Clean beauty has become a trend over recent years, a minimalistic answer that could transform our self-care routines in the complexity of the 21st century. The buzzword has taken over skincare, haircare, fragrance, nail care, and makeup.
Clean beauty is focused on excluding specific ingredients that have been proven potentially harmful for our health, such as parabens, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, and mineral oils, and many more from product formulations. However, there is no unanimous definition of clean beauty. The industry is self-regulated as which products are considered “clean” is decided according to the self-assigned excluded ingredients lists by brands and retailers. The standards vary by location as well. The EU has banned or restricted more than 1300 chemicals, while the US has outlawed or curbed only 11.
“And then there is kind of a wide array of definitions from very organic, only found in nature to just simple ingredients that are safe and proven not to be doing any damage to you in any sort of way,” Birchbox’s co-founder Katia Beauchamp said at Fashinnovation Third Worldwide Talks.
Fact-Check: Clean Does Not Always Mean Sustainable
While clean beauty offers a healthier approach to our self-care and makeup routines, focusing on excluding as many toxic ingredients as possible, the term’s association with “natural” and “organic” may lead one to think that these clean beauty products are automatically sustainable. However, this is not always the case.
“I think right now we’re still seeing the growth of what is like a very misunderstood and widely refined category of clean,” Beauchamp said. “Sustainability is on its very, very early legs, but I think [it is] promising and interesting.”
Making a clean beauty product sustainable requires a broader consideration than checking off the boxes on an excluded ingredients list. Just like sustainable fashion, sustainable beauty should be treated holistically, taking environmental concerns into account and its economic and social impacts. Ingredients in clean beauty products should be ethically sourced and proven to be safe for the environment. Reducing the water used in products, designing recyclable and lightweight packaging made from post-consumer waste, and reducing shipping carbon footprint are also some of the questions that sustainability tackles.
“The reason that there hasn’t been as big a shift [towards sustainability] is that it’s really hard to recycle everything,” Beauchamp said. “We’re all learning that, and it is not something that is done well. It’s really hard to recycle small products that have ingredients on the inside and getting them clean.”
Demand and Supply: Why We Need a Conversation on Clean Beauty and Sustainability
The Natural Look: Enhance, Not Transform
As the fluorescent office lights gave their place to Zoom, the way we approach beauty has also changed for a more natural self throughout the pandemic. With beauty services closed around the world, especially in the early months of the pandemic, we forced ourselves to explore alternative at-home ways and accept our bodies’ natural course — from hair color to nails. Instead of full-face glam looks, working on the foundational beauty became the new necessary trend. Treatment products like serums and masks took over the place of high-coverage foundations.
“I think the biggest trend we’re seeing is really in that skincare aspect,” Beauchamp said. “We’re definitely seeing people taking more time to work on that foundational health of their skin.”
Likewise, the shift toward natural beauty looks paralleled the demand for clean beauty, especially in the facial skincare category. Birchbox saw a 40% jump in demand for their clean products in 2020, equating to almost 20% of penetration for the business. 50% of the demand increase was driven by skincare, reflecting the new “skin first, everything else later” approach that is about to flourish more in the near future.
“Most of us when we think about skincare, we think about anti-aging, and so that’s usually a mix of moisturizing and exfoliating,” Beauchamp said. “Now we’re seeing that a whole host of brands are pushing into creating great skincare to accomplish those two things that are natural. So that’s leading the trend, but I think, absolutely, you’re seeing a burgeoning trend in hair, absolutely there’s gotta be the body.”
The Consumer Has the Power
Clean beauty, with its focus on excluding ingredients proven to be potentially harmful, urges consumers to rethink the products they choose to put on their skin and lean towards a healthier self. However, it is no secret that greenwashing is also bait in the clean beauty industry, where associated labels such as “natural” and “organic” can mislead the consumers. Definitions are vague; however, the more educated the consumers are on clean beauty and sustainability, the more questions they pose to the brands. Demanding certain ingredients such as parabens, talk, and sulfates SLES and SLS, to be excluded will push more and more brands into the clean beauty market. In return, brands will innovate to form an ingredient-safe industry with more sustainable and more affordable products.
“If all consumers just said ‘well this is the only way I will put anything on my body, trust me, it will be just like what happened when we had a pandemic, and overnight we all changed our lives,” Beauchamp said. “Overnight, everything will change if consumers insist that it will change, and the prices will go down, and we all know how that works; but if consumers don’t demand it, then brands don’t have that necessity to change.”
An Innovative Subscription Box: Birchbox, Sustainability, and Clean Beauty
Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna founded Birchbox in 2010 as Harvard Business School graduate students. Realizing that the available options’ excessiveness was posing a challenge to the consumers, Beauchamp and Barna decided to create a service to create a seamless product discovery process for the consumers by limiting options with personalized samples. Now, Birchbox sends out samples according to the beauty profiles of its customers in totally recyclable, post-consumer waste packaging. Consequently, Birchbox eliminates the waste from the full-sized products bought yet left to decay at the far corners of our beauty counters while providing environmentally friendly solutions.
Birchbox also has clean beauty brands both in the sample boxes and on their e-commerce section. Customers can also opt to choose Clean Boxes to receive only clean beauty samples that month. Besides, Birchbox has also launched its own clean beauty brand, Arrow, to simplify the beauty routine with multi-tasking products. These products are formulated free of parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and mineral oil; they are vegan and cruelty-free.
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By Elif Kesikbas