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NOW READING Uncovering The Truth About What “Clean Beauty” Really Means
January 21, 2021

Uncovering The Truth About What “Clean Beauty” Really Means

The true definition of “Clean Beauty” has become confusing, so we’re sharing the facts with you. 


If you’re struggling to understand what a “clean” beauty brand is, you’re not alone. According to a survey of female consumers in 2019, clean means one of three things: it’s “natural,” contains “less harsh chemicals,” or is “cruelty-free.” None of these terms, however, are mentioned by the FDA, so let’s start at the beginning.


Clean Beauty


What Gets FDA Approval?


According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, “The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market.” That leaves a whole lot to the discretion of manufacturers. And since most consumers don’t realize that “cosmetic products” include everything from mascara to body lotion, it’s no wonder they struggle to understand or even pinpoint the meaning of “clean.”


How the FDA Defines “Cosmetics” 


The FDA’s definition is not something to summarize or abbreviate, so, in full transparency, here it is:


“The FD&C Act defines cosmetics by their intended use, as ‘articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance’ (FD&C Act, sec. 201(i)). Among the products included in this definition are skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants, as well as any substance intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product. It does not include soap. (To learn what products are considered ‘soap’ for regulatory purposes, see ‘Soap.’”


Patricia (Patti) Pao, Founder and CEO of Restorsea
Patricia (Patti) Pao, Founder, and CEO of Restorsea


So, Who Defines Clean?


As a general rule, buzzwords turn me off. Maybe it’s because of my academic background as a college professor, or perhaps it stems from my inherent distrust of marketing thanks to infomercials and multi-level marketing. Isolating a singular definition for “clean” beauty has me even more confused. And the reason for that is simple: “There is no standardized organic certification,” explains Patricia (Patti) Pao, Founder, and CEO of Restorsea – a dermatologist-endorsed, clean skincare brand. With honesty and transparency at the forefront of her brand, Pao “prefers to use the term ‘naturally-derived’” instead. Still confused?


Two of the more commonly known definitions of clean beauty come from and Sephora: 


  • “Clean beauty is made without ingredients shown or suspected to harm human health.” –
  • The ‘Clean At Sephora’ seal applies to products “formulated without parabens, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oils, formaldehyde, and more.”



An Overview of Parabens, Sulfates and Mineral Oil



Since these three items referenced above are frequently cited as things to avoid in clean beauty, I turned to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review because they “review and assess the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased, and expert manner, and publish the results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.” Alternative sources for ingredients and opinions abound, but as an academic, I prefer the “just the facts” approach, so I don’t have to decipher a provider’s underlying intent. That said, here we go…


  • Parabens prevent products from biodegrading and growing bacteria. Many organizations have raised concerns about parabens accumulating in the body and disrupting the way hormones function. According to the CIR’s 248-page 2019 Safety Assessment report, which takes “endocrine activity, dermal sensitization and epidemiological studies” into consideration, “the available evidence suggests no significant association of parabens exposure with diseases or other adverse health conditions. The panel also noted that refined aggregate exposure models suggest that cosmetic product use is a major source of parabens exposure. However, the vast quantity of biomonitoring data indicates that systemic exposure to these ingredients is very low.” Given their role in preserving product integrity and the lack of a concrete connection between parabens and disease, the jury is still officially out on this one. Yes, parabens are on many “ingredients to avoid lists,” so it’s best to go with your gut here.


  • Sulfates, particularly sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are foaming cleansing agents. To remove dirt, makeup, pollution, and sunscreen, you need more than just plain water and a towel. While sulfates are said to be safe and effective, SLS and SLES can strip away the skin’s natural oils and undermine your skin’s barrier function resulting in redness or itching. As a proponent of balanced pH cleansers, I generally avoid these ingredients since there are so many gentler, equally-effective alternatives on the market.


  • Mineral Oil, a petroleum derivative, may or may not be a no-go for you, depending on your feelings about fossil fuel. You may also want to avoid it if you have acne-prone skin. The biggest concern most people have with mineral oil is whether or not it is comedogenic. The majority of research emphasizes the safety and efficacy of mineral oil as a skin softener and moisturizing agent. If you’re already prone to clogged pores, you may want to steer clear of this one. But if you have dry skin and are trying to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL), it may be worth giving mineral oil a patch test on your skin as it is a solid occlusive – in other words, it helps seal in moisture. 


Of course, if you have reservations about using the aforementioned ingredients, it’s always important to check with a skilled skincare professional. 


Ready to learn more about clean beauty options and what two leading clean brands have to offer? Part two is coming soon!

Tracy is a "quality over quantity" word girl fascinated by eagles and life in a small SoCal mountain community. She believes in the now, has written professionally for 30+ years, and worships at the alters of serum and Sulwhasoo.



In many ways I think that the term "clean" beauty is a buzz word much like anti aging. I've always told my clients that the only way to prevent aging is to stop living. We all age and if we are doing responsible things such as not smoking, wearing SPF, sleeping etc we'll be fine.

The one trend that concerns me about "clean beauty" is when I hear "preservative free" as an example. Products need preservatives of some sort, especially if water is in the formulation. Honestly, I like to look at clinical studies , ingredients present and how those... Read more

"Preservative free" scares the life out of me. As a longtime K-beauty fan, I remember when DIY cushion cases came out. In a premade product, the base makeup contained tons of preservatives because the product was housed in a sponge inside a plastic case. The DIY cases were marketed as a way to mix or blend your products to achieve a customized version (great, in theory, if you're between foundation shades). More than one K-beauty fan ended up with mold in the DIY case because the preservatives in each product were insufficient for the new blend. Scary stuff!

That is horrifying. Truly. I think the preservative free comes out of the idea of not having parabens which by the way hasn't been definitively proven to be harmful or harmless. But, preservatives are definitely needed.

You're absolutely right, Stephanie, which is why researching is so important. I've never been one to adopt a trend, or remove a product from my life, without doing my own homework. With easy access to quality information, there's no reason to take anything at face value.


Yeah. I agree. There are safe preservatives thats chemical free but you'll have to pay a bit more for them

I am such an ingredient junkie, so I love the details offered in this article. I think we have all heard these terms and understand they are to be avoided, but Tracy does well to show us why by defining each and how and why it is used in ingredient lists. A good read for sure!

Jenny, you're always very kind. I love that you're an ingredient nerd, too. I was never very interested in science in school, but skincare changed all that. And much like studying the intricacies of wine making (another one of my passions), skincare formulas fascinate me to no end! Never too late to learn!

Sounds like we may need have a girls night of wine drinking (I am a huge wine nerd as well, and work as an ambassador for a wine brand!) and skincare!

I still remember when all these issues came to light. These ingredients can be found everywhere! Sometimes though you have to take the good and the bad. What I mean is this; you have found a wonderful face cream that gives you tremendous results and it's 90% clean. Do you sacrifice having that one ingredient you're thinking you shouldn't be exposing yourself to? I look at everything more like a whole. If this was my dilemma, I would counteract with a cleaner shampoo, or deodorant. Why? Your health can viewed like a numbers game and where the numbers go up... Read more

Excellent point, Jody! I do this with food - balancing the healthy meal with a tiny slice of cheesecake. If something is working for you -- especially a moisturizer -- there are always ways to offset your exposure to problematic ingredients.

I’m very skeptical of any dermatologists recommendations after I found out that they were doing back door dealings with “clean brands” for a kickback.
I wish that instead of just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “I dunno 🤷🏻‍♀️,” that someone would come together to come up with an actual standard, and that these doctors and scientists would do longitudinal , peer reviewed studies on the effects of said ingredients. I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t get funding for it.

I agree with you wholeheartedly!

Tracy, very informative. You break down the facts in such a clear and concise way, making it easy for everyone to understand.

Thank you for the compliment, Deborah! Once a teacher, always a teacher. :)


It can be really hard to know what is "clean" or "healthy" and there's also the challenge of balancing efficiency. I didn't know that mineral oil comes from fossil fuels, so I'll work on eliminating that moving forward! Thanks for starting the conversation on the ever so important topic of health and safety in beauty.

You're welcome, pretty lady. Clean beauty is a MASSIVE topic, so be on the lookout for two more installments.


Avoiding products with Parabens and Sulfates. Great article!


There is so much marketing around clean beauty. Thank you for sharing this story as it’s very eye opening. The bottom line is trust your gut + check in with the doctors/experts about what you should be using on your face and body.

Absolutely spot-on, Elycia. For years, I taught an advertising component in my college English courses for this exact reason. Understanding that marketers and consumers have very different goals helps consumers cut through the clutter to get down to the facts.


This is very good-to-know info. Thanks for sharing this, now we can choose better products for our skin since we already know what are the safe-to-use ones.

Happy to help, Kathy. And remember to get in touch with your Verified Beauty Expert. They will often do additional research for you to ensure you pick the best products for your needs.


There is a big debate of natural, clean, organic, vegan, and good ole synthetics. I attended a forum by WWD with some very reputable chemists and formulators. And the most important lesson that I got out of the talk was that there is no clear answer on what's best in terms of efficacy and price. I think this is like music or a really comes down to your own beliefs and preferences.

I hope more consumers adopt this practice, James, and avoid buying based on buzz words. Advertising will always play on our fears and needs, but we need to be diligent when making choices because the interests of advertisers and the interests of consumers are very, very different.