Navigating the World Of Clean Beauty Products

by Jessica Pigza

It used to be easy. If you needed a beauty product you simply walked into a store, found the product that met your needs and walked out. If you had oily skin and needed face wash, you found one for oily skin and gave it a try. Nowadays the world of beauty products has exploded and there are so many other options to consider. Plus, as we become more educated in the products around us, we are also learning what products to trust and which ones may be filled with harmful ingredients. Dare I say it’s like opening Pandora’s box, once it’s open, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to the products around us.

I knew that there were clean beauty products out there but what can I say, I’m a trusting girl so even though I didn’t know exactly what was in the products I was using, I trusted they weren’t bad for me. It wasn’t until I was looking into a face care regimen for my daughter that I started to discover that all products were not created equal and that some ingredients could carry some long term effects.

Now I wish there was an easy way to put all beauty products into either a good or bad category but alas, it isn’t that simple. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of overseeing the personal beauty care industry and its rules have gone vastly unchanged since 1938. According to the FDA’s website, they do not need to approve products for safety before they hit the market. They only need to approve color additives. In addition, cosmetic companies do not need to register with the FDA or provide ingredient lists but are highly encouraged to do so. The United States is unfortunately behind when it comes to regulating their beauty products. For example, the European Union has banned approximately 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics that include makeup, lotions, hair dyes, deodorant, nail polish and shaving cream. However, the United States only bans 11, yet the average woman uses 12 such beauty products a day containing approximately 168 chemicals on her body according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a health advocacy group. Sad to say, there seem to be a lot of loopholes in the personal care industry regulations which means it’s time for us to become detectives and do our due diligence. Below are some of the things I’ve learned and I also breakdown some of the terminology so next time you go into the store, you’re better equipped to pick products that not only meet your needs, but that you can feel safer using.

Disclaimer: I am just like you, someone who wants to try and pick personal care products that are better for me and my family. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned, I am not a professional in this arena.

Know the Terms

1. Clean

Means that a product is safe, non-toxic, and has transparent labeling of ingredients. Ingredients are not linked to harmful health effects. This can mean a combination of natural ingredients as well as man-made. The key here is that they are not harmful in both the short term or long term.

2. Organic

Products that are organic consist of organically farmed ingredients. These ingredients are grown without the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and more. However, a product only needs to be 70% of organic ingredients in order to be labeled “made with organic ingredients.” For products to receive the official USDA Organic Label they must be 95% truly organic and the other 5% must meet their allowed ingredient list.

3. Vegan

Vegan means that a product does not contain any animal products or animal-derived ingredients but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain synthetic ingredients. It also doesn’t mean that the products are not tested on animals, however, more often than not they aren’t tested on animals.

4. Cruelty Free

Cruelty Free means that the ingredients/components and final product have not been tested on animals but that doesn’t mean it does not contain any animal byproducts. Common animal byproducts include beeswax, honey, lanolin, and tallow.

5. Natural

The term ‘natural’ is mostly used to describe the purity of ingredients. It means that a product contains ingredients found in nature without synthetics. However, the argument can be made that not all things found in nature are good for you. The most commonly used example is poison ivy. It’s 100% natural however it’s not something you’d want in your beauty products.

Do Your Research

All of our personal care products will have a full ingredient list on them but it’s up to us to decipher those ingredients. Ingredients can be looked up individually and there are also websites and apps that will help you sort out which ones are good and which ones may be toxic and their level of toxicity. Another thing I learned, according to, is that anytime the term ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ is used in the ingredients, the contents that make up the fragrance do not need to be disclosed as they are considered a proprietary blend of the company. That means we have no idea of knowing just what is in their fragrance or if they use additives to preserve their fragrance.

As I mentioned there are some websites and companies that can help you sort out the ingredient lists as well as a plain old Google search. I’ve already mentioned Environmental Working Group Skin Deep (EWG) but also can help you determine your beauty products safety rating. They have a huge database and if your product is not in there, you can register it yourself. This is a great tool for helping you sort out the ingredients in your products. Below I’ve listed some of the top ‘no-no’ ingredients. These ingredients as well as others and what they are typically used for can be found here.

  • BHA and BHT
  • Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colors listed as “CI” followed by a five digit number
  • DEA-related ingredients
  • Dibutyl phthalate
  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
  • Parabens
  • Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance)
  • PEG compounds
  • Petrolatum
  • Siloxanes
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Triclosan

There are also apps that are available to help you search out products and their ingredients. They also have a scanner function so you can scan the barcodes of your products to determine their safety rating before heading to the checkout.

Companies That Are Stepping Up

Thankfully there are companies stepping up and answering the call for better, safer beauty products. In addition, some retailers, like Sephora, have what they call a “clean logo.” According to the company’s web site, the goal of the Clean at Sephora initiative is simple, ‘get the beauty you want, minus the ingredients you might not.’ Some of those ingredients include Parabens, Sulfates: SLS & SLES, Phthalates, Mineral Oil, Formaldehydes and more. Target is another company that has a clean beauty product category online. Other brands have also come about because of the demand for better products. I’ve listed some of the brands boasting clean beauty products below to get you started. Note: I am not endorsing any of these brands as the end all be all to clean beauty products. I still recommend checking them out for yourself and know there are many, many more out there.

Last But Not Least

No matter what a product is labeled, clean, natural, or synthetic, everything has a shelf life. I can’t stress enough how important it is not to use old beauty products. Even the most harmless ingredients can become harmful if they are past their shelf life. Luckily each product has a little cheat sheet called the Period After Opening Symbol (PAO) to help you know how long you should keep it around. The image below can be found on the back and the little number states the recommended mount of months a product is good for. Click here for more tips about beauty product expiration.

Final Thoughts

All we can do is our best when it comes to searching out beauty products that are good for us. The above information is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to this billion dollar industry but thankfully companies are stepping up to help make our search for clean products a little easier.

Your turn! Are you new to the clean beauty movement or a seasoned veteran? What are your favorite clean beauty products?