What is Clean Beauty?

Sk*pcare 101

  • by Kennedy King & Gabriella Mendoza
  • 3 min read

Doesn’t it seem like every product in the beauty aisle is now labeled as being “more natural” and with “cleaner ingredients”? And as appealing as that sounds, what does it actually mean? Are the ingredients better for my skin or is it just another gimmick to get us to buy? Here is what you should know before you shop.

Clean beauty is best described as non-toxic products that are made without ingredients considered harmful to human health and the environment. Sounds good, right? But the labeling around this term and how beauty products can benefit you is still minimally regulated and often leads to misinformation. The market is overcrowded with products that claim to be good for our hair & body, yet contain some questionable ingredients like sulfates, parabens, and synthetic fragrances.

As we try to become more conscious consumers, the difficulty lies in understanding which ingredients are “clean” and worth pursuing and which ingredients are best to avoid. Within the beauty industry brands are pretty much self-regulated—meaning anyone can claim their products are "clean"—so we must do our own research before making a purchase. Advocacy organizations like the Environmental Working Group have created a Skin Deep® cosmetic database where you can learn more about safer ingredients and search for brands that have been verified to be free from harmful substances.

When we think of what clean beauty means, it probably doesn’t include chemicals like benzene, classified as a human carcinogen and recently found in haircare products recalled by Proctor and Gamble. The U.S. lags behind Europe in banning questionable ingredients from personal care products. The European Union has banned upwards of 1,000+ ingredients, while the U.S. has outlawed only 11 of the toxic ingredients considered to be harmful to your health. As a result, we must rely on organizations like the EWG and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to help navigate this overcrowded marketplace to find products that are safe and effective. Here is a quick cheat sheet highlighting 5 ingredients you should avoid in beauty products:


These preservatives are at the top of most "what to avoid" lists, yet are still found in a variety of cosmetics. They have been linked to hormone-related problems (reproductive organ harm, damage to fertility, etc.) and are known to cause skin irritation. What to look for: methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, or any other word that ends in “paraben.”

PHTHALATE (pronounced thal-ate)

Phthalates are plasticizers that are used as solvents in beauty products and have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and hormonal toxicity, and cancer. They have been found in shampoos, lotions, soaps, and haircare products. What to look for: Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) is the most commonly used, alongside Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) and Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP).

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) & BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

These chemical cousins are synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in haircare, lipsticks, and moisturizers; among other products. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen.


Sometimes referred to as SLES, it's commonly used as a detergent or foaming agent in products like shampoo, shower gels, and face wash. What to look for: These ingredients usually have chemical names including the letters “eth.”


The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies Formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. While it’s not typically found in beauty products, it has been found in products like nail polish and hair-straightening treatments. What to look for: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and glyoxal.         

As you shop the beauty aisle, get to know the brands you trust. Learn about their story, find out if they have any sustainable initiatives, and ask questions about their ingredients. Do they have a proprietary ingredient like sk*p’s G-HoneyBiomeComplex, which is harvested responsibly and sourced locally in New York? More importantly, choose personal care brands that are transparent about how and where their ingredients are sourced and make sure you align with their values and overall mission. The good news? As a conscious consumer, you have the spending power to make better choices and make those not-so-clean beauty brands more accountable.