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Is Clean Beauty Now a Dirty Word in Europe?

The European Union is cracking down on beauty brands’ claims that their products are 'free of' certain ingredients. That presents a challenge to clean beauty brands that base their image around the 'made without' ideology.
Soap foam | Source: Shutterstock
  • Rachel Strugatz

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NEW YORK, United States — "I'm poisoned," read one of a string of panicked text messages from a friend earlier this month after discovering she'd been using a product containing parabens.

The “poisonous” substance in question: CeraVe Moisturizing Motion, an oil-free moisturiser recommended by Hilaria Baldwin’s dermatologist on a recent episode of “Mom Brain,” her podcast with Daphne Oz. Frantic after using an entire bottle on her face (and buying another, as well as a body lotion), my friend called CeraVe to complain and left an angry comment on the podcast’s Instagram account for daring to suggest the moisturiser in the first place.

Turns out it was a case of mistaken identity. The European Union has banned some parabens from use in cosmetics, but the two incorporated by the L'Oréal-owned CeraVe, methylparaben and propylparaben, are common preservatives deemed safe in beauty products by regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. Parabens have been shown to cause hormone problems in animal studies at very high doses, but there is no evidence that these compounds affect humans at the doses that are present in cosmetics. However, the suggestion of an issue was enough to make the whole class of ingredients a flashpoint for brands.


Parabens have gotten a bad rap, in large part because they are often found atop lists of “dirty” or “nasty” ingredients circulated by “clean” beauty labels and wellness bloggers. A Goop post titled “Clean Beauty — and Why It’s Important” cites parabens first in a “long, ever-evolving list of ingredients linked to harmful health effects.” The chemicals are on Beautycounter’s “Never List” of 1,500 ingredients it avoids, explaining that they “may alter important hormone mechanisms in our bodies.” Clean beauty retailer Credo prohibits brands it stocks from using parabens.

These brands say they’re just trying to protect their customers. A growing chorus of scientists and consumer advocates say they’re engaging in fearmongering. And starting next week, they’ll have a powerful government ally in Europe.

On July 1, the EU will begin more strictly enforcing regulations designed to rein in “free from” claims on beauty product packaging and marketing. Brands won’t be able to advertise that they are free of ingredients that are banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, or that aren’t typically used in beauty products.

Guidance from a group advising the EU on the regulation singles out “free from parabens” as a no-go. Under the law, cosmetics brands are only permitted to use parabens deemed safe by the EU, and advertising their absence could imply to consumers that all parabens are dangerous.

“If you’re not a chemist it’s very difficult to understand… that one [paraben] could be innocent and one dangerous,” said Hanny Roskamp, an independent safety assessor, who works with brands worldwide to ensure they are compliant with cosmetics regulations. “There is a lot of misunderstanding of chemistry and people [start to] panic.”

She added that the underlying regulations aren’t changing, but “the interpretation will become stricter.”

The rule has split the beauty industry, where “clean” brands are a fast-growing segment that’s come to span skincare, colour cosmetics and haircare. “Free of” and “made without” are built into the identity of fast-growing brands like Beautycounter and Goop. Sephora introduced a “Clean at Sephora” section last year, and Credo and Follain are among retailers selling nothing but clean products. Colour lines from Ilia to Kosas are predicated on being “clean,” as are skincare ranges like Tatcha and Vintner’s Daughter.

There is no clear-cut definition for “clean,” particularly in the US, where only about a dozen cosmetics ingredients are banned (compared with hundreds in Europe). Founders and brands create their own interpretations of the label, building elaborate rules and lists.


The implication behind the “clean” label is that other brands are not, even when they are complying with regulations, said Floris Van Onna, co-founder of, a beauty e-tailer based in Germany, as well as Hiro Cosmetics, a beauty brand and Flowing Cosmetics, a beauty distributor.

“Who is deciding which ingredients are clean?” he said.

Beautycounter has a “better safe than sorry ethos,” said Senior Vice President of Social Mission Lindsay Dahl. She said if there’s a certain ingredient group that has “questionable impact” — such as parabens ­— the company will “avoid that class altogether.”

Some brands have begun to distance themselves from “made without” and “clean” claims, said Myles Harris, a supply chain consultant who works with beauty brands. Some of his skincare and colour clients are updating packaging. One skincare brand replaced “clean beauty” with “no nasties.”

“As with most things in cosmetics, it’s pretty grey,” he said. “You can almost do whatever you want, which is terrifying.”

Some brands Credo stocks have removed “free of parabens” from packaging, said Mia Davis, who leads mission around safety and sustainability at the retailer. She said Credo “supports the spirit of the guidelines” but that it “falls apart a bit” in the section about parabens.

“If someone wants to make a… product that’s free of parabens and have gone out of their way to use [other preservatives], they should be able to say that,” she said.

Sephora and Goop declined to comment.


Deciem, parent company of The Ordinary and two other skincare lines, has never focused on clean or “free of” messaging. Instead, it sells products based on the quality of its ingredients and innovative formulas, said Chief Executive Nicola Kilner.

“[The EU guidance] will push people to be innovative and stop selling things based on fear,” Kilner said. “If the reason why people are buying your products is because you convince them that other products are bad — that doesn’t feel innovative.”

All products should be safe — and brands shouldn’t use “clean” or “free of” claims as a differentiator.

“It’s better to have a platform of [made] “With X, Y and Z” for XYZ benefits that also happens to be free of important no-no’s," said Tamara Brown, founder and chief executive at Tamara Brown Consulting. "If you just literally only make a platform of being ‘free of’ – those are the brands that are going to be in trouble."


Allergan has a new owner. Drugmaker AbbVie will buy the maker of Botox for about $63 billion, the second biggest deal in the pharmaceutical industry this year.

L'Oréal is angling to get into the biotech space. The French beauty giant took a minority stake in bio-industry solutions producer Carbios for an undisclosed amount.

This is how one achieves "Instagram Face." There are non-surgical ways to look like your favourite influencers, including Botox, strategically placed fillers in cheeks and lips and liquid nose jobs.

Social media has changed beauty standards. Dr. Linda Fiumara, a plastic surgeon, said the internet has created new beauty ideals even though the majority of photos are filtered, Photoshopped or airbrushed.

Karl Lagerfeld did a makeup collaboration with L'Oréal. While little is known about the product so far, the L'Oréal Paris x Karl Lagerfeld collection will debut in September, on the eve of Paris Fashion Week.

To shave or not to shave. Direct to consumer razor company Billie released a new campaign that features armpit and pubic hair, tackling the taboo subject of women's body hair.

Fragrance is clean beauty's next frontier. Sephora is adding two-year-old brand Skylar to its clean fragrance assortment, which already includes Phlur and Ellis Brooklyn.

As evidenced by Phlur's new round of funding. The clean fragrance brand raised $7 million to vertically integrate portions of its business and add additional categories.

This rapper hosted a new kind of beauty pageant. Megan Thee Stallion has thrown five events across the country, the latest being the "Cognac Queen" beauty pageant where the winner was awarded $2,500 in college tuition money.

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