What does clean beauty mean?

What really is clean beauty? There's no standard definition, which makes it hard for consumers to make educated choices, or know how toxin-free a product really is. So, here’s everything you need to know about clean beauty (and how it's not the same as natural, green or organic) from the reasons to buy it, ingredients to avoid, and the new era of barcode scanning apps that help you buy clean with ease. 

The toxins in beauty products

From parabens linked to breast cancer and phthalates that can affect fertility, beauty products are still packed with chemicals that shouldn’t be anywhere near your body. Since 2009 beauty manufacturers have put to market in the US over 73,000 products using chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm, reports the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

Cosmetics in the US are pretty much unregulated, meaning consumers have to educate themselves about what they are putting on their bodies. California’s recent Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, which banned 24 ingredients from beauty products, was the first change in the law in over 80 years. According to Dr. Kathryn Rexrode, chief of Women's Health at Harvard Medical School, cosmetic products are tested for “short term irritancy, but not long term safety”. In other words, just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean it’s safe. 

But consumers are catching on, and ditching toxins in favor of good-for-you products that do no harm to people or the planet. Almost 50 percent of women in the US already check ingredients labels for hidden nasties when they buy. But when every brand and retailer is free to set their own definition of clean what do you actually need to look for? 

What is clean beauty? 

There’s no single clean standard, but at a minimum it should mean a product is safe for humans and contains no known carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors, or irritants. Some brands take clean a step further and exclude anything that can wash down the drain to poison waterways and the environment – and that means things like silicones and the glitter in your favorite eye shadow. When it comes to retailers, some have far more stringent clean beauty standards than others. Beauty giant Sephora for example, and Target – both of which have clean categories – ban fewer ingredients than clean specialists like Credo and Follain. But they’re a great place to start.  

How to know what products are really clean? 

Read your labels

Always avoid the toxins below. Check EWG, which provides safety ratings for hundreds of ingredients. One thing to note – clean doesn’t mean that a product is free of synthetics. 

What’s natural beauty?

Like clean, there’s no regulation that sets out what ‘natural’ means, and it’s often misused. It’s not hard to find products sold as ‘natural’ that have a single plant extract buried under a long list of synthetics. Look for products where most of the ingredients – not just one or two – are nutrient-packed natural extracts from plants, herbs, nuts, seeds and fruits. 

What’s green beauty?

Green is such a loose term, it can mean pretty much anything - from a single natural ingredient to having recyclable, sustainable packaging. Check labels carefully to see exactly what you’re buying that makes a product green.  

What’s organic beauty?

Organic takes clean and natural and sets the bar even higher. It ensures the highest standards every step of the way through farming, harvesting and production, and bans the use of artificial pesticides, antibiotics, pollutants, nano and GM ingredients. Organic beauty is the cosmetic equivalent of organic food – nutrient-packed, safe and sustainably produced. Look out for independent organic certifications on packaging. 

How to spot dirty ingredients

The toxins you need to avoid can hide under many different names in ingredient lists, so it pays to become familiar with them. These are the most notorious:  


Banned in the EU and many countries around the world, phthalates are endocrine disruptors that mimic and disturb human hormones, damaging the reproductive system in men and women, even at very small doses. They’re linked to obesity, diabetes, infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. They’re so pervasive it’s been found that 95% of us have phthalates in our urine.

Look for phthalates in: Nail polish, cosmetics, hair relaxers, hair gel, hair oils, leave-in conditioners, hair spray, skincare, deodorant and almost anything that’s fragranced (see above). Abbreviations include DEP, DEHP, DMP, DBP, BzBP. 

Artificial fragrance

We should be taking note when a Harvard professor has given up wearing fragrance because of its potential long-term side-effects. “I love perfume, but I don't wear it anymore,” says Tamarra James-Todd, Assistant Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a report on toxic beauty. A legal get-out clause allows manufacturers to list a cocktail of up to 3,000 chemicals, including neurotoxins, carcinogens, irritants, and hormone disruptors, as ‘fragrance’.

Look for artificial fragrance in: Everything. From skincare to shampoo, laundry detergent, cleaning products and, of course, your favorite perfume. To avoid it look for labels like synthetic-fragrance free, natural fragrance, essential oils, or unscented.  


Used as a preservative to prolong shelf life formaldehyde is a carcinogen that is known to cause leukemia and brain cancer. It’s most commonly found in hair straightening and nail treatments, and other side-effects include hair loss, burns, rashes, nose bleeds and trouble breathing. On labels also look for formaldehyde releasers, such as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15.

Look for formaldehyde in: Nail polish, eyelash glue, shampoo, hair smoothing products, hair gel, deodorants and skincare. 


Banned in the EU, hydroquinone is still commonly used as a skin lightener in the US. Suspected of being carcinogenic, side-effects include skin sensitization and discoloration. It’s also toxic to aquatic life. 

Look for hydroquinone in: Serums and moisturizers. 


Used as foaming agents and emulsifiers, ethanolamines are linked to an increased risk for cancer. The advice is if you’re using a product containing ethanolamines wash it off quickly and don’t let it sit on your skin. The EU has banned the DEA form of ethanolamines in all cosmetics but it’s still found in US beauty products. On labels look for triethanolamine, diethanolamine, and DEA, TEA, MEA, TEA – for example, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, and DEA oleth-3 phosphate. 

Look for ethanolamines in: Dyes, lotions, shampoo, soap, mascara, eye shadow, foundation, SPF, fragrance 


PEGs are a family of petroleum industry by-products made of polyethylene glycol, commonly used as a laxative and sister to antifreeze – ethylene glycol. In cosmetics they’re used as emollients and emulsifiers, and to help other ingredients penetrate the skin. If your skin’s not in great condition or damaged, PEGs help carry other undesirable ingredients deep into your skin and contaminants from the manufacturing process – including carcinogens ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, and heavy metals like lead, iron, and arsenic. Avoid all PEGs, which often come with a number after them, for example PEG-2, PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-9. 

Look for PEGs in: Cleansers, moisturizers, serums, SPF 

Ethoxylated ingredients

Ethoxylated agents include common ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) that creates the lather in soaps, shampoos and shower gels, PEGs, PPGs (polypropylene glycol), polysorbate, and chemicals with ‘eth’ in the name, such as laureth, oleth, ceteareth and deceth. The problem? They can be contaminated with carcinogens during processing. 

Look for ethoxylated ingredients in: Soaps, shampoos, shower gel, hair relaxers, moisturizers, serums. 


Used as preservatives parabens have been linked to skin irritation, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, early onset puberty and breast cancer. Easily absorbed they accumulate in body tissues and have even been found in breast milk.

Look for parabens in: Almost everything, from body lotions, cosmetics, deodorant, toners, and face cream to hair conditioners.    

The clean beauty certifications that matter

It’s worth bearing in mind that as there’s no officially-recognized clean certification, a product may be completely people and planet friendly but not carry any third-party stamp of approval. Added to that, the process of getting certifications is sometimes too expensive for smaller, indie brands. That said, these are among the highest standards you’ll find in skincare: 

Ecocert Cosmos

The two international COSMOS standards, Natural or Organic, are the gold standard of clean beauty. They certify the entire supply chain of a product, from sustainable ingredients and environmentally-friendly manufacturing to recyclable packaging. To be certified organic a minimum 95% of plant extracts must be of organic origin. Natural certifies that all ingredients are of natural origin, bar a handful of approved preservatives in very small quantities.   

USDA Organic

To get the official USDA Organic stamp a product must use at least 95% organic material and meet strict manufacturing standards. 

EWG Verified

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database is is the go-to source for the good and bad of beauty ingredients. To help consumers make more educated skincare choices the EWG Verified mark means a product is free from chemicals that harm humans or the environment.  

Barcode apps make buying clean a breeze

Short on time? A new era of barcode scanning apps takes the hard work out of navigating ingredient lists.  

Healthy Living (EWG)

Safety profiles for skincare, sunscreen, cleaners and food at your fingertips. US only.  

Think Dirty

Free and easy-to-use, the Think Dirty database rates over half a million products with the quick swipe of a barcode.  

Detox Me

Want to detox your whole home? Free-to-use DetoxMe helps you reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, and offers tips on finding safer alternatives.  

Clean Beauty

Developed by a team of scientists using the most up-to-date research, Clean Beauty instantly analyzes and rates ingredients of make-up, nail polish, hair dyes and skincare. 

The more information we as consumers have, the easier it is to make informed decisions. If you have any questions about clean beauty or would like more resources we'd love to help. You can drop us an email any time here hello@sixgldn.com

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