The term “clean beauty” first popped up in a 1970s ad campaign named, “Clean Make-up”, to depict a model with a fresh-faced aesthetic with minimal make-up for the iconic brand, Cover Girl. Fast-forward to today, and everywhere you look the term “clean beauty” seems to be everywhere in the industry. But how is it defined?

Since the term is unregulated, depending on who you ask, the response could vary. To provide a little context, beauty products are in fact regulated, just not “approved” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA, “The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients … to have FDA approval before they go on the market.” Because the US Food and Drug Administration has been so lax at defining “clean” and “natural” beauty, it leaves these labels open to interpretation by anyone including companies and retailers to define the terms for themselves. All of which is to say, it is a sector of beauty with very little oversight, sort of resembling the era of the 90s.

But the general consensus is that the term “clean beauty” was created in response to consumers demanding stricter regulations on ingredients for beauty and skincare products, especially controversial ones that have been shown or suspected to harm human health.

So, What’s The Difference Between “Clean” And “Green”?

To add confusion to the matter, sometimes the term “green” is used interchangeably with “clean”, which really isn’t accurate despite both terms alluding to being natural.

Clean beauty products typically focus on the ingredients and not including ones that are harmful or potentially toxic like parabens, which some research suggests are hormone disruptors and may be carcinogenic, in addition to formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogenic. “Green” or “sustainable beauty” on the other hand puts more of a value on the entire cycle of production including where ingredients are sourced, manufacturing, and even packaging to ensure the entire process is as eco-friendly with resources as possible.

Twenty-plus years ago, there were only a handful of beauty brands referring to themselves as “clean” or “green”, like Jane Iredale, now every brand seems to offer something in these categories. Even large beauty retailers like Sephora and Ulta are creating categories to capture this demographic—although Sephora was recently caught under fire for allowing PEGs, a clean beauty no-no ingredient. It is situations like these that only fan the flames of suspicion of “greenwashing” amongst consumers and brands specializing in these types of products.

While the terms may overlap, “clean” and “green” beauty have different meanings for brands and companies, and just because a product is labeled as such, don’t make any hard and fast conclusions. Cosmetic chemist, Ginger King shared her pragmatic insights on the subject in a recent PopSugar article saying that clean beauty contains nontoxic and noncontroversial products that are proven safe and effective, but that these ingredients don’t need to be 100% green since they may not be as effective. “Consumers have been greenwashed so badly they think as long as it’s natural, it’s good for you. That is not necessarily the case. Synthetic materials can be good [in products], as long as they are proven safe — having gone through various testing — and do not harm humans, animals, or the environment.”

If all of this is enough to make your head spin, it’s understandable. A big part of the problem is that the safety requirements for cosmetics have remained largely unchanged since the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act first passed back in 1938, eighty-plus years ago. This has paved way for a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to descriptors in the cosmetic industry and adding to the confusion of consumers.

To provide some level of transparency and accountability to the public and industry at large, there are several third-party independent certification bodies like Certified B Corp for example that evaluate a company from top to bottom and side to side to determine their rating on how sustainable the entire operation is, which is then made available on their website for anyone to read. Other organizations include USDA Organic, Leaping Bunny, ECOCERT, COSMOS, MADE SAFE, and EWG Verified for consumers.

Make The Best Choice For You

For at least for the time being, terms like “green” and “clean” are not clearly defined or regulated. Let’s not forget the fact that the law regarding the safety of cosmetics has not been amended in over 80 years. Hopefully, that will change soon with enough business owners, industry leaders, and consumers demanding as much. Until then, the best approach to clean beauty is to be an informed consumer. Research brands to make sure that the companies align with your values and make products that work. From there you can come up with your own conclusions on what is best for you.