s commitment to the health and wellness of ourselves and our planet. Overall, “sustainable beauty” can be much more complex than everyday consumers may expect.
Ideally, there should be regulations and standards in place to simplify this process for everyone so it is easy to know what corporate visions and practices you are supporting when you support a brand.
Lacking regulations in the usage of the term “clean beauty” or "sustainable beauty" means we all need to do some more of the legwork to determine for ourselves if a brand aligns with our own values that we feel constitute clean beauty. This currently isn’t as easy as it should be - consumers shouldn’t need to act as investigative journalists to decode whether a brand is actually sustainable or if it is greenwashing in disguise!
We hope to simplify this stressful process by equipping you with The Eco Hub’s Five Ws within Clean Beauty. In summary:
- You already have your why about why clean beauty matters, because you know that your voice is a vote with your dollars telling brands you support those that support our environment. Keep this why in mind!
- When you’re thinking about a purchase, ask yourself about these three overarching aspects brands align themselves with as part of clean beauty:
- What is in this product? This Ingredient Transparency relates to non-toxic, often vegan-only ingredients without any animal testing involved;
- Where are responsible business practices being modeled by the brand? This Corporate Environmental Commitment relates to ethical sourcing, environmentally-conscious packaging, and corporate responsibility;
- Who can access and use this product? This Inclusivity relates to equity and cost as well as an appropriate representation of all consumers
So while we don’t (yet!) have regulations and standards, it makes it all the more important to ask these questions and be mindful of these multiple aspects of sustainable beauty.
This is a pivotal first step towards demonstrating a need for these standards to be put in place and for more and more brands to make serious commitments to align with all aspects of sustainability in clean beauty.
SUSTAINABLE CLEAN BEAUTY GUIDES:
- Zero Waste Makeup Brands
- Vegan Shampoo Bars
- Best Zero Waste Shampoo Bars
- Best Natural Organic Face Moisturizers
- All-Natural Retin Alts
- The Right Way To Cleanse Your Face With Oil
- Natural and Organic Body Wash
- Where to find affordable natural makeup
- Zero Waste Floss
- The Best non-toxic perfume
- Natural and Organic Face Wash
- The best hand sanitizers
- Eco-Friendly Loofahs
- Zero Waste Deodorant
- Zero Waste Toothpaste
- Zero Waste Sunscreen
- Organic Lipstick Brands
- Natural Makeup removers
- Zero Waste Mascara
- Zero Waste Razors
- Cruelty-free & vegan toothpaste
- Non-Toxic Shampoo
- Eco-friendly shampoo and conditioner
- How to create a zero waste bathroom
- How to achieve a zero waste period
- Low Waste Skincare Brands
- Zero Waste Beauty Products from Canada
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