Jessica DeFino
Updated April 24, 2020
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What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.

There are many, many misconceptions about clean beauty. This to be expected since the words “clean beauty” mean nothing. (More on that later.) Of all the myths and mistruths, though, the one that makes my organically oiled face flush with frustration is this: Clean beauty is for the 1%. In other words, clean beauty is expensive, it’s inaccessible, it’s as indulgent and unnecessary as other “one-percenter” pursuits, like owning a private jet or perhaps a tiger.

That is not what clean beauty is. At all.

Calling clean beauty a luxury is like calling yoga a luxury. Sure, you could buy the hundred-dollar pair of Lululemon leggings and hire a private instructor…but you could also do yoga at home, for free, the way it was intended. Similarly, the concept of clean beauty existed long before the Goop articles and the $300 hyaluronic acid serums. It’s been around for centuries. It was pioneered by Black and Brown communities. It’s inherently easy, accessible, and sustainable.

Before I go any further, let’s define clean beauty.

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This is a little tough because “clean beauty” has no decided-upon definition. The term isn’t regulated by any governing body; there aren’t legally-enforceable lists of “clean” and “dirty” ingredients floating around out there. Some people define clean as “all-natural,” some define it as “non-toxic,” and others define it as “free-from” any number of potentially harmful ingredients (think parabens, sulfates, and silicones).

“I think the entire industry would benefit so much if we just changed this to ‘cleaner beauty,’” Adina Grigore, founder of natural beauty brand S.W. Basics and author of Skin Cleanse, tells HelloGiggles. “There is no such thing as clean beauty because each of us gets to define what clean means to us personally, but there definitely is cleaner beauty. Even if you are looking at two bottles of mainstream drugstore shampoos and one brand is paraben-free, that is cleaner than the one next to it that is not paraben-free.”

In every instance, it’s obvious what “clean beauty” is meant to communicate at its core: safety. That’s why, personally and professionally, my working definition of the category is this: products, practices, and ingredients that maximize safety by minimizing harm—harm to the body (like endocrine disruptors and carcinogens), harm to the skin (like irritants and allergens), or harm to the planet (like petrochemicals and bioaccumulative ingredients).

The easiest way to minimize harm is to minimize consumption—period. Use fewer products. Expose your skin to fewer ingredients. Lower your body’s chemical burden.

Clean beauty began in Black and Brown communities.

Historically, the beauty practices of communities of color have been inherently “clean”—from the African and Native American tribes who created pigment from natural clay and crushed flowers, to the Egyptian women who filled in their brows with burnt almonds. They didn’t call it “clean beauty,” of course—they just used whatever ingredients were accessible and effective. These happened to be natural and, for the most part, safe.

This ancient approach to beauty is inherently “green,” too. Skin care was used only when needed to promote healing. Makeup was used only in ceremony or for symbolism’s sake, never mindlessly. (In Native communities, for instance, face paints are sometimes applied to call in protection and power.) When plants and flowers were harvested, enough was left behind to encourage regrowth. Minimal ingredients went into minimal products, and if something worked, that was it. There was no need to search for something newer and better.

Although the cosmetics marketed toward minorities today (hair straighteners and dyes, skin-bleaching creams) are actually more toxic than average cosmetics, many people of color still practice these passed-down philosophies. The Indian grandmothers mixing turmeric face masks from the kitchen cabinet, the African women multitasking with a single jar of shea butter, the Mexican families growing aloe plants—these are the leaders of the real “clean beauty” movement. These are the champions of safety, sustainability, and cost-effective solutions.

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So, how did clean beauty get its reputation for being indulgent and over-the-top?

“Unfortunately, the term clean beauty has been co-opted for marketing purposes,” Jana Blankenship, the founder of natural beauty brand Captain Blankenship and author of Wild Beauty, tells HelloGiggles. “It doesn’t always reflect the integrity of products anymore.” It doesn’t always reflect affordability, either.

Put simply, the portrayal of clean products as designer goods is a construct. It benefits the media to offer up clickable links to expensive items because the beauty industry makes more money when you spend more money. It benefits marketers to conflate “clean” and “high-end,” since it either convinces you that the products are worth the price (a plus for “clean” companies) or keeps you in the “non-clean” consumer cycle (a plus for conventional companies).

“A lot of clean beauty is expensive because of marketing,” Abena Boamah, founder of Hanahana Beauty, points out. According to an Allure investigation, products are sold at a 500% to 1,350% markup on average. Ingredients and packing materials might cost somewhere around $10, but the consumer pays $100 for the product—a 1000% markup—to account for the money spent marketing said product (among other things, of course, like paying the company’s employees or gaining certifications).

The thing to take away from the above paragraph is the low cost of raw materials—raw materials that are often easy to access as an individual. As Blankenship says, “Of course, there is a large segment of clean beauty products that are very expensive, but you can DIY economical products at home.” I DIY nearly all of my skincare and hair care products, and they’re “cleaner” and cheaper than anything I’ve ever pulled off a shelf.

The Captain Blankenship founder adds that as the demand for clean beauty grows, “we are seeing so many brands offering [affordable] options,” both online and in mass retailers. Accessible lines like S.W. Basics, Cocokind, and Honest Beauty are all available at Target. Hanahana Beauty and Captain Blankenship sell direct-to-consumer via their websites. Newcomer Saie Beauty offers non-toxic, sustainable makeup under $20 through—get this—Goop.

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All of the above considered, it’s fair to say that clean beauty is not targeting the 1%. Capitalism is.

Perpetuating the idea that “clean beauty is for the 1%” perpetuates the idea that clean beauty is for wealthy white people, who make up 91% of the top 1%.

Not only is this untrue, but it also sends a dangerous message: that people of color and people without piles of money are not deserving of safer cosmetics, when in fact they are often the gatekeepers of safer cosmetics.

“You know the clean product was never meant just for the 1%, especially when you think about who are the people that are producing or farming the raw, natural ingredients,” notes Boamah, who sources Hanahana’s products from suppliers and makers in Ghana. In the U.S., it’s estimated that “47% of farmworkers are immigrants;” mostly undocumented and largely underpaid. Many luxury beauty brands make their products overseas, as well, with natural ingredients harvested by the area’s indigenous and local communities—only to capitalize on the proximity to these cultures’ “artisans” and “organic farmers.”

In the words of sustainability advocate Aditi Mayer, “Western imperialism has created systems that exploit the work of [people] of color, revamping [it] as an elite practice.”

The first step toward rehabbing clean beauty’s elitist reputation is separating the ideals of clean beauty from the industry of clean beauty.

You can embody the principles of clean beauty—minimizing harm to the body, the skin, and the planet—without buying many products. (The “cleanest” cleanser? Water. The “cleanest” moisturizer? Your own sebum. The “cleanest” exfoliator? The natural process of desquamation.)

When you do need to add products to your routine, there’s no need for them to be expensive products. “I think a $10 bottle of Dr. Bronner’s would get you through an eternity without needing anything else,” Grigore says of the multitasking Castile soap, which can be used as a shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent, shaving lotion…or, “you can make a $1 natural soap or $190 serum.”

“I love making my own mask and oil blends,” Boamah agrees. “I usually source a lot from Ghana, where I live for half of the year, at the local market or direct from producers. Baobab oil, spirulina, charcoal—I love a spirulina and charcoal mask.” For more “easy and economical DIY recipes,” Blankenship recommends her book, Wild Beauty, which she describes as “a love song to plant-based ingredients. These ingredients have been used throughout time and are effective and luxurious as-is for our skin and hair.”

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Of course, it always feels nice to treat yourself to a new face mask or mascara—you know, one in a pretty-looking package that you don’t have to make yourself—and those safe, affordable products are out there. “You just have to look a little harder because those brands have less money to find you [with marketing],” Grigore says. “Yes, so much of any market is for rich people, but there’s a whole one created by and for the rest of us.”