Clean Beauty Can Really Mean Anything: “Each Brand and Retailer Can Define What Clean Means To Them”
Clean beauty and its rules are continually reshaping within the beauty industry, with brands and retailers jumping on the buzz word but what does it truly mean to be ‘clean’. Clean beauty is becoming a word most synonymous with organic, cruelty-free and paraben-free products, but there is currently no actual definition or regulations governing what exactly the term ‘clean’ means. The term has nonetheless been picked up by major retailers and beauty brands who promise to sell products that mean their own self declared ‘clean beauty standards’. While some brands and retailers are defining clean as natural ingredients, others include eco-friendly packaging and social transparency.
Earlier this week, Target released a press release claiming they are adding thousands of new, affordable self care products to their shelves as part of a merchandising refresh. “Clean beauty is a big deal for our guests and for Target. Our guests are paying close attention to what they put in and on their bodies, from bath and skin care to vitamins and supplements,” said Cassandra Jones, SVP of Essentials and Beauty at Target. “I’m proud that we’re adding affordable products from new and current brands that meet our Target Clean standards for ingredient transparency,” she said in a statement.
We asked experts on their take on what ‘Clean’ in the beauty industry means and if it’s just another marketing buzz word, or does it hold some merit.
A vague concept leads to consumer confusion
“Saying ‘clean’ is an industry buzzword is like saying ‘organic’ is a buzzword. The difference between the two is the lack of clear definition around clean, which is starting to dilute the original intent of the movement,” said Jenn Szekely, President at Coley Porter Bell US.
“For years, people have been conscious about what they put in their body. The prolific use of chemicals and pesticides in foods led to the organic movement and now, organic is everywhere. Even mainstream stores like Walmart and large CPG companies like General Mills (with their Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen brands), have increased their organic offerings and brands. But what food has that beauty and personal care do not, is a clear standard for healthier and ‘clean’ options. The USDA establishment of the organic standards in 2002, expressed through the immediately recognized USDA organic symbol, makes it easy for consumers to understand how to navigate and judge healthier options,” she continued.
“A result of this lack of a standard is that each brand and retailer can define what ‘clean beauty’ means to them, and the consumer must do the same. It is very much like the ambiguity of the word ‘natural’ used on products, which has not been clearly defined, so is interpreted differently depending on the brand. The word natural does not mean a product is safer and, in many cases, it is used on products that are not too healthy. For example, Wesson Vegetable Oil is labeled ‘100% Natural’ but is made from GMO soybeans and made with hexane, something the EPA classifies as a hazardous air pollutant,” said Szekely.
She added: “The nail polish industry was one of the first in the beauty space to create awareness and a catchy way to communicate cleaner beauty, but in doing so caused confusion. Brands like OPI tout being ‘3 free’, free of 3 harmful ingredients, and brands like Essie have gone from ‘3 free to 8 free’. Over the last few years, we have seen brands like Basecoat and Trust Fund Beauty go so far to become ‘21 free’.”
“Consumers are now faced with so many different variants of ‘clean’ that it’s become near impossible to understand which chemicals are the most important to avoid and which they should worry less about. While many brands keep the conversation around ‘clean’ to mean ingredients that are not harmful to you, others are expanding the definition – blurring the lines between clean, sustainable and socially conscious.,” said Szekely.
‘Clean’ beauty claims may be anything but
Gavin McKay, Co-Founder of Everglades Skincare says, “Clean can mean so many different things related to the beauty industry and not everything categorized as clean is really clean. Our brand, Everglades Skincare, defines clean as ingredients not only safe for people but also the planet. So plastic packaging and resource-intensive ingredients are not considered “clean” by us. Two of the most thorough industry criteria for clean beauty would be the Credo Clean Standards and EWG (Environmental Working Green) Verified products.”
McKay added: “Our brand is eligible to become EWG verified, although we are not verified yet due to cost. EWG also has a skin deep database where you can search if a product’s ingredients are categorized as clean. Currently our only product is our Beautiful Buckthorn Cream, which is the first zero waste sea buckthorn cream.”
“Brands like Kind Science by Ellen and Ursa Major have sea buckthorn creams, but unfortunately they are packaged in plastic. Sea buckthorn has gained popularity over the last couple of years with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian integrating it into their skincare routine. It’s been found to have unique ant-inflammatory properties and reduce trans-epidermal water loss,” said McKay.
I have 15 years of experience in the retail industry including expertise in marketing, operations, merchandising, buying, shopping and technology. I am a speaker, consultant and former senior managing director of The School of Retailing, University of Alberta. My education includes a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from The University of Alberta in Marketing, Certificate in Real Estate and a Diploma in Fashion Merchandising and Buying from LasSalle College, a Canadian private school founded in 1959 by fashion designer Jean-Paul Morin.