What is Clean Beauty? | The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Natural Products
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What is clean beauty and do natural products actually work?
Natural. Organic. Clean, Non-toxic. Chemical-free. Healthy. These terms are all thrown around quite a bit in the beauty and personal care industry, but what do they actually mean?
Natural beauty does not have one set definition, and can mean different things to different people. To me, clean beauty, or natural beauty, is when products are created in a mindful way without the use of potentially harmful chemicals.
Clean beauty products should be made with sustainably produced ingredients that enhance our health and have not been synthetically altered.
Everything we put on our body should have the intention of helping, not harming us, right? The best way to ensure that is by using products with intentional and thoughtful ingredients that come from nature, not a lab.
However, it can be tough to decipher what is truly a ‘natural’ product.
The beauty industry is VERY loosely regulated and lots of terms are thrown around that confuse consumers and give the impression of a clean product.
So while a product may say on the label it is natural, healthy, or pure, these terms can be used freely without any proof of these claims.
SO HOW DO I FIND HEALTHY PRODUCTS?
The very best way to make sure your products are actually clean and non-toxic is to understand and read the product labels and ingredient list.
First, become familiar with the most toxic ingredients to avoid in your products.
INGREDIENTS TO AVOID IN YOUR BEAUTY PRODUCTS
Many of these ingredients are known carcinogens (cause cancer), can induce allergies and skin reactions, disrupt hormones and interfere with reproductive health.
- Synthetic Colors
- Heavy Metals
- Sodium laryel sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Sunscreen Chemicals
- Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives (FRP)
- Petroleum Based Ingredients
Read lots more about why each of these ingredients are toxic here and find out which products are most likely to contain each toxin.
HOW TO READ BEAUTY PRODUCT LABELS (AND WHAT TO LOOK FOR)
The first thing you will notice when you look at a beauty or personal care product is the front label. You might see any number of seals and emblems stating things like ‘organic, cruelty-free, vegan or fair-trade’.
You will also notice symbols meant to show life of the product and expiration date.
The only seal that is regulated by the government is the USDA organic logo. This is a great, concise article breaking down all of the regulations/requirements around the USDA organic certification for beauty and cosmetic products.
The rest of these certifications and seals do carry meaning, but they are issued by various organizations who provide the certification to use the emblem themselves.
So if cruelty-free is important to you, I suggest getting familiar with the groups who provide these seals and making sure your beliefs align with theirs (like Leaping Bunny). That way when you see that seal on a product, you know if meets your own requirements.
HOW TO READ AN INGREDIENT LABEL (AND WHY YOU SHOULD)
The absolute best way to determine if a product is truly made from natural ingredients and free of toxic chemicals is to the read the ingredient list.
Since terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are for the most part not regulated, you can skip all of the fluff on the front of the package and go straight to the ingredient list.
This is the area many marketers hope you will skip over, and it is often small and difficult to read.
The Environmental Working Group has a wonderful resource to help decipher if a product is clean or not. Check out their SkinDeep Database and App for an easy to read and search list of thousands of products.
I have some easy ‘cheats’ to help you quickly determine if a product meets your new non-toxic standards without spending all day in the beauty isle reading labels.
1. Take a look at the overall size of the ingredient list.
- Is it huge? The first basic rule I follow is to look for a small ingredient list with ingredients that I know. In general I have found that longer ingredient lists mean more toxic ingredients. (this is not always the case, however. A few of my favorite products are loaded with herbal extracts and infusions and have a very long list of clean, non-toxic ingredients)
- You do not need a huge ingredient list to make a wonderful and effective product! Shea butter, essential oils, aloe vera, herbs and plant extracts are all wonderful, skin-healthy ingredients that I look for when purchasing products.
- NOTE: Many ingredient lists will include the latin name for an ingredient as well as the standard word. This can make an ingredient list look much longer than it actually is, and can seem scary when you first start reading them!
2. Next, skip to the end and look at the last few ingredients
- The bottom of the ingredient list is typically where some of the most offensive additives are. Ingredients are listed in descending order of total amount in the product.
- Ingredients listed first are the primary ingredients and those at the end are typically additives, preservatives, fragrances, and only a small amount is used.
3. Lastly, go back to the top of the ingredient list and read every item to make sure you know what it is.
- If you’re unsure, reference this list of the top 10 toxic ingredients to avoid. If it’s not on here, you’re in the clear.
HOW TO SHOP FOR NATURAL PRODUCTS
If reading ingredient lists seems like too much just to figure out if your products are healthy, there are other ways to shop for clean beauty products.
WHAT ARE THE BEST NATURAL BEAUTY BRANDS?
I have a number of brands I turn to over and over again because I have already done my research and I trust them to create healthy, clean products. A few of my favorite clean beauty brands are:
Neal’s Yard Remedies (NYR Organics)
The highest quality organic skincare, body products and essential oils around. They are a UK based company that produces GMO-free, organic products with sustainable ingredients and responsible packaging.
My go-to for quality and affordable clean products. I love their shampoo and conditioner and they have amazing skincare products for less than $20. Andalou is easy to find ‘in the wild’ – check Whole Foods, Sprouts, Ulta, Target or Amazon.
I can’t find anything better than their brightening face scrub, it’s been my go-to exfoliating face wash for years (and it’s less than $10….WHAT?!). Acure is another readily available brand available at most of the same spots as Andalou.
Healthy makeup that multi-tasks! I am obsessed with their Aura multi-use sticks. (link from SAS pending)
Clean and affordable makeup that WORKS.
For pregnancy and baby products (their diaper balm is THE BEST)
Herbal based skincare that is truly clean and amazing. Their ani-aging face serum is my favorite.
BEST ONLINE GREEN BEAUTY STORES
There are a number of online green beauty stores who are doing a fabulous job sourcing the best clean and natural beauty products around. Shopping at one of these stores takes the guess work away because they only stock non-toxic products.
The online spot for higher-end and luxury clean beauty products. They have a HUGE assortment of skincare, haircare, makeup, fragrance and wellness products from clean and healthy brands. They also have an amazing monthly subscription box.
Stocks non-toxic skincare, haircare, beauty, wellness, men’s products plus their own brand. They are super transparent about ingredients they don’t allow in any of the brands they sell, which I love! Read all about their restricted ingredients here.
Another clean beauty Mecca online. They have a giant inventory of natural beauty products, and include everything from affordable brands (like Acure) to luxury brands (like African Botanics). They also have a handful of stores around the country (find stores here).
Neal’s Yard Remedies (NYR Organics)
The highest quality organic skincare, body products and essential oils around. They produce GMO-free, organic products with sustainable ingredients and responsible packaging. This brand is one of the best kept organic beauty secrets, IMO!
Ships a monthly cruelty-free and non-toxic beauty box (for less than $20 a month) and stocks a huge selection of clean products in their online store. The subscription box is a great way to test out some new natural brands. Read my full review of the Petit Vour box here.
An OG in the clean beauty industry, IMO. They were one of the first truly natural brands I used and loved, and I still use many of their products today. They are a great source for skincare, makeup, haircare and low toxin nail polish.
An international clean beauty store that ships worldwide (for FREE). This is a great spot to find lesser known European brands that are tough to find in the US.
HOW TO TRANSITION TO NATURAL SKINCARE
Just like any transition to a healthier lifestyle, think of switching to natural, clean beauty products as a journey.
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You probably won’t be able to make the switch all at once, that would be pretty darn overwhelming (and expensive!).
I recommend choosing one or 2 products to decide to make the natural switch and start there.
Products that you use in large quantities on your body OR that you consume small amounts of (like lip products) are a great place to start.
Try a naturally made lip balm or lipstick – there are some amazing choices available. This is a great place to start because you actually consume the lip products you apply. Make it as healthy and clean as possible!
Body lotion is another easy clean swap to start with. You won’t miss your conventional lotion because there are TONS of amazing clean lotion options available.
EASY NATURAL BEAUTY SWAPS
Try these natural beauty alternatives to conventional products that won’t break your budget and work so well you won’t miss your toxic products one bit.
Shampoo and Conditioner – Andalou Naturals is my favorite natural haircare line. It works (the shampoo actually gets sudsy) and is affordable.
Nail Polish – Try Zoya 10-free polish. Nail polish is one of the worst toxic offenders. Zoya is ’10-free’ polish and salon quality. Seriously, their polish is amazing!
Body Wash – Try NYR Organics Body Wash, OR make the switch to handmade bar soap! Not only is bar soap chemical free, it is also a great zero-waste swap and lasts longer than body wash (if stored properly).
Shop your local farmers market for locally made handmade soaps, or check out Etsy for TONS of handmade options.
HOW TO MAKE HOMEMADE BEAUTY PRODUCTS
One of my favorite ways to go green and clean is to make my own products. When you make your own beauty products you know exactly what is in it AND you can save a ton of money!
I used to sell my handmade products, but now I prefer to share my recipes so everyone can make their own as well. It’s really fun and easy to do, you can find lots of recipes to get you started on my clean beauty page.