What does ‘clean beauty’ actually mean?

The truth behind green, toxin-free and clean beauty

clean beauty products and natural ingredients
(Image credit: Getty)

Online searches for ‘clean beauty’ have soared in the last 10 years, seeing over a 600% increase. But does this term hold real meaning? Are we causing ourselves harm by using so-called toxic beauty products, or is this just a fear-mongering hoax used to gain sales revenue? 

In recent times, it seems we've become far more conscious of our effect on the planet and what we're putting into and onto our bodies. We want to know what the best eco-friendly subscription boxes are, which sulfate-free shampoos will transform your hair, and more of us than ever are looking for the best vegan beauty products

Of course, eco-friendly beauty and toxin-free products can only be a good thing but, is there some clarity to be found in terms of buzzwords around the clean beauty movement?

We asked Brianne West, Biochemist, and Founder of zero waste beauty brand, Ethique  her thoughts on clean beauty, "Toxin-free, natural, non-tox and clean beauty are just some of the new buzzwords that many beauty brands are using to sell their products. As a biochemist, I want to break these terms down so that customers can understand what they actually mean to ensure that they can make the right purchasing decisions for themselves.”

What is clean beauty?

Clean beauty is an ambiguous term, but it generally means beauty products free from toxic ingredients deemed to be harmful to human beings or the planet. It’s often associated with green, organic, or natural beauty movements too. The main problem with defining clean beauty is that it doesn’t really mean anything. There is no UK legislation behind the term clean beauty, so it’s impossible to legally answer this question.

Clean beauty is generally used by beauty companies trying to convey that their products are ‘safer’ than others on the market. “Clean beauty is a super vague term,” says Brianne. “I conducted a lot of research into what consumers consider to be ‘clean’ in terms of beauty, and I have arrived at the conclusion that it simply refers to products that are made without ingredients that cause harm or are expected to cause harm. Typically, it includes no silicones, petrochemicals, synthetic fragrances, preservatives, synthetic colorants, and so on.”

Skincare ingredients to avoid

clean beauty products tested in laboratory

(Image credit: Getty)

Some clean beauty advocates argue that certain ingredients are potentially harmful to human beings or can cause illness. With certain cancers on the rise, some people believe these chemicals are at fault. The most common sub-category of these so-called unsafe chemicals are petrochemicals.

Petrochemicals are used to describe ingredients derived from fossil fuels. There are a lot of petrochemicals used in everyday items, including beauty products.

Some petrochemicals you might find in cosmetic products include: 




Mineral oil


Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

Diethanolamine (DEA)


Synthetic fragrances and dyes

The most common belief is that petrochemicals are carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances. But, there is little to no universally acknowledged information, legislation, or scientific study to back this claim up. 

For those anxious about certain ingredients contained in beauty products, a website called The Good Face Project is available. As a clean beauty concerned site, they have listed all the ingredients that might be considered 'forbidden toxins' in their Good Face Index. 

It must be noted that a lot of the ingredients listed on this website have been laboratory tested and have been deemed safe by governing bodies in charge of chemical use. 

Why natural doesn’t mean safe

clean beauty products and test tubes with leaves

(Image credit: Getty)

The word natural can be used at will by beauty corporations to instill the notion that naturally occurring ingredients are ‘good’ and lab-produced chemicals are ‘bad.’ 

“Natural is a bit of a buzzword in the beauty industry,” says Brianne. “Just because something is made from natural ingredients, it does not guarantee that it is safe to use on your skin. When it comes to chemicals, mercury, arsenic, lead, and lavender oil are all technically natural ingredients, but there’s no way you’d want them in your skin and hair care products." (Lavender oil can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and skin irritation)

“As consumers, we’ve been conditioned into thinking that ingredients made in a lab are the enemy and people tend to be suspicious as they don’t understand the process. But just because something is made in a lab or at scale in a factory does not mean it is bad for you. Everything is made up of chemicals, from water to a pencil, the air you breathe, to the cells in your body. Chemicals are by virtue, therefore not good or bad; they just are,” explains Brianne. 

Where to find trustworthy clean beauty advice

Although clean beauty isn’t scientifically proven, you may still be interested in lowering the number of chemicals you use on a daily basis. If you are worried about certain chemicals, the web can be a confusing space. It’s incredibly difficult and virtually impossible to determine what’s being published is truthful and what is a mere marketing scheme. 

Seek out trusted resources from certified medical professionals, and when it comes to ingredients, you might have to get a little bit scientific. “You must look past what is listed on the bottle and do a bit of research into what ingredients are being used," agrees Brianne. "There are some great resources out there, and we at Ethique are here to help too. We have lots of information on our blog to explain the truth behind certain ingredients from both an environmental and a health perspective."

Beauty ingredient safety - the rules

As far as beauty product legislation goes, the UK has some of the strictest rules and regulations in the world. All beauty products and their ingredients must undergo extensive testing and be compliant with several regulations in order to reach consumers.

To be specific, products must comply with:

• Schedule 34 of the Product Safety and Metrology Statutory Instrument (hereafter the UK Regulation) for cosmetics marketed in Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland)

• Regulation EC 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic products for cosmetics marketed in Northern Ireland. This is in accordance with the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement.

While The Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) are the authoritative body providing beauty companies with guidance on cosmetics law compliance.

If you want to find out more about UK beauty legislation, head to GOV.UK