Why Clean Beauty is Not Enough

Posted by Liz Cook on

It's the catch-phrase of the year: clean.

Clean eating. Clean beauty. Clean fragrance. Clean, well, pretty much everything.

Clean living is a push toward a more transparent, sustainable, uncomplicated way of life. And it's a good thing.

But what about when clean isn't as clean as you think?


What do we want clean beauty to mean?

Most of us would say free from toxins, plant-based, natural, devoid of synthetics, sustainable and healthy.

But the word ‘clean’ has no clear definition in cosmetics, and is not regulated. It has been used to describe clean-smelling scents (fresh, airy and light, like those of citrus or fresh cotton), a minimum of ingredients used, less chemicals in the formula, the exclusion of certain ingredients proven to be harmful, more mindful creation processes, the banning of certain chemicals, vegan ingredients, or products that may contribute less to environmental pollution than the standard commercial formula.

It does not guarantee that your product is natural, non-toxic or healthy, cruelty-free or even environmentally friendly.

While the movement toward less synthetics and more natural ingredients is a great step toward a healthier body and environment, it is important to understand what ‘clean’ actually means, and what to look our for when you are making the switch to natural beauty and fragrance.


The ‘clean beauty’ movement really a business model and marketing tool than a set of strict rules of guidelines. Unfortunately, many brands are jumping on the bandwagon and using the word ‘clean’ to market their products, making consumers believe they are getting a more pure and natural product when this is not necessarily the case.

The clean beauty movement has proven so popular than major retailers, such as Sephora, Mecca and Neiman Marcus, have now jumped on board, with entire categories such as Clean Makeup, Clean Fragrance and Clean Beauty. Sephora’s “Clean at Sephora” range now includes 1563 products.

It’s a great start. We need to remove harmful ingredients from our fragrances and cosmetics. But clean is not as clean as you hope.

We investigated what Sephora’s definition of “clean” is, and what products they are including in their line-up, and this is what we found…

Clean at Sephora is a “formulated without” list, which currently bans 54 ingredients that have been proven to be toxic in the USA. For fragrance, the products are allowed to contain up to 1% synthetic ingredients. The major issue here is that of the approximately 5000 ingredients available for use in cosmetics, 75% of have never (and likely never will be) tested. That means around 1250 ingredients that are harmful but we may never know. Banning 54 ingredients is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough to ensuring your products are as safe as you’d like them to be.

In addition, the list of ingredients deemed as unsafe varies from country to country, with many ingredients banned in Europe still being widely used in the USA and Australia. 

We noticed that two of the major offending ingredients in synthetic fragrance – diethyl phthalate (DEP) and synthetic musk – are not even part of the banned list. Most fragrance brands (unless 100% natural) use DEP to denature their alcohol (make it bitter for safety reasons), which is a major problem for health an environment; DEP is a phthalate – a synthetic plasticiser, and a xenoestrogen which causes disruption to the reproductive systems of both humans and animals, and has been linked health issues such as depressed sperm motility and concentration, genital abnormality in baby boys, asthma, allergies, ADHD and diabetes. And it is persistent in environment, leading to contamination of waterways and significant, well-documented effects on fish and amphibians.

Of the seven “clean fragrances” listed on Sephora, not one of them is 100% natural, not one has fully disclosed ingredients (leaving you to guess what may or may not be in the bottle), all include synthetic fragrance, and all but one contain denatured alcohol (almost certainly using DEP as this is standard industry practice, and most perfumers alcohol comes pre-denatured with DEP).


Our opinion of the clean beauty movement? Synthetic perfume and cosmetics are doing us damage. But clean goes only part of the way. It’s a step in the right direction, but it isn’t truthful, and it isn’t giving us what we really want: products that are actually safe, healthy, honest and good for our planet.

The best way to find the products that meet your need for “clean beauty” is to know what you are looking for and get educated. Read ingredient lists, really get to know the brands you love, and demand full transparency so you know what is really in the bottle, and don’t rely on marketing trends. 

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