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It’s the latest beauty buzzword – which comes with a lot of confusion. Time to set the record straight

The word you currently can’t escape in the beauty world? ‘Clean’. As I type, there are nearly two million Instagram posts with the hashtag #cleanbeauty; Google searches for the term have increased by more than 600% over the past 10 years; and Mintel research found 49% of British women say it’s important for their beauty routine to be clean.

It’s not surprising – after all, we seem to be a society obsessed with the idea of cleanliness. One of the biggest diet trends of recent years has been ‘clean eating’, while Gwyneth Paltrow raised the subject of ‘clean sleeping’ (which involved, in her world, 7-8 hours of quality sleep, pre-bed head massages and copper-infused pillowcases!). But when it comes to beauty, what does the word ‘clean’ really mean?

Does it mean free from chemicals? Or organic? Or vegan? Or environmentally friendly? Or all of these? According to Dr Emma Meredith, director-general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, this is the problem: ‘clean’ means nothing. ‘Legislation that covers cosmetics in the UK has no legal definition for “clean beauty”,’ she says. ‘Any claims made by a product have to be substantiated, so you could challenge a manufacturer to explain what they mean by it. But you can’t assume anything about a product just because it has the word on its label.’

Murky waters

‘Clean beauty offers many opportunities in terms of marketing angles,’ notes Sarah Jindal, senior global analyst at Mintel. ‘But it can also be overwhelming for consumers to understand the different types of product positioning, especially with the lack of consistent legislation.’

Plus, if some products are dubbed ‘clean’, that might leave you thinking others are ‘dirty’. So, let’s get a few things straight. First, ‘chemicals’. ‘Everything is made up of chemicals – from air and food to the human body,’ says Dr Meredith. ‘“Chemical” isn’t the opposite of “natural”, and just because a chemical is derived from nature, it doesn’t necessarily make it safer than one made in a lab. There’s no such thing as a “chemical-free” beauty product.’

As for ‘toxins’ or ‘nasties’? ‘Different companies have different ingredients on their “nasty” lists, which shows how subjective this whole thing is,’ says chemist Nausheen Qureshi. And, more importantly, every beauty product on sale in the UK has had to pass a strict safety assessment.‘

There are more than a thousand ingredients banned from cosmetics, while others can be used only with specific restrictions,’ says Dr Meredith. If a product is on sale in the UK, both its ingredients and formulation have been screened to ensure they’re not going to do you harm – regardless of whether it has the word ‘clean’ on it.

In the clear

So, what can you do if you want to make purchases according to your principles? Well, it isn’t straightforward (sorry). According to Dr Meredith, not only is ‘clean’ not legally defined but nor are the words ‘vegan’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘organic’ when it comes to beauty products. But brands shouldn’t mislead and should have evidence to back up any claim. So, if you really want to know what’s in a product, you can ask the manufacturer.

You can also look for certification from a credible body, which validates the claims some companies make. These organisations – some of which we mention here – have a set of standards the manufacturer of the product must meet. However, it does cost money for brands to get these certifications, and you might find some products in a range are certified, while others aren’t. Plus, just because a product doesn’t have a stamp, it doesn’t mean it isn’t vegan or organic or sustainable – the brand may not have had the time or budget to get it ratified. But currently, this is the only objective way to work out what you’re buying. So, here’s what to look for…

Want to buy SUSTAINABLE?

Certifying bodies include The Planet Mark and B Corporation

This means: A company showing The Planet Mark committed to measure and reduce its annual carbon emissions every single year, while B Corporation certification denotes that a business ‘balances purpose and profit’ and considers the impact of its actions on people and the planet.

But: It doesn’t necessarily tell you what a company specifically does – just that some form of sustainability is a priority for them.

Try: The Beco range carries The Planet Mark. Beco stands for Better Considered and is a social enterprise that employs people who are visually impaired, disabled or disadvantaged. And planet-focused Beauty Kitchen is the first beauty brand in the UK to become a fully certified B Corporation.

Beauty Kitchen Abyssinian Oil Night Halo Potent Sleep Mask** (60ml)

Want to buy ORGANIC?

Certifying companies include The Soil Association – look for the COSMOS organic symbol

This means: At least 95% of the product’s ingredients are organic.

But: The Soil Association looks at more than just whether the ingredients are organic. It considers the entire manufacturing process and asks companies to provide information to prove that products are produced in the most sustainable and environmentally sound way – so anything with a Soil Association stamp should tick the ‘sustainable’ box, too. (Although bear in mind it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s vegan.)

Try: Garnier Organic; with 11 skincare products, it’s one of the first certified organic ranges from a big brand. Or Ecodenta Cosmos Organic, a range of dental care products, including toothpaste and mouthwash.

Garnier Organic Lavandin Facial Oil (30ml)

Ecodenta Cosmos Organic Whitening Toothpaste With Papaya Extract* (100ml)

Want to buy VEGAN?

Certifying organisations include The Vegan Society (logo shown) and US-based Vegan Action

This means: The product doesn’t contain ingredients that in any way come from animals. This covers everything from animal hair (sometimes found in make-up brushes) and ingredients made from animal fats to things like milk, honey and beeswax.

But:This doesn’t necessarily mean the ingredients are from organic sources, and products may contain synthetic ingredients as well.

Try: BYBI skincare products are certified vegan and cruelty-free, as well as being made in the UK, while Spectrum’s vegan brushes are highly rated make-up tools that come in a rainbow of shades.

BYBI Bakuchiol Booster* (15ml)

Spectrum Make-Up Brushes* (3-piece set)

*Available on boots.com and in larger stores.
**Available on boots.com and in selected stores.
Photography: Jaan-Eric Fischer/Trunk Archive and Louisa Parry