Cleanwashing - Dirty Tactics You Need To Know

Posted by Liz Cook on

If you're passionate about a healthy lifestyle and beauty routine, you'll be very familiar with the term "clean". You may even search for products under the "clean" banner, preferring to exclude those products that are questionable in terms of their impact on your health and our environment. Great decision!

But are clean products genuinely better for us? Or is there something else going on in the world of clean beauty?


Firstly, let's define what is "clean".

The term "clean" is one that has evolved off the back of the "green" concept - where products were deemed to be closer to nature, or more environmentally-friendly. "Clean" is an evolved cultural concept that suggests a product is less harmful than a competitor product, and healthier for your body and the planet.

Clean suggests there is a standard.

But the term clean is actually subjective.

Clean is a marketing tactic, and not a defined standard.

Look at ten different brands who call themselves clean, and you will see ten different definitions and standards. What they all have in common is a list of exclusions, but those exclusions vary from brand to brand.

Now back to the term "Cleanwashing"; what exactly does it mean?

Cleanwashing is a method that is used to mislead consumers (sometimes deliberately) into believing that a product or brand is better for them despite a lack of evidence to support that suggestion.

Brands that cleanwash are a targeting rapidly growing sector of conscious consumers, and encourage us to believe that the more exclusions a product has, the purer or more natural it must be. In an effort to further buoy this perception, imagery used in marketing often includes nature themes - oceans, forests, flowers - despite a lack of natural ingredients used in the formulation.

In this way cleanwashing is designed to deceive.

It's a tactic that is overused, especially in the beauty world, where brands are jostling for consumer attention in a plethora of products, and has lead to marketplace confusion for the consumer.

Most consumers these days want to choose products that are healthier, and, let's face it, none of us has the time to spend researching everything we buy. Besides, when it comes to beauty products, those labels are downright confusing, so any help we can get goes a long way.

Brands who use terms like clean, natural, sustainable, or organic know that conscious consumers will make a beeline for these products. But these terms are meaningless unless the brand is fully transparent about their products - from sourcing to formulation.

Unfortunately because beauty standards are so lax in terms of labeling laws and ingredients, there is a massive opportunity for unscrupulous brands to simply engage in marketing slight-of-hand in order to win your vote (and your dollar).

Of course, there are brands who are genuinely making an effort to do the right thing - creating products integrity and transparency, and choosing non-toxic and natural ingredients wherever possible. Kudos to those brands - we love you!

But there are too many who are simply jumping on the trendy bandwagon in order to win consumer confidence.


Well, yes, absolutely.

It depends on the ingredients used in the formulation. Not just the ones they exclude, but the ones they include (more importantly).

As a consumer, you need to look closely at the ingredient list, and less at the marketing terms and the list of exclusions.

Even percentages can be deceiving; a product can claim to be 81% natural, but what is the other 19%? Clearly it's synthetic, and among that synthetic ingredient list is very likely to be ingredients that are known or suspected carcinogens, hormone disruptors and more.


If you have the time and energy to start learning about ingredients, that's a great idea. Education is empowerment, and it helps us to make better choices. But if you don't have the time or energy to head down that rabbit hole, here are some tips to help you avoid brands that are cleanwashing, and choose products that are actually better for you:


Does the company seem to be really clear about their mission, their formulations, the way they source ingredients? Do they have a policy to list every ingredient? (This is especially true of the perfume world where Trade Secret legislation permits brands to not disclose any ingredient they deem to be part of their intellectual property. That means up to 50% of ingredients in your perfume you will never know!)


Is the brand clear on what they value and what they are trying to achieve in the world? If there seems to be no clean mission to create safer, healthier products for people and planet, chances are the clean products they are offering are no cleaner than their competition.


Does it say 100% natural? If not, or it doesn't list the percentage of natural or organic ingredients, it indicates this isn't an important factor in the formulation. You an also look for official certifications, such as Certified Organic or Certified Toxin-Free.


Look past the pretty pictures, and sexy terminology. As humans we can be easily swayed by imagery and poetry, so try to be as objective as you can.


Know which words to look at for - which ones likely indicate a product is actually better for you, and which ones don't have much impact on whether a product is genuinely healthier or not. For example, cruelty-free or vegan (just means not animals were harmed, but the formula could still be a list of harmful synthetics), and even sustainable (that's a biggie - you read more about sustainability as a marketing tactic here).


Looking for more specific help on how to choose a truly natural fragrance for home or body? Head to this article.


← Older Post Newer Post →


healthy living lifestyle natural fragrances perfumery

Natural Swaps for the Top Five Women's Perfumes

By Liz Cook

Let's be honest - if you haven't made the switch to natural or at least cleaner fragrance yet, it's probably because you are totally hooked...

Read more
healthy living lifestyle

Meet Brianna Salerno: Clean Beauty Influencer

By Liz Cook

FULL NAME: Brianna Salerno CURRENT CAREER: Clean Beauty Advocate/ Ambassador/ Actress and Influencer. "I love creating beauty content and think it’s important to stand up...

Read more