Clean beauty is an awesome movement dedicated to removing toxins from makeup.
It can be confusing, however, due to all the terms used by clean beauty advocates, which is why we introduced our clean beauty glossary.
In this clean beauty glossary, you’ll find all the terms you need to understand the clean beauty movement.
Plus, you will be able to choose beauty products that are the best that the beauty industry has to offer.
Research from Keele University shows that aluminum powder in beauty products such as sunscreen (opt for the natural sunscreens to avoid aluminum) is highly concerning for human health.
The powder has been linked to Alzheimer’s in some research and is considered very toxic when used in the laboratory.
There is also evidence that links it to organ-system toxicity and it may also act as a hormone disruptor. While the evidence isn’t cut and dried for these ill effects as yet, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and clean beauty products tend to avoid aluminum powder in favor of natural ingredients.
The beauty industry is a major part of the economy. A report from BLS Data shows that, in the United States alone, it employs over 670,000 people and is a fast-growing sector.
Clean beauty is a part of the beauty industry (you can learn much more about this in our favorite clean beauty books) which focuses on makeup and skincare products that use non-toxic ingredients.
As a new sector of the industry, it is not, yet, clear how many people are involved in clean beauty or what the sector is worth – however, it is growing rapidly and is expected to make up an ever-growing share of the entire sector in the future.
Biodynamic is a relatively new trend in plant-derived ingredients.
And they use techniques to keep their land wild and they focus on indigenous knowledge to enhance that wildness. They may even plant according to ancient lunar cycles.
BHA is an acid – a beta hydroxy acid – in fact. There are many different forms of BHA such as salicylic acid (salicylate, willow extract, aspirin), beta hydroxybutanoic acid, topic acid, and trethocanic acid.
The FDA claim this is a perfectly safe addition to your skincare routine. Then, they advise you to test it carefully on yourself as, unlike natural beauty products, those containing BHAs are prone to causing violent allergic reactions in some people.
We’d say avoid it unless you have to use it. Clean beauty is all about avoiding the possibly toxic as well as the actually toxic. Our favorite clean eye creams have no BHAs in them.
We’d also note that some products contain AHA which is an alpha hydroxy acid (Citric acid) to be precise. There are no major concerns regarding AHA at the moment.
BHT is butylated hydroxytoluene. A recent PubMed study showed that this is one of a range of known or suspected toxins that is metabolized in the body and which causes liver damage in rats. It is also an irritant and has cancer-promoting properties.
It is used as a stabilizer in many cosmetic products. So look out for it on the label or listen to clean beauty podcasts to get a better indication of what is and isn’t a clean beauty product.
Blue beauty was started by Jeannie Jarnot, according to Beauty Heroes, and it involves moving beyond green beauty product inspiration and instead, creating products that help to regenerate, improve and repair the environment in their manufacturing process or by other means.
This is similar to the ideas that drive circular fashion in the fashion industry.
Let’s be clear about this, there’s no such thing as chemical-free. Literally, everything on the planet today is made out of chemicals. The only thing in the universe which is “chemical-free” is a vacuum.
However, in clean beauty, the term chemical-free may simply refer to products that don’t contain any toxic chemicals. So, someone might consider Pacifica products, for example, to be chemical-free.
We prefer to skip the sunshine and opt for natural self-tanners because there’s less chance of skin cancer that way.
But chemical sunscreens are the kind of beauty products that might not do you any harm, but instead, they do harm to the planet.
TIME magazine reports that they can contaminate the water environment, bleach coral (or kill it), cause reproductive system failures in fish, sea urchins, and mussels and lead to birth defects.
That’s not clean beauty in our book.
Clean Beauty Products
Clean beauty products are those made without the use of toxic chemicals. They may or may not be sustainable, vegan, cruelty-free, etc. and though the different forms of beauty often overlap – all that clean beauty means is that your makeup is free from toxins.
You can find our favorite clean beauty products here.
Cruelty-free products involve no animal-derived ingredients, are not tested on animals, and are often certified cruelty-free too.
If a product is vegan, you can be sure it’s also cruelty-free. Otherwise, you will need to check the packaging and read it carefully to ensure that what you’re buying is cruelty-free.
We’ve got a list of cruelty-free makeup brands to get you started.
ECOCERT is a form of certification that allows you to have some form of certainty that your clean beauty items are, indeed, environmentally friendly and produced using socially conscious practices.
They work alongside other certification providers, such as those certifying organic farmers, to provide as wide a level of coverage as possible. We should note, however, that, for example, certified organic does not mean certified cruelty-free or vice-versa.
EDTA or ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is a substituted diamine that is used widely in makeup formulation.
It is known to produce toxic reactions in human beings and animals and though, a recent PubMed paper asserts that you don’t get enough EDTA from a beauty product to reach the strength known to cause harm to humans, any clean beauty advocate would tell you that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
We recommend using The Beauty Geek’s Guide to Skincare Products to find alternatives to your usual products that don’t contain EDTA.
Fair Trade is a practice that ensures that the people who make the products that you use are paid a fair wage for their labor and that their working conditions are conducive to their health and their dignity.
We’ve found that most clean beauty brands are fair trade or, at least, based in Western countries where minimum standards are laid down under law for the treatment of individuals.
It’s worth looking out for fairtrade certification when you buy beauty products though and indeed, we also recommend fair trade coffee.
Yes, formaldehyde, the stuff that they inject into the veins of the dead to preserve them before a funeral is often found in makeup.
Worse, for clean beauty advocates, it can even be found in cosmetic products when it doesn’t appear on the label according to a research team from Vilnius University!
It is known to cause skin rashes and irritation among other side effects. If you can opt for non-toxic brands such as these non-toxic nail polish brands to avoid formaldehyde.
Gluten is a wheat protein and we need to be clear that medical professionals say that gluten is only a problem in products or your diet if you suffer from coeliac disease.
However, many other people claim to have sensitivities to gluten and if that’s you, you should buy products that are specifically labeled gluten-free (such as our vegan foundations) as gluten is not automatically excluded from clean beauty products.
GMO stands for genetically-modified organisms. Now, we should stress that all available scientific evidence says that GMO is a safe technique that causes no harm to those consuming GMO products.
Genetically modified organisms have been extensively tested and the United States, in particular, promotes the use of genetically modified organisms.
However, as always, clean beauty demands that we err on the side of caution wherever possible and opt for GMO-free products. So, you might want to consider something like the Love Goodly subscription box which guarantees no GMO ingredients.
We need to point out that GreenBeauty is, in fact, a company. However, Green Beauty is an umbrella term that covers sustainable beauty products that use certified organic ingredients, cruelty-free ingredients, and from sustainable and renewable sources.
To fully understand the range of organic ingredients that can be used in beauty products, may we recommend the Atlas of Natural Beauty which is, perhaps, the best guide to sustainable beauty ingredients ever put together.
This skin lightening agent is super controversial, not least because it can cause darkening of your skin (a side effect known as exogenous ochronosis to dermatologists).
We recommend that you avoid hydroquinone and use a natural foundation to smooth out any blotches in your skincare routine. If hydroquinone damages your skin, the damage is irreversible and plus, skin lightening is, generally speaking, considered poor form in the 202x’s.
Hypoallergenic is meant to indicate that a product is less likely to cause allergic reactions than other products.
The only problem with this? As the FDA says, there’s absolutely no official definition of hypoallergenic nor a list of hypoallergenic ingredients.
That means you’re at the mercy of the company selling you the product as to whether the ingredients collected are even known to be less allergy-inducing.
The only time that you can really take the label seriously is when you’re using a single chemical such as vegan collagen. As this has been widely tested on people, and there are no major reports of allergies, you can consider it “hypoallergenic”.
Methyl Cellosolve is on Credo Beauty’s “Dirty List” because it has been linked to being toxic to the human body.
And Curious Chloride the science blog says it’s a solvent that is also a developmental toxicant, a reproductive system toxicant, an irritant, an allergen, an organ system toxicant, and a cellular and neurological toxicant.
It is also banned/prohibited in Canada and the EU. Avoid it if you can.
If you search for a definition of natural ingredients online, you’ll get dozens of different answers and that’s because the FDA doesn’t regulate the term “natural”.
Which means that it’s ripe for greenwashing. You may know what you mean by natural but the brand that you buy from may have a very different definition.
We’d recommend that you use the term “natural” as an indication that you may be looking at a clean beauty product but that you read the ingredient list to make sure.
The term “non-comedogenic” refers to any product which helps you to avoid skin pore blockages and thus, the acne that comes along with it.
It may not surprise you to learn that the FDA doesn’t regulate this term and once again, companies are free to make whatever claims they like regarding “non-comedogenic” properties their products may or may not have.
Worse, if they are quoting “studies” into this – they are usually talking about animal-derived ingredients which have been tested on animals! And that “comedogenic scale” they quote? They made that up too. It has not been standardized, no matter what some blogs claim.
Healthline recommends that you should look for ingredients that are known to treat acne rather than waste your time on claims of “non-comedogenic” properties.
This might sound a little depressing but the FDA doesn’t regulate the ingredients used in beauty products.
That means the term “non-toxic” means whatever a given manufacturer wants it to mean. Now, you’ll find the main chemicals to avoid if you want a clean beauty regime in this clean beauty glossary but if you want to be 100% sure, you’re going to need to vet the individual ingredients in each product that you buy.
There are standards for things like cruelty-free products and certified organic ingredients but sadly, for now, at least, there are no standards for “non-toxic”.
We believe brands like Vapor Beauty are making a strong effort to be transparent about what they consider to be “clean beauty” but we’d still recommend checking even plant-derived ingredients yourself before deciding to buy something.
Oil-free is probably a more useful term than non-comedogenic. It means that a given skincare product contains no oil and thus, in theory at least, it’s less likely to clog your pores than a clean beauty-style product that does contain oil.
As you can see from our list of common natural skincare ingredients, oil is a very common addition to a natural beauty regime. So, if it sets your acne off – you might want to avoid it.
Organic ingredients are those that are farmed without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc.
The good news is that there is an organic certification (such as the GOTS framework for cotton) process and the organic standard for beauty products is that 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic in order for the product to be considered organic.
Palm oil, in itself, is not a toxin and that means it passes the basic “clean beauty” standard but… and it’s a huge but, palm oil is an environmental nightmare.
Palm oil producers have been destroying the world’s forests to grow palm oil and many of the world’s beauty brands have opted to stop using it.
The Body Shop quit using non-sustainable Palm Oil in 2007 and since then even big names such as Johnson and Johnson and L’Oreal have stopped or pledged to stop using anything but sustainably sourced palm oil.
Sadly, only 21% of the palm oil produced globally is sustainably produced.
The good news is that parabens are regulated by the FDA and thus when you buy a product containing parabens you should be safe from the potential estrogenic effects of the chemical.
The bad news? Parabens appear in loads of different brands and there are no guidelines at all affecting how many brands you can buy. This means you can damage your body with parabens even though the FDA says you’re safe.
Parabens have been linked to a wide range of negative health consequences and a true clean beauty advocate ensures that they buy paraben-free products.
Paraffin is very useful in beauty products because it melts at skin temperature and thus helps products to glisten on the skin.
The bad news is that paraffin is a collection of random petroleum-related chemicals that cannot possibly be tested for toxicity.
Paraffin has also been linked to allergies and skin rashes. The clean beauty way is to avoid products that contain paraffin to prevent possible harm.
Oddly, petrolatum is similar to an earlier entry in our clean beauty glossary, paraffin.
It’s also made from a random collection of petrol byproducts and as such it’s impossible to test it for toxicity with any certainty.
However, the David Suzuki Foundation, notes that the EU classifies petrolatum as a carcinogen and thus, it’s best avoided.
You may also be surprised to learn that the most popular product of this nature, Vaseline, is not considered to be cruelty-free. See our piece on if Vaseline is cruelty-free for more details.
The FDA says that it monitors the amount of phthalates in beauty products but it does not regulate them as the FDA disputes that there are any ill effects from phthalate exposure.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics strongly disagrees and says that they cause cancer, are toxic, disrupt the endocrine system, and more. We go with the clean beauty advocates on this and we seek out phthalate-free products.
A renewable resource is one that can be regenerated time and time again for use. So, most vegan beauty products are renewable because crops can be replanted and thus regenerated regularly.
Oil-based products, on the other hand, are not renewable because fossil fuels are not regenerated over time.
Silicones are liquid-like substances that are made of silica. Silica itself is made from sand.
However, the production process for silicones means treating silica with a ton of different chemicals according to Healthline.
And this may be the reason for a recent PubMed paper that shows that liquid silicone treatments can lead to granulomas.
That means it’s best to leave these products out of your clean beauty routine.
Slow Beauty Products
This is the beauty industry’s answer to slow fashion.
The Slow Beauty Journal says that it’s “a movement meant to promote sustainable self-care that is grounded in nature, health, and wellness.”
It involves a beauty industry that focuses its efforts on non-toxic naturally derived ingredients using sustainable natural resources in a manner that preserves the environment and encourages human health.
A process is said to be sustainable if it causes no harm to the environment and leaves the world suitable for the use of future of generations of people.
Sustainable fashion is a big thing, already, and sustainable beauty is sure to follow as a major trend. Clean beauty is not always sustainable beauty, however.
Sulfates are found in a wide range of beauty items including shampoo (but not in these organic shampoo brands) and, in fact, they’re super good at cleaning hair and allowing soaps to lather. They are commonly associated with that “squeaky clean” feel of children’s hair.
The trouble is that sulfates are suspected toxins, according to Healthline, and you may notice signs of eye and skin irritation when using products that contain them. We’d opt to leave them out of a clean beauty routine for that reason.
A synthetic ingredient is one produced in a lab. Just because something is synthetic, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.
You could, for example, burn hydrogen in oxygen in the lab, the water this produces would be “synthetic” by definition, but it would be no different and no less healthy than the water that comes out of your tap.
However, synthetic ingredients are less likely to be cruelty-free ingredients as they are more likely to be tested on animals. Animal testing is not, generally speaking, considered to be an issue for clean beauty or green beauty but many people prefer products that are not tested on animals.
The FDA says that Triclosan has been shown to be harmful in animals but they don’t know if this translates to harm to humans and as such, they don’t regulate its use in cosmetics.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, however, says that animal testing is often indicative of issues for people and that Triclosan’s use is already regulated in Canada and Japan, and the EU. They say it can interfere with your endocrine system, cause triclosan-resistant bacteria (it’s an antibiotic too), and may accumulate in the fatty tissue of the body. We’d say – it’s best to avoid it on that basis.
Vegan beauty is all about cruelty-free beauty and that means more than just avoiding animal testing. Cruelty-free also encompasses products that don’t exploit animals. So, to a vegan cruelty-free means no honey or silk, for example, and definitely no animal ingredients.
We’ve got a full guide to clean beauty products for vegans. Vegan products are not always clean beauty compliant, however, and it’s important to look at the exact ingredients used before purchasing any makeup item to be sure that it meets your standards.
Zero-waste brands (such as these makeup brands) are those focused on eliminating packaging waste from the industry.
It’s important to note that zero waste makes no reference to clean beauty standards and as always you would need to check the ingredients from these brands to be certain that they were up to your own standards.