Leaving The Clean Beauty Cult

It’s time for a controversial beauty post… As a firm follower of clean beauty, I’ve been pondering whether it’s really effective as of late. Having been privy to a few friends’ bathroom beauty counters and even my sister’s makeup bag recently, I have to say that I was shocked at how much better their products performed compared to my own. Is clean beauty really worth the sacrifice? And what qualifies as ‘clean’ anyway?

What Is Clean Beauty?

I’ve been exploring clean beauty for years, and in that time I’ve come to define it as beauty products made from:

  • Ingredients of natural origin (over synthetic ingredients),
  • Ingredients grown and certified organic (where possible), and
  • Formulations that are as simple as possible.

I would also argue that these principles include cruelty-free status, and sustainable production and packaging methods, but one usually attracts the other.

According to Glamour Magazine, clean beauty was borne from the clean eating trend, which I was also a big fan of. At the time, the concept was revolutionary: choosing natural, seasonal foods to eat, rather than processed? Mind blown. Up until that point I had seen food as a fuel (and often a treat) rather than an opportunity to look after my body and wellbeing. Despite the trend’s bitter end (see: orthorexia, and the Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets documentary) clean beauty stuck.

The Issues With Clean Beauty

Clean beauty has had its fair share of criticism, but persists where clean eating did not. The main issues around clean beauty include:

  • Vague and unsubstantiated claims
  • Confusion around which beauty ingredients constitute as ‘clean’
  • Greenwashing – notably around the words like ‘natural’, ‘green’, and ‘sustainable’

Way back in 2015 I decided to take it upon myself to create my own checklist of beauty ingredients to avoid. The majority of these highlight the beauty world’s cruel and synthetic underbelly. From deforestation-causing palm oil, to fossil fuel-derived mineral oil, I knew there were better ingredients – and better products – to swap into my beauty routine. At the time, I also caveated my list with many disclaimers: ‘natural’ can mean anything; that vegan beauty isn’t necessarily cruelty-free; and that certain products will work better for some than others.

Just like food and fashion, beauty is personal, and often hard to trace back to its origins, let alone examine its entire supply chain.

What Clean Beauty Got Right…

Clean beauty has been a driving force in the beauty sector, getting big beauty brands to take note of the general public’s wishes for cleaner, greener, healthier formulations. We don’t just want to look good – we want to know the products we use aren’t harmful to our skin, our bodies, animals, or the planet. Without clean beauty, do you think Garnier would have gone cruelty-free? In a world without clean beauty, would The Ordinary’s clear, ingredient-first line ever have taken off? And would Drunk Elephant have grown into the mega brand it is today?

This is one of the reasons why I’m still pro clean beauty. It highlighted problems of a shady beauty industry that touted made-up ingredients and told us to look no further than the ads. Beauty is no longer skin-deep. It’s given us something to research, discover, and enjoy, knowing that it shares our values and lifestyle choices.

Personally, clean beauty revolutionised my skincare and makeup bag, and even the bare essentials are better for it. I now use good natural deodorant that doesn’t have aluminium in. I ensure my sunscreen is marine-safe. And my period products aren’t plastic, so they’re not shedding plastic inside of me, or into the environment.

Clean beauty also gave a springboard to small, more sustainable beauty brands who challenge the status quo. It made me look past the dusty shelves in Boots, and even past the high street, to explore beauty online. I am a devout shopper at Content*, Cult Beauty*, and Feelunique*, because they offer brands who fit my values, style, and skin.

…And What It Got It Wrong

Clean beauty also has its downsides, and a lot of them. Flawed product descriptions like ‘chemical-free’ led to memes highlighting how everything is a chemical. It aligned the clean beauty world with science-fearing folk, leading to plenty of myths.

It also led to a whole host of just bad products. I’ve tried some weird and wonderful things in my time – charcoal powder teeth whitening kits that didn’t work, shampoo bars that left my hair greasy, and biodegradable glitter pots that were more wasteful than simply avoiding glitter altogether… Clean beauty didn’t always get it right.

Then of course, there was the “goop effect”. goop became synonymous with clean beauty early on, and sadly, leaned in to the rich, crazy, wellness-obsessed memes. Just because I like knowing where my beauty ingredients come from, doesn’t mean I want to pop a jade egg in my pants.

All of this culminated in me finding myself pulling away from the clean beauty label this year. I started dabbling with new brands that don’t quite fit the clean mould. And I thought it was time to update you as to where my head’s at now…

Looking Past The Labels

I’m now of the opinion that clean beauty isn’t the be-all and end-all of cosmetics. Just like ‘sustainable fashion’ can be an oxymoron, clean beauty implies that all other beauty is ‘dirty’. And that’s just not true.

I attribute so much good to clean beauty, and there are principles I will always take with me:

  • Only shop with truly cruelty-free brands (and when in doubt, refer to Cruelty Free Kitty)
  • Look for beauty products that are made with organic ingredients (a protected term, unlike ‘natural’)
  • Choose more sustainable brands and packaging, like waterless or refillable beauty

The rest, I’m a little more flexible with. This is down to both my scepticism of clean beauty, but also my awareness that so many beauty products exist that perform incredibly well, and far outweigh their clean beauty alternatives.

My current outlook on cosmetics has led to a few new discoveries: Anastasia Beverley Hills and Hourglass are my new favourite cruelty-free makeup brands, while Dermalogica, Mario Badescu, and Sunday Riley have been looking after my skin better than ever.

And from my die-hard clean days, brands I stand by due to their values and sustainability include: Bybi, Disciple, Dr Bronner, Pai Skincare, REN Skincare, Sukin, Trilogy… I could go on.

Where do you stand on clean beauty? Are there certain values you always look for, or conversely, certain things you always avoid? I’d love to know!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links (denoted '*'). Photography by Lauren Shipley.

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