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What Happens When Consumers Don’t Trust ‘Clean’

‘Clean’ products have been a driving force in beauty for years. But with no universal standards, the confusion surrounding that label is threatening both its use as a measure of product safety and in marketing.
Clean beauty's future remains uncertain.
Clean beauty's future remains uncertain. (Getty)
By
  • Emily Jensen
BoF PROFESSIONAL

Key insights

  • Last week, Sephora filed a motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit, centered on its "Clean At Sephora" programme.
  • Despite the mainstream use of the term "clean" in products and marketing, a universal definition remains elusive.
  • Brands and retailers risk backlash if they are seen as failing to adequately explain the safety and efficacy of their products.

A US federal judge is being asked to decide a question that’s long confounded the cosmetics industry: what is clean beauty?

In November 2022, Sephora was hit with a class-action lawsuit by Lindsey Finster, who claims she was misled by the retailer’s labelling while shopping for mascara.

The product in question was Saie Beauty Mascara 101, which gets the “Clean at Sephora” stamp of approval, a designation Sephora defines as products that are “formulated without parabens, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oils, formaldehyde, and more.”

But Finster argues that the programme led her to believe some products’ ingredients “were not synthetic nor connected to causing physical harm and irritation.”

In a Feb. 2 motion to dismiss, Sephora said “no reasonable consumer could ever be misled about ‘Clean at Sephora’ in the way plaintiff alleges.”

The dispute is just the latest example of how, despite the proliferation of the term in products and marketing, a universal definition for clean beauty remains elusive.

In addition to Sephora, Credo, Ulta Beauty and Target have their own clean standards. So do self-professed clean brands like Beautycounter, Tower 28 and Saie. Independent bodies like the Environmental Working Group also offer clean certifications to beauty brands, and apps like Yuka and Think Dirty rate product safety.

Once a valuable differentiator in the crowded beauty market, clean has become too ubiquitous to help a brand stand out, and in some cases, it has even become a liability. Brands and retailers risk a backlash if they are seen as failing to adequately explain the safety and efficacy of their products. Meanwhile, clean’s power as a marketing tool is being diminished as critics — both online and in court — question the validity of such claims.

“It quickly can become fear-mongering,” said Lindsay Dahl, a clean beauty activist and former head of mission at Beautycounter. “And the second you start fear-mongering, all the people that are in the naysayer category use it as fodder to say, ‘Look, this whole thing is BS.’”

Newer skin-care brands are pushing back on common clean talking points. Dieux, launched in 2020 by esthetician Charlotte Palermino, brags that its products are not clean, calling itself “free from fear.” When skin-care brand The Ordinary launched hair care in 2022, it touted that the collection was formulated with sulphates, a mainstay of clean brands’ free-from lists.

Sephora’s lawsuit is unlikely to resolve the debate. Some consumers still care deeply about what clean is offering in terms of safety, especially in a beauty market with very little regulation. But it seems a clean label doesn’t have the power it used to.

Clean — and Not So Simple

Drunk Elephant, founded by Tiffany Masterson in 2013, was one of the first US beauty brands to call into question common ingredients as an integral part of its pitch to consumers, with its “Specious Six” designation. Marketing heavily featured the term, referring to sodium lauryl sulfate, alcohol and other ingredients that would never be found in the brand’s products.

Other brands took up the “free-from” concept, coming up with their own lists. Dr. Bronner’s, for one, excluded parabens from its products. Others turned sulfates and phthalates into pariahs.

The problem is that these lists oversimplified and sometimes exaggerated what made certain ingredients dangerous, Dahl said. An ingredient might be dangerous to ingest but harmless when applied to the skin, for instance.

Dahl said that beauty brands labelling their products as clean ought to clarify how they define the term and provide primary sources backing up their claims.

A representative for Saie told The Business of Beauty that the brand is doing just that, vetting ingredients and formulations to meet both US and international standards, as well as those put forward by retailers.

“The conversation around clean beauty is ongoing and complex, and there’s not one universal standard for its meaning,” Saie said in a statement. “[We] believe these labels are a valuable tool for helping the consumer make informed purchases.”

Spencer Sheehan, the attorney representing Finster in her suit against Sephora, said a label doesn’t absolve brands and retailers from their part in consumers’ confusion over the meaning of clean.

“The moral of that story is that maybe it’s not good to describe your products with flowery language, because it will possibly cause some people…to be misled,” he said.

Lack of Regulation

Dahl said it shouldn’t be up to consumers to figure out what’s clean and what isn’t at all.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has historically been slow to update cosmetics regulations in part because the category is a “low-risk business” compared to the food and drug markets, said Frances H. Miller, law professor at Boston University. European guidelines are often held up as stricter than US regulations, as the EU bans many ingredients allowed in US cosmetics.

Miller notes the FTC can step in to regulate false advertising claims, but that can be an uphill battle in the beauty industry, where sweeping claims about products’ efficacy are the norm.

“You get into all kinds of First Amendment issues when you’re compelled to curb somebody else’s speech,” she said.

In December, US president Joe Biden signed into law the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulations Act. The law requires brands and manufacturers to maintain records that substantiate the safety of their products and gives the FDA new recall authority on cosmetics.

With safety standards still murky, knowledge from experts, particularly cosmetic chemists, have grown in popularity on social media.

“You’re hearing from the person that’s closest to the formula,” said cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, who founded the skin-care brand BeautyStat in 2019 and is the formulator behind Hailey Bieber’s Rhode.

But misinformation about ingredients can spread just as quickly on TikTok and Instagram. Robinson acknowledged the limits of disseminating information on social platforms.

“A lot of these topics are deep and nuanced, and you may not be able to do it in 20 seconds,” he said.

The Future of Clean

Plenty of brands still see clean as valuable, but some consumers are starting to move on.

According to consumer trend analysts Spate, Google searches in the US for clean skin care fell 3 percent year-on-year in 2022, while searches for non-toxic skin care rose 34 percent. However, searches rose 16 percent for clean makeup and 134 percent for clean fragrance, categories where the term hasn’t been applied quite as much.

Some companies are even capitalising on the backlash, or are sidestepping the debate entirely, relying on different marketing tactics, such as featuring experts online and in social media. Dr. Loretta, launched in 2018 by dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, uses Ciraldo and her background as a selling point in all messaging.

Like most trends, in both beauty and culture, the fervour around clean beauty may simply have peaked.

“The clean trend is not as relevant as it used to be, given so many brands have come on the scene,” said Robinson.

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