The Real Meaning of "Clean Beauty" and other Cosmetic Terms

You may have heard some of the buzz words in the beauty industry over the last few years, and wondered what exactly they mean. Words like “clean”, “green” “natural” and “non toxic” are used to describe many different types of skin, hair and other cosmetic care items.

These words were born out of a need to let the consumer see the more “natural” cosmetic companies as different from the traditional big brand names. With more and more consumers clearly interested in organic grocery items, solar panels, recycling, and reducing the amount of toxins in their daily lives, there was an opening for new terminology.


Follow the Money

Retailers know that consumers are spending big bucks, more than ever before, and that a bulk of money is being spent on items that customers perceive as being healthier for themselves, and more responsible for their environment. What is even more interesting is that the more natural skin care lines are growing in popularity so much, that some of the large traditional brands are trying to get a slice of the action. Some large cosmetic companies have new divisions that try to capture part of the market. The idea is that a consumer will be familiar with the big brand name, and will buy into the fact that this company is somehow now “natural”. In most cases, this is not true; it is just marketing. Look at brands in the store, and you will see more of them using neutral or green colors, or putting pictures of leaves on the front of the containers, and using words such as “with hyaluronic acid” or “with green tea extract”. These are not indicative of a totally natural formula, but in most cases is merely a version of an old formula, with something more natural added to make it sound better.




Beauty Lingo…and how to decipher it

Beauty brands use the term "clean" to signal that products don’t contain certain ingredients (natural or synthetic) that they consider controversial or unsafe, like parabens and talc. The problem is, without regulation, anything can be called “clean”— whether proven safe or not. If you see a product with “clean”, it is a signal to you that you may have a better chance of finding a more natural formula, but be cautious, and read the label to see if there are any ingredients there that bear more research. Let’s take a look at the most common "clean" beauty terms:

  • Organic/USDA Organic – This is actually one of the only terms that is legally regulated in skincare. In order for a company to get a USDA organic rating, it means that all of the ingredients must be produced without harmful pesticides. Unfortunately, if there are safe synthetic ingredients in there, it may be impossible to get the rating. One other thing, it is VERY expensive and difficult to obtain.
  • Naturally Derived – Naturally derived usually means that some of the ingredients have been processed from their original nature. For example, an extract can be naturally derived. It may also be chemically derived, and the chemical does not have to be listed in the ingredients, so there is really no regulation on this term.
  • Natural – There is absolutely no government regulation or definition for “natural”. The problem is that many wonderful companies produce great products and say “all natural” or “made with natural ingredients”, and then other companies can say the same thing, and be full of petrochemicals and formaldehyde releasers. When reading labels, try to learn some ingredients, and if you are unable to, find some help to learn more about what ingredients really are, and how safe they are for your skin.
  • Non-Toxic - This is a term that was made up at some point a few years ago by a very good marketing team. It really has no definition, and can be completely defined by whichever company is using it. The term implies that nothing in the formula will harm the consumer, but since one company may think synthetic colors are ok, and another company may think that PEGs are ok, there is no consistency or base standard, and this term should be researched, and not just immediately accepted because the company says it is good.

  • Chemical-Free- This is the term that makes cosmetic formulators pull their hair out by the roots. Everything in the world is made up of chemicals. The air you breathe, the water you drink…it is all chemicals. Ok…rant over! As far as skin care goes, when companies say “chemical free” what they are really trying to say is that harmful chemicals like formaldehyde, lead, toluene, parabens, etc. may be excluded from the formula. However, since there is no government regulation on the term, you need to read between the lines. Look for things that you know you don’t want, like petrochemicals, mineral oil, PEG’s, synthetic colors or dyes (usually marked with a color number),and more.
  • Green – The term “green” implies that the product is made as naturally as possible, but it really also has a much more pointed definition. A green brand is widely accepted as a brand that tries to use recycled packing materials, maybe solar power, minimally processed ingredients, and some care for environment impact. Ayr Skin Care is a green company. Although we are not able to have solar power at our lab, we do have several vendors that we use who are able to do this. We also buy ingredients from vendors that we see making an impact in their charity, their Fair Trade initiatives, and their ethos to human and animal cruelty. We source ingredients that are certified sustainable with minimal environmental impact, and use as many organic ingredients as possible. If we are currently manufacturing with an ingredient, and we find that is now available organic, we substitute our vendor as quickly as possible, without regard to the extra cost of the ingredient. Our motto is “zero compromise” to make the best product, regardless of cost.
  • Synthetic Fragrance and Dye-Free – Products that contain no artificial colors or fragrances are better for your body. Not only will you have less chance of an allergic reaction, but since companies are not legally mandated to list all of the fragrance ingredients (some 5000 of them) on the label, you never know what is in the formula. Be wary of companies that say “mica”. Mica is a naturally occurring substance found in the Earth, but it is not pretty. When you see colorful soaps, lotions or other products calling themselves natural, and they list “mica”, there should be color numbers after the term. Writing “mica” without a color number and/or name is actually illegal, but some companies still neglect to be specific on their labels. If it has color, and does not specifically say “colored with fruit juice” or something like that, then it probably contains synthetic color.


The problem with the new terminology is that it changes constantly, and with new marketing campaigns. Ayr Skin Care is on a mission to clear away some of the mystery of ingredient names and claims. If you have an ingredient or a term that you would like us to feature on an upcoming blog, we ask that you email us with your request. We will get to as many of them as we possibly can. Labels can be confusing. Find out what the ingredients are, and which of them you happen to want to use based upon any allergies, reactions, and what your skin requires to feel healthy.

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