December 4, 2023


Fashion takes it to the next level.

Beauty insiders sound off on the clean beauty conversation

8 min read

The goal for clean beauty advocates is to see the category more clearly defined.

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Gregg Renfrew points to the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth as the jumping off point for her deep dive into environmental health.


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“Subsequent to that was watching so many people struggling with fertility issues and giving birth to kids with significant health issues,” Renfrew adds. “As well as people being diagnosed with different types of cancers in their 30s and 40s and most of them had no pre-existing genetic link to the disease.”

These factors combined to ignite a personal passion for change within the American entrepreneur.

“I started to question what was going into the products and what was going on,” Renfrew says. “And one thing I came to realize is that we had introduced all these tens of thousands of chemicals into commerce, most of which has never been tested for safety for the Earth or for human health.

“Those ingredients are showing up in everything — it’s in our food, it’s in our household cleaning products, it’s in our cars and clothes, and it’s also in our skin and personal care products.”


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Renfrew set out to create a brand that offered products that met her “new expectations.”

Beautycounter Founder and CEO Gregg Renfrew.
Beautycounter Founder and CEO Gregg Renfrew. Beautycounter

Launched in 2013, Beautycounter was meant to fill the void between the “eco-friendly, earthy brands” that were available at the time and the “traditional brands that we’ve all grown up with and love that were high-performance and aspirational but were still filled with certain chemicals of concern,” according to Renfrew.

The brand was about more than products though, it was designed to start a movement to “lead by example.” In fact, the brand’s name was meant to be a double-entendre, Renfrew explains, to go up against, or counter, the beauty industry.

“I do think there are certainly people who have never wanted this story to be told,” Renfrew says. “There’s always backlash when you go up against an institution or an industry and you are going against the status quo.”


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In recent years, an ever-growing number of “clean beauty” brands and products have been introduced into the market. With many more expected to follow.

According to a 2021 report from Brandessence Market Research, the global clean beauty industry garnered revenue of more than US$5.4 billion in 2020. That number is expected to grow to more than US$11.5 billion by 2027.

With this increased interest, has come a growing debate about what exactly is “clean”?

Beautycounter Think Big All-In-One Mascara, $35.
Beautycounter Think Big All-In-One Mascara, $35. Beautycounter

“There’s a lot of misinformation floating around. It’s a complex issue. Creating safer, cleaner, high-performing products is not an easy thing to do,” Renfrew says. “So, there’s a lot of complexity in general around this whole process.”

The lack of defined standards around what makes a product ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ also hasn’t helped to make things more clear.


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“Clean is not very regulated,” Amy Liu, founder of the beauty brand Tower 28, says. “Because of that, brands can say what they want, to some degree.”

It’s this ambiguity that prompts Liu to point to retailers as a good resource for consumers who are confused about the true meaning of ‘clean.’

“It’s so important for brands to collaborate with retail partners like Sephora,” Liu says. “Because they work with a ‘no list’ and they do have to be verified. And we do have to sign a contract that we do not have these certain ingredients in our products.”

Realizing the demand for cleaner beauty options will only to continue to grow, many retailers have set out to help simplify the selection process.

Since 2018, beauty retailer Sephora has boasted a growing selection of conscious options under the umbrella of its Clean at Sephora seal.


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“It really is confusing,” Jane Nugent, the senior vice-president of merchandising at the company, says of the identification of clean products. “And that is exactly the reason we set out … to clarify it and to make it very transparent for the beauty community and for consumers in general.

“Because there was a lot of noise around what it was becoming.”

The Clean at Sephora designation started with products that met the list of 13 ingredients on the company’s ‘without list’. That list has evolved to include more than 50 ingredients, according to Nugent, also considering elements such as responsible packaging, a brand’s climate commitment and ingredient sourcing.

“It evolves,” Nugent says of the clean definition and ingredient lists, which is available on the brand’s website. “We care about transparency, we care about putting all the information out there.”


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Shoppers Drug Mart recently revealed a product category called Thoughtful Choices, which offers a curated selection of cruelty-free products from various brands that are billed as being “mindful of our planet, featuring either partly-to-fully recyclable packaging, ethically-sourced ingredients, or sustainable ingredients,” according to the company.

The products are also billed as being free of parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS/SLES), formaldehyde, BPA and aluminum salts.

Understanding individual ingredients is one of the trickiest elements of the clean-beauty conversation, insiders says.

“It’s really looking at every ingredient individually,” Greg Gonzalez, a co-founder of the skincare company Youth to the People, says. “How can we look at the individual ingredient, and how can we look at the dose?


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“It really comes down to the dose of everything, even when it’s something good, or potentially harmful.”

Youth to the People Kale + Green Tea Spinach Vitamins Superfood Cleanser.
Youth to the People Kale + Green Tea Spinach Vitamins Superfood Cleanser. Sephora

Contrary to what some people might think, natural doesn’t always mean safer. Just like clean doesn’t always mean clean.

“I think people make ‘clean’ synonymous with 100 per cent natural, which is not always true,” Liu says. “I actually believe in safe synthetics.”

With any multi-faceted issue, especially one that is garnering so much consumer interest, education is essential.

“Continuing to educate on the words that can create fear is something that I’m really passionate about working on,” Gonzalez says. “We don’t need to be afraid of the word ‘chemical.’ We’re all chemicals, really. The air we breathe is chemicals, plants are made of chemicals. All matter, including ourselves, are chemicals. But that doesn’t mean that all chemicals are good, either.


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“And that’s where there is so much education to be done.”

The government of Canada has a list of banned or restricted ingredients, called the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, available online. The “science-based document” is reviewed and updated periodically, according to the site. The list is used as an “administrative tool” by Health Canada when considering products for release on the market within the country.

The Beautycounter team is pushing the governments in Canada and the U.S. on the topic of cosmetics reform in order to see more ingredients added to lists like this.

“The laws that exist in the U.S. are dated, they date back to 1938. They don’t protect the health and safety of the citizens of our country,” Renfrew explains. “And, while Canadians are farther along than we are, they also have citizens who are being unnecessarily subjected to toxic chemicals. From time to time, or every single day.”


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The company keeps a running list of more than 1,800 ingredients deemed “questionable or harmful” on its website that they say will never appear in their products. Dubbed the Never List, the assemblage of chemical additives also includes the more than 1,400 chemicals restricted or banned in the European Union.

According to Lindsay Dahl, the SVP of Social Mission at Beautycounter, the list is just one step in helping consumers better understand what ‘clean’ really means.

“Clean for us is not just banning ingredients,” Dahl says. “Yes, there is a body of science that shows us that certain ingredients are harmful and should not be used in personal care products. But that doesn’t tell us a lot about the safety of the products we’re actually using every single morning.


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“So, for us, everything that comes after banning ingredients is actually the most important thing for what ‘clean’ means to us.”

The Beautycounter team looks to the scientific community to guide their research and development, she says.

“The scientific community is what we use as our sort of North Star,” Dahl says. “And none of them are saying that the clean beauty industry is BS, because they’re the ones publishing this really important research that’s calling on the industry to do better.

“What we try to do is use the best peer-reviewed science to make the best decisions as a company, and then share that responsibly with consumers while advocating for change in Washington.”

The future goal for clean beauty advocates being that cosmetics will not only be safer — but that the clean beauty category will also be more clearly defined.

What’s important to us is not only that other brands in this space are defining ‘clean’ in a really clear way, but are being really responsible stewards of the science,” Dahl says. “And that’s not always easy to do.”

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