‘Clean’ Beauty: What to Know

6 min read

Feb. 12, 2024 – Clean. Natural.

If the labels on your cosmetics and skin care products don’t include these descriptors, you’re not looking as great as you could and perhaps even jeopardizing your health.

At least that’s the marketing message behind many “clean” and “natural” cosmetics and skin care products, from eyeliner to foundation to moisturizers and more.

Both markets are booming, analysts say. The natural cosmetics market is estimated to reach $1.87 billion in the U.S. this year, up 7.1% from last year, according to Statista, a data platform. And Grand View Research says the U.S. natural skin care product market was $1.5 billion in 2021. 

Stores like Credo, which has a “Credo Clean Standard,” carry dozens of what it calls “clean beauty” brands and ask companies it stocks about the source of their ingredients. According to Aracelis Ramirez, manager at a Credo store in Los Angeles, “there are over 3,000 chemicals we omit from our products." Customers are seeking products that don’t contain toxins, hormone disrupters, or potentially cancer-causing ingredients, she said.

Likewise, the Detox Market, another “clean beauty” marketplace, asks suppliers for ingredient transparency. 

Celebrities also push clean, natural products, often their own lines. Gwyneth Paltrow is known for her Goop products, touted as “without ingredients shown or suspected to harm our health.” And Jennifer Lopez’s JLo beauty products are made without sulfates, parabens, phthalates, or mineral oil, according to the company website. 

The problem? There are no definitions for either clean or natural from the FDA, which regulates cosmetics. So, when a celebrity beauty maven or a clean cosmetic company tells you their stuff is clean and natural, think twice about taking that as gospel.

What's more, many ingredients in cosmetics and skin care products are potentially hazardous to health, and advocacy organizations such as the Environmental Working Group, as well as legislators, are working tirelessly to get those ingredients removed.

Meanwhile, it’s a buyer beware market, whether you're looking for clean, natural, organic, or just the lowest-priced product that delivers what it promises.

Clean, Natural Doesn’t Always Equal Safe

Buying only products labeled natural or clean is far from a guarantee of avoiding hazards, according to Bruce Brod, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

All this marketing about clean and natural has ignited fear in consumers, as he wrote in a 2019 editorial, warning that "natural" does not mean safe. He cautioned that many ingredients denounced by those he calls “clean beauty evangelists” seem to be selected haphazardly, with some ingredients on their banned lists actually not only acceptable but considered helpful by dermatologists. One example: A large food store chain known for health-conscious products included petrolatum on a banned ingredients list, and Brod said dermatologists have consistently recommended this to patients with skin conditions because it is inexpensive, tends not to cause allergic reactions, and draws water into the skin.

Since he wrote that editorial, summarizing the hazards of viewing all products labeled clean or natural as safe, the hype “has gotten a little bit worse,” Brod said during a recent phone interview. That’s partly due to sheer volume, he said, with more and more product lines using some form of either "clean" or "natural" in their label. “The world of skin care and cosmetics is more fragmented and confusing than it’s been in the past,” he said. New brands launch frequently, social media touts the products, and celebrity endorsements are plentiful.

“The interest in a ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ approach to treating skin conditions is absolutely on the rise,” said Lindsey Zubritsky, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist in Ocean Springs, MS. “Not only am I seeing this online, but patients are now coming into clinic to ask about alternative treatments to traditional recommendations. This has exploded with the rise in social media [use] and those who don’t have formal training in the subject giving out advice.”

Among the more bizarre do-it-yourself trends she has seen discussed: applying raw potatoes to the skin as an acne treatment or ice cubes on the face to reduce puffiness. 

Natural ingredients, such as botanical and essential oils, can cause sensitive people to get allergic contact dermatitis, Brod said. He pointed to a study in which researchers cross-referenced the ingredient lists of 1,651 natural personal care products with a database of allergens linked to contact dermatitis. They found 94% of the products had at least one potential contact allergen. The marketing of the clean and natural products “is trying to influence the purchaser to think it has a certain increased level of safety, and that’s not the case,” Brod said. Consumers need to know this, he said.

FDA, USDA, and a Lack of Definitions

The FDA, which regulates cosmetics under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, does not define natural, clean, or organic on labels. The Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Program (NOP) and includes a definition of organic. Those cosmetic or personal care products that include agricultural ingredients and can meet the standards may be eligible to use organic labels, according to Courtney Rhode, an FDA spokesperson.

In Search of Safer Products: Legislation

The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRA), which became effective Dec. 29, 2023, is a start, some experts said. It requires formal FDA registration of cosmetic facilities, products, and ingredients; requires serious adverse event reporting; and requires companies to disclose their use of specific fragrances and flavor ingredients, among other advances. The act also requires the study of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances), also known as "forever chemicals."

States are taking action, too. In 2020, California passed the California Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, banning 24 toxic ingredients (such as formaldehyde) from cosmetics and personal care products in the state. An additional 26 ingredients were banned in 2023. The laws take effect in 2025 and 2027, respectively. At least five other states are taking action to prohibit PFAS from cosmetics. 

The Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, an organization focused on eliminating toxic chemicals that can lead to breast cancer, is championing five pieces of federal legislation, said Janet Nudelman, senior director of program and policy at the organization and director of its Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Four are part of the Safer Beauty Bill Package. The fifth is the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act, which would ban this class of PFAS chemicals in cosmetics. 

In Search of Information: Consumer Guides

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep is a guide to safer personal care products. It now includes more than 100,000 products and rates them based on hazards. “We are seeing a slow movement towards better scores,” said Homer Swei, PhD, the group's senior vice president of healthy living science. He’s also seen the trend toward natural ingredients. “What I’m seeing is a slow migration away from synthetics to more natural ingredients.” The Environmental Working Group, he said, is not pro-natural ingredients or pro-synthetic, but rather looks at the data and assigns a score based on research about hazards. (The group is an Amazon affiliate, and it said it gets a nominal percentage of the sale of any product bought through that portal.)

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics also has a Chemicals of Concern section. 

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, funded by the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group, reviews research on ingredients. The review is independent of the council and industry.

Advice for Consumers

Less is more, Brod tells patients. Limit products to just what’s needed.

Filter out products that have extensively long ingredient lists, he said, especially if you have sensitive skin. For those who do have sensitive skin, he suggests picking a product with 10 or fewer ingredients. With any new product, test an area, such as the inner part of your elbow, for 7 to 10 days to see if any allergic reaction occurs, he said.

“Cost does not equal quality,” Brod said. “People should not feel if they are not spending huge amounts of cash on a product that it’s not good. There are some very good products that come at very reasonable price points.”