If you’ve shopped for any beauty product recently, from lipstick to shampoo, you may have noticed new labels that call out certain products as “clean beauty.” But what does “clean beauty” really mean? Is it the same as organic? Natural? And what are the benefits of having a “clean” beauty ritual, anyway?
As more brands continue to get into the clean beauty game, understanding the benefits of what you’re buying can be confusing, especially because beauty products are regulated — but not technically “approved” — by the Food and Drug Administration. According to the FDA, “the law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients … to have FDA approval before they go on the market.”
And that makes it tricky to understand what “clean” beauty products really are. “The US Food and Drug Administration has failed to define ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ beauty, leaving these labels open to interpretation by non-dermatologists and retailers who have set out to define clean beauty for themselves,” says New York dermatologist Dr. Anne Chapas, founder and medical director of Union Square Laser Dermatology and clinical dermatology instructor at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. Here’s what you need to know.
At the most basic level, clean beauty products generally do not include potentially toxic and harsh ingredients, including parabens, which some research suggests may be carcinogenic and hormone disrupters, and formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Instead, they often contain naturally-occurring ingredients that have been sustainably and ethically sourced. “They rely more heavily on natural preservatives and antioxidants and utilize the power of vitamins and minerals in their purest, most natural forms,” says Washington, D.C. esthetician Sarah Akram.
Especially for people with sensitive skin, clean beauty products can be a game-changer. “Products formulated with harsh chemicals, synthetic fragrances, color and plasticizers, which are often added to help makeup and moisturizers adhere to your face longer, can irritate the skin causing redness, roughness, irritation and breakouts,” says Suzanne LeRoux, founder of One Love Organics, a brand that identifies as “clean.” According to Akram, another upside to clean beauty products is that, if formulated correctly, they may be more effective. “Time and time again, we find synthetic versions of raw, natural ingredients never fully replicate their effects,” Akram says.
Because the clean beauty category is not regulated, it can be difficult to determine just how “clean” the product you’re buying really is. There are some third-party certification bodies like ECOCERT and EWG, which brands can pay to have their products put through rigorous testing to make sure they are free of chemicals and toxins. However, this kind of certification is not uniform across the board, and while some brands like One Love Organics follow it, other brands can still be clean without that certification.
“Not only does ECOCERT regulate ingredients, but we must also comply with their sustainability and environmental standards in every aspect of manufacturing — from our equipment to our packaging, recycling program and the cleaning products we use in our facility,” says LeRoux.
The best way to have confidence that what you’re buying is “clean” is to look at the ingredients — and check that the top-listed ingredients are natural ones. Then, as with most new beauty products, Chapas recommends testing it on your inner arm for a few days if you’re unsure about it. “If there’s no reaction after a week of application, then you can apply it to your face,” she says.
To help you explore your options, we’ve rounded up 16 of our favorite clean beauty brands, and the products we love from them.
Drunk Elephant Slaai Makeup-Melting Butter Cleanser ($34; sephora.com)
Drunk Elephant is committed to clean beauty, steering away from fragrances (which are notoriously difficult to categorize as clean, due to minimal regulation) and toward natural ingredients over synthetic. This gentle fruit extract and natural oil-rich cleansing balm’s innovative formula goes on dry skin and can be washed off or removed with a cloth. It feels luxurious and imparts a mega dose of moisture as it takes off your makeup.
Ilia Multi-Stick ($34; nordstrom.com)
Relying on natural ingredients like shea butter, avocado oil and cocoa seed butter, this stick from clean beauty brand Ilia does triple duty as a lip, cheek and eye tint that’s easily blendable and highly pigmented.
Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish ($36; sephora.com)
Priding itself on using plant-based food-grade oils and plenty of certified-organic ingredients too, Herbivore Botanicals is known for its luxurious body products, like this polish. This hydrating body scrub is full of ingredients that may sound familiar, like sugar, coconut oil, Moroccan rose oil and shea butter to exfoliate and leaves the skin soft and supple.
Ghost Democracy Floodgate Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($34; ghostdemocracy.com)
With a full ingredient library on its site, skin care brand Ghost Democracy is trying to make clean beauty more transparent. With just a handful of products out already, its hyaluronic acid serum, which is formulated with a high percentage of hyaluronic acid, as well as niacinamide that can help calm any irritation, is already a fan favorite.
Tatcha Luminous Dewy Skin Mist ($48; sephora.com)
Japanese skin care brand Tatcha aims to have all the most active ingredients in its formulas entirely natural. This mist is formulated with 20% botanical oils, as well as a trinity of Japanese anti-aging superfoods — green tea, rice and algae.
Josie Maran Vibrancy Argan Oil Fresh Face Paint Palette ($42; sephora.com)
Packed with rich shades like magenta and deep caramel, this palette is loaded with skin-loving natural ingredients, including argan oil (which can help with firmness and hydration), raspberry seed oil (which can help reduce inflammation) and coconut oil, which is known for boosting hydration and ridding the skin of any noticeable dryness.
Tarte Amazonian Clay 12 Hour Blush ($29; sephora.com)
Made with ethically sourced Amazonian clay, which can minimize oil and help keep skin balanced, and mineral pigments, this clean blush from Tarte not only perks up a blah complexion with concentrated color, but it stays put all day.
Phlur Ameline Eau de Parfum ($96; sephora.com)
While fragrances remain difficult to market as clean, the perfume and body brand Phlur is doing the work to offer transparency about what, exactly, is in its clean fragrances, going so far as to publish each product’s ingredient list online to highlight the innovative natural ingredients it uses in place of chemicals. This best-selling fragrance from the brand, called Ameline, includes notes of Italian bergamot, rose and sandalwood.
Supergoop Play Everyday Lotion SPF 50 with Sunflower Extract ($22; sephora.com)
Many chemical sunscreens are formulated with ingredients like oxybenzone, which has been linked to hormone disruption. This sunscreen, on the other hand, utilizes natural ingredients like sunflower and rosemary leaf extracts, which add a dose of additional antioxidant protection. This sunscreen also offers broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays, and defense against photo-aging and dehydration.
Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm ($34; sephora.com)
Farmacy partners with organic farms around the world that use sustainable methods to grow and cultivate its naturally-derived ingredients. Among Farmacy’s most popular products is this Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm, which uses sunflower oils to melt makeup and turmeric to help remove dirt from the skin.
First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration ($34; sephora.com)
From the clean skin care brand First Aid Beauty, this is a face and body cream that even sensitive skin types can rely on. Ingredients like colloidal oatmeal, which can soothe skin, and shea butter, which moisturizes and protects with vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, make it a daily must-have.
One Love Organics Easy Does It Foaming Cleanser ($29; dermstore.com)
This cleanser from One Love Organics gets rid of dirt, oil and impurities without stripping skin or hair of essential nutrients. With ingredients like Chilean soap bark, cold-pressed apple oil and vegetable glycerin, this foaming wash effectively cleanses the face, body and hair without drying them out.
RMS BeautyEye Polish ($28; dermstore.com)
Loaded with mineral (rather than chemical) ingredients, this eyeshadow uses the powers of coconut and jojoba oils to nourish the eye area, leaving it hydrated and with a pearlescent finish.
Honest Beauty Liquid Lipstick ($12.99; amazon.com)
Chances are, your favorite long-wear lipstick has an ingredient called isododecane, which is petroleum-based. And while petroleum is not toxic, it’s not a renewable resource, so it’s not sustainable. Honest Beauty has one of the very few truly clean long-wear lipsticks on the market, using hyaluronic acid and avocado oil to keep lips nourished and the lipstick staying on for hours.
Weleda Skin Food Original Ultra-Rich Cream ($12.49; amazon.com)
One of the beauty industry’s cult favorites, this rich cream uses a base of oils and beeswax to deeply nourish skin. Thick enough to go on the roughest areas of the body but also light enough to be used as a night cream, this Australian brand uses natural and sustainable ingredients in all of its products.
Summer Fridays Jet Lag Mask Mini ($25; sephora.com)
Instagram-favorite brand Summer Fridays specializes in leave-on masks (think of them as ultra-rich moisturizers that you don’t wash off) that just happen to be certified as clean, with sodium hyaluronate that can help boost skin moisture and vitamin C that can help brighten the skin’s tone.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed price at the time of publication.