What Does Clean Beauty Actually Mean?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

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

Some clean beauty advocates argue that certain ingredients are potentially harmful to human beings or can cause illness. Below are some of the most common ingredients found in cosmetics that are believed to be harmful.


Parabens are preservatives in your beauty products, they prevent bacteria growing and mold from forming and prolong shelf life.

The issue? Scientific studies confirm that parabens affect the endocrine system. In other words, parabens alter our hormones, mimicking estrogen in the human body and this has been linked to hormone-related cancers. Parabens in cosmetic products were actually found to bring on early onset of puberty in teenage girls.


Synthetic and natural fragrances are all chemicals that go into our cosmetics to make them smell nice. Phthalates are chemicals that make fragrances last longer in cosmetic products.

The issue? Where there are fragrances, whether they be synthetic or natural, there are phthalates and phthalates have been linked to hormone disruption in the human body. Studies have concluded that exposure to phthalates is linked to infertility, obesity, breast cancers and cardiovascular events. Fragrance alone has also been known to trigger respiratory conditions like asthma.

Aluminium compounds

Often found in antiperspirants, aluminium compounds plug' the pores in the armpit to inhibit sweating.

The issue? Clean beauty advocates suggest that aluminium is linked to breast cancer but all the scientific studies to date suggest there is no link whatsoever. However, there is evidence that the body absorbs 0.04% more aluminium when armpits are freshly shaved compared to not but, no link to cancer is clear.

Ethoxylated Agents

Ethoxylated agents include polyethylene glycols (PEGs), ceteareth, oleth, and sulfates and these are responsible for creating a lathering effect in cosmetics like shampoo and body wash. They're often synthetic but can be derived from natural sources like coconut or palm oils.

The issue? Sulfates aren't popular due to their skin and hair stripping qualities, they do a great job of eradicating natural oils and sometimes damaging the skin barrier.

Sometimes Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is turned into Sodium Laureth Sulfate (a less stripping ingredient) through ethoxylation. Through ethoxylation, a chemical called 1,4-dioxane is produced which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is a known carcinogenic. American companies like Sephora are now ordering all beauty companies to test for the presence of 1,4 dioxane in their products.


You might know this one. It's a preservative used in cosmetics as well as the process of embalming and often found in keratin hair smoothing treatments.

The issue? It's a known carcinogenic that causes cancer and has been banned from use in cosmetic products but, ingredients that replace it, such as methylene glycol, formalin, methanal, and methanethiol release the carcinogenic compound when mixed with water. So that formaldehyde hair smoothing treatment might be free from the F word but can actually leave the same nasty effects.

Refined Petroleum

More commonly known as mineral oil, this ingredient is found in moisturising products like body lotion and lip balms.

The issue? Not only are petroleum products harmful to the environment, they've been widely criticised for being harmful to humans. A 2011 study found mineral oils to be the largest contaminant in the human body but whether it's damaging is still scientifically unknown.


A bleaching agent that's found in skin lightening products and pigmentation fighting creams and serums.

The issue? This ingredient was linked to certain cancers, abnormal functioning of the adrenal glands and a decrease in immune responses. It's now completely banned by the European Union, Japan and Australia.


A mineral made from magnesium, silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It's often found in powder products like eyeshadow and face powders.

The issue? You may have heard of baby powders being carcinogenic but it's actually the asbestos that was found within the product that was harmful. Unpurified talcs contain asbestos which is a known carcinogenic. In 2018, an investigation showed that cosmetics company Johnson & Johnson actually knew of the asbestos present in their products for years and were forced to fork out high amounts of money in court cases.


This antibacterial chemical is found in things like soap, mascara and hand sanitiser.

The issue? Linked to liver fibrosis, skin cancer and hormone disruption, triclosan is actually no better at cleaning than soap and water. For this reason, the ingredient was determined not to be necessary in cosmetics.


Most commonly found in makeup products silica or silicon dioxide is an anti- caking, absorbent and abrasive substance.

The issue? One kind of silica, amorphous silica, is approved for use in cosmetics but crystalline silica, a known carcinogenic, is often found in products. Some argue that amorphous silica is often contaminated by crystalline silica and so avoid the ingredient altogether. Silica and its by-product silicone, often found in face primers, is also not biodegradable, causing environmental issues as well as health concerns.


A chemical UV filter found in most sunscreen products.

The issue? A recent study found that 97% of the American population have traces of the chemical in their urine and it actually acts as an endocrine disruptor. Causing testosterone fluctuations in men and women and even causing birth defects in babies. The ingredient is also commonly found to be irritating to skin and cause flare ups in conditions such as rosacea and acne.

Why natural doesn't mean safe

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 clean beauty advice

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.'

Another great source is LabMuffin Beauty Science AKA Michelle Wong, a beauty science educator with a PhD in chemistry. Her take on clean beauty comes from analysing research papers, understanding the beauty industry and knowing a thing or two about chemicals.

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