If you’ve shopped for any beauty product recently, from lipstick to shampoo, you’ve likely seen labels that call out certain products as “clean beauty.” But what does “clean beauty” really mean? Is it the same as “green beauty”? Are the products organic or natural? And what are the benefits of having a “clean” beauty ritual, anyway?
While the term “clean beauty” isn’t new, its definition is largely subjective for individual brands and ever-evolving in the beauty industry at large. Understanding the benefits of shopping for clean and green beauty items can be confusing, especially because beauty products are regulated — but not technically “approved” — by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 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.
“Clean beauty” has become a major selling point in the market, with retailers like Credo Beauty and The Detox Market centering around the category, and industry giants Sephora and Ulta creating dedicated sections on their websites for brands that meet specific clean beauty guidelines established by the stores. And while it may seem like a catchall term for products that don’t do any harm to you or the planet, clean beauty is often susceptible to “greenwashing,” where companies use misleading marketing to make it seem like their products are natural when they may not actually be organic, sustainable or ethically made. Here’s what you need to know.
Defining clean beauty vs. green beauty
These terms have lacked a clear definition because green is often equated with natural, and natural is associated with clean, but as the industry has evolved, so has the understanding of clean versus green. At the most basic level, clean beauty products generally do not include potentially toxic and harmful ingredients, including parabens, which some research suggests may be carcinogenic and hormone disrupters, and formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Green, or sustainable, beauty, however, puts a focus on eco-friendly production, from where ingredients are sourced to packaging that can be kept out of the environment. Clean beauty and green beauty often overlap, but not always, which is why conscious consumers should look carefully at the claims being made.
“‘Clean beauty’ and ‘green beauty’ often mean different things to different brands and companies, and, yes, sometimes it is a misleading marketing tactic,” Kypris founder Chase Polan says. As someone who launched a clean skin care brand over 10 years ago, Polan has seen how the clean beauty space has evolved from “very niche, very craft and largely viewed as less effective” to one of the industry’s most valuable sectors with nature-driven, clinically tested formulas.
“Now the clean beauty aisle is notably more beautiful and polished, with more effective products than 10 years ago, and mainstream consumers are becoming increasingly intrigued and trusting,” she says. “Green biotechnology and science have paved the way for green and clean brands to make products that outperform the conventional offerings of yesteryear.”
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.”
What to look for when shopping clean and green beauty
Because the clean beauty and green beauty categories are not regulated, it can be difficult to determine which boxes the products actually tick, but there are some things you can look out for.
Brands can pay third-party certification bodies like Ecocert and EWG to test their products and ensure they are free of chemicals and toxins. “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.
B Corp certification is another indicator that a brand is making significant efforts toward creating positive environmental and social impacts through their business, and remaining transparent while doing so. For Kypris, a B Corp-certified brand, Polan looks at sustainability beyond the tangible products. “When assessing sustainability impacts, I consider people, materials and places, because at Kypris we believe sustainability is both an ecological and sociological imperative,” the founder says.
“Beyond sustainable packaging, every single relationship and element that is touched or moved to create a product is an opportunity for a sustainable or regenerative practice,” Polan continues. “Purchasing ingredients from sustainable and regenerative sources where land and its inhabitants are cared for and people are treated well and paid fairly; shipping ingredients and components in a conscientious, carbon-minimizing manner (which has been really tricky during Covid-19 with logistics options being extra complicated); and producing the product in a sustainable way (meaning the lab pays a living wage and operates with healthy employment practices, uses clean energy like solar or wind when possible and fosters an environment of community and caring).”
The push toward eco-friendly practices in tandem with clean beauty ingredients is also being championed by retailers. Sephora, which launched its Clean at Sephora curation in 2018, added the Clean + Planet Positive category in July 2021. This label encompasses brands that meet its Clean standards and also commit to using environmentally responsible packaging, follow cruelty-free sustainable sourcing, donate at least 1% of profit to a high-impact charity and meet at least one of these climate goals: carbon-neutral operations, reduced greenhouse gas emissions or 100% renewable energy-powered corporate office and owned or leased operations.
This year, Target launched Target Zero, an online and in-store initiative that features products that will help you reduce waste by using recyclable or refillable packaging, are made from recycled materials or have reusable elements that extend the products’ life cycle. The retailer also has the Target Clean edit of beauty, personal care and more products that avoid potentially harmful ingredients.
At any retailer, conscious shoppers can also look for the Leaping Bunny certification for cruelty-free products, USDA Organic seal for products that utilize qualifying organic agricultural ingredients and the Climate Neutral symbol for brands committed to offsetting carbon emissions.
To help you explore your options, we’ve rounded up 16 of our favorite clean and green beauty brands and spoke to the founders making transparent formulations and sustainability pillars of their businesses.
Clean and green beauty brands to shop
Farmacy is committed to making earth-conscious decisions, from its recyclable packaging to its ethically produced skin care. What sets it apart from other clean beauty brands is its approach to sustainability that accounts for people and the planet. “We continue to work with farms and suppliers across the globe to source our key ingredients and support farming communities, and we’re incredibly committed to helping fight food insecurity by partnering with Feeding America and Second Harvest,” Farmacy CEO Mina Chae says. “This goes hand in hand with tapping into utilizing the food industry’s unused materials that would have normally been wasted. More importantly, it minimizes Farmacy’s footprint in the environment and contributes to a more circular economy, enhances efficiency — and is planet-positive.”
A face cleanser that easily melts away makeup, SPF and dirt, turning from a silky balm into a milky emulsion.
This exfoliating cleanser contains salicylic acid and papaya enzymes to keep the complexion smooth and even.
A nightly treatment that targets signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles as well as hyperpigmentation and pore size.
A B Corp-certified skin care and makeup brand looking to make lasting change, Beautycounter has worked with US lawmakers since 2013 to pass legislation around the safety of product ingredients. The clean beauty brand is also working toward sustainable solutions, launching a refillable blush and deodorant and aiming to have all packaging recycled, recyclable, refillable, reused or compostable by 2025.
Use the endlessly refillable case to house your current favorite shade of the bold and blendable blush.
With tripeptides and amino acids, this rejuvenating serum supports the skin barrier and restores plumpness.
Available in four scents, this refillable deodorant minimizes plastic waste while keeping sweat and body odor at bay.
“The term ‘clean beauty’ often refers to high-quality, natural and effective ingredients free from any harmful substances. However, for us, ‘clean’ goes much further than this,” Susanne Kaufmann says. “Like sustainable beauty, ‘clean’ beauty should also encompass environmentally friendly production, sustainable packaging innovation, manufacturing processes and a deep respect for nature and people.” For her namesake brand, plant-powered ingredients from her home region in the Austrian Alpine mountains of Bregenzerwald are made into nourishing skin and body care products through sustainable production and packaging practices.
A sprig of rosemary highlights the natural elements that make this relaxing bath oil so indulgent.
Making sustainability a priority, this bottle is 100% recyclable and can be used to refill the original glass bottle.
One of our favorite body lotions, this rich cream is made with naturally hydrating ingredients like shea butter, honey and olive oil.
Setting out to make natural skin care that feels luxurious, Tata Harper’s beauty brand focuses on the quality of its clean ingredients. Sourcing from around the globe, the formulations are packed with high-performing, nontoxic ingredients verified by Ecocert, PETA and the American Vegetarian Association.
This lightweight priming moisturizer comes in refill pods that make it easy to recycle and replenish your skin care routine.
Brighten, smooth and depuff tired eyes with this refillable nourishing eye cream.
Made for blemish-prone skin, this foaming face wash helps balance oil and clear away impurities.
Personal care brand Evolvetogether became known for its celebrity-approved, disposable face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it also sells a number of clean products, such as lip balm and natural deodorant, that are just as essential. The Gone Today Collection features zero-waste products that come in 100% dissolvable packaging and waterless formulas. “We think about sustainability pretty simply: make better choices every chance we get,” founder Cynthia Sakai says. “From partnering with socially and environmentally responsible factories to making biodegradable, recyclable or dissolvable products with postconsumer recycled materials to minimize landfill waste, we’re finding meaningful ways to do good today — and do better tomorrow.”
A simply nourishing body cream scented with lavender, chamomile and vanilla. The recyclable aluminum tube comes with a key to get every last drop of product.
This powder-to-foam face wash comes in individually wrapped sachets that are completely dissolvable, leaving behind no trace.
Light and hydrating, this non-sticky lip balm has a fruity, tropical flavor that you'll get addicted to applying. Plus, it comes in a biodegradable paper tube.
Kypris’ botanical skin care has something for every skin type. At the root of its effective and nourishing products is not only a sustainable approach but a regenerative one. “There is an opportunity for brands to expand beyond sustainability and support regenerative efforts and practices,” founder Chase Polan says. “As a general framework, sustainable choices are ones that do not harm people or a place; regenerative choices are ones that have a net positive impact to people, the environment and living beings — even microbiota!”
Blemish-prone skin can benefit from this clarifying and restorative gentle serum with fermented pumpkin enzymes and vegan peptides.
Sustainably sourced non-nano zinc provides SPF 30 protection in this moisturizing primer that preps skin for makeup or a natural face.
Made with montmorillonite, a non-drying mineral clay, this face mask detoxifies, refreshes and exfoliates the skin for a nature-powered pick me up.
Saie’s eco-conscious makeup offers all the must-haves — from glowy highlighters to maximizing mascara — for a fresh-faced beauty look. The brand is Climate Neutral certified, Plastic Negative certified and Leaping Bunny certified, it’s a member of the Carbon Neutral Club and it supports ocean conservation by donating profits through 1% for the Planet.
The brand's latest launch is a serum foundation that provides skin care benefits and medium coverage.
This clean mascara lengthens and separates lashes while delivering conditioning ingredients like shea butter and and a hydra-mineral complex.
A creamy balm bronzer that is easy to blend in for a natural glow or build up for a sculpted contour.
This small-batch, herbal skin care brand started at founder Brenda Brock’s organic farmstand in 1999. Today, it’s known for its effective, natural formulations made from ethically sourced and harvested ingredients. Throughout her journey as a beauty brand owner, Brock has kept sustainability top of mind. “It is not just one action taken or one ingredient added to a product that makes a brand or product sustainable,” Brock says. “Sustainability is the implementation of choices that are made toward green, clean, nontoxic, natural, organic, socially just — all of it, every day, as the grounded center of every decision.”
Made in Rhode Island, this reparative oil can be used on the face or body. It is made by infusing whole calendula flowers in sweet almond oil and vitamin E.
Use this gentle oil as an eye makeup remover or treatment for fine lines, puffiness and under-eye bags.
Sweet almond oil, calendula, vitamin E, beeswax and peppermint help create soft, hydrated lips.
Named after precious rahua oil from the Amazon rainforest, environmentalism is at the heart of Rahua’s ethos. The nourishing ingredient is found in the hair care brand’s shampoo, conditioner and other hair treatments. Founders and partners Fabian Lliguin and Anna Ayers honor this through helping native communities protect the Amazon rainforest, and they also support other environmental efforts like preserving the Galapagos coastal area.
Rainforest-grown ingredients like Amazonian oils and proteins add strength and hydration to this shampoo and conditioner duo.
Deliver shine and tame frizz with this bestselling hair oil made with rahua, sacha inchi and morete oils harvested in the Amazon.