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Analysis: the rise of Clean Beauty

Christel Trinquier

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Analysis: the rise of Clean Beauty

As part of our summer series, we bring you in-depth content from our sister magazine Formes de Luxe. This week, an analysis of the Clean Beauty movement.

Clean beauty, green beauty’s next of kin, is primarily defined by the absence of controversial ingredients—without necessarily excluding synthetic ingredients. Given the current context of general distrust, the trend should continue to attract an increasing number of consumers, and therefore brands.

Following the launch of the French government’s second national policy to address endocrine disrupters—and the European Union’s publication last May of a new list of 14 ingredients under observation—clean beauty is strengthening its position, driven by indie brands.

But what exactly is the issue here: clean, natural, organic, vegan… can consumers tell these apart? Yes and no. According to a study by consulting firm Simon-Kucher published by LSA in July, 57% of French consumers can explain the difference between these four main cosmetic categories. However, 43% would be hard-pressed to tell them apart. Finally, and more generally, while the major organic brands sold in specialized distribution channels and mass outlets— where organic products continue to show record growth—seem clearly identifiable, it would be difficult to cite a clean (or vegan) brand.

Brands themselves are at the root of this confusion. From a regulatory standpoint, to identify as a “clean brand” in Europe would be to flirt with the limits of legality, according to Anne Dux, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at FEBEA(1). “There is no official definition or label for clean beauty,” affirms Candice Colin. With Claire Gagliolo, she created Litica Labs, the start-up behind the BtoC app Clean Beauty and its B2B counterpart, the API Beautylitic. The app (with 800,000 users to date) enables consumers to identify controversial substances (endocrine disruptors, nanomaterials, and allergens) from any INCI list. It also launched last September on the Russian market. The second program uses algorithms to comb through retailers’ catalogs.

French supermarket chain Carrefour chose it as the product selection interface for Sources, the brand’s new “clean beauty” store located in the Marais neighborhood in Paris. Is this its way of anticipating the European launch of the Clean at Sephora program and competing with LVMH (Sources has banned 75 ingredients from its shelves, compared with 50 in Sephora US stores)? Colin won’t say, but in her definition of clean “products contain no ingredients that are controversial for humans or the environment.” This categorization doesn’t exclude synthetic ingredients. “The confusion between clean and natural is common, but we mustn’t forget that nature also creates poisons. Benzyl salicylate, for example, an ingredient present in essential oils—which appear on the list of 26 potentially allergenic substances—is suspected to be an endocrine disrupter,” she says.


Concise formulas

It was no accident that Beautylitic launched at the CES show in Las Vegas. “In our market, cosmetics are the safest mass-market products out there as Europe has some of the strictest cosmetic regulations in the world, with nearly 1,400 banned ingredients. But that’s not the case everywhere: in the US, only thirty-something ingredients are forbidden based on a list—the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act— from 1938.” This can explain the warm reception clean products are getting in North America. But to be clear, used alone, no single cosmetic product distributed in Europe is dangerous.

The problem is the cocktail effect: “the combined effects of ingredients of varying degrees of harmfulness contained in the total formulas that we are exposed to on a daily basis,” explains Colin. “Those in our cosmetics, those that we eat and that we breathe. We live in what amounts to a chemical soup. The sole act of taking care of yourself (washing, using creams and serums, wearing makeup) implies applying 150 to 200 ingredients to your skin each day.”

While the dose usually creates the poison, some substances break the exposome rule. “Endocrine disrupters are toxic in microdoses. It’s one of the most sensitive subjects for the cosmetic industry today, but we mustn’t forget that these disrupters are everywhere,” she says. In the wake of clean eating, the clean beauty phenomenon is part of a larger movement that reaches beyond cosmetics: a search for transparency (both in terms of health and the environment) and desire for more ethical practices that informs the new credo of this century ‘consum’actors’. Millennials are leading the fray, with the support of digital technology: smartphone in hand, they’ve declared hunting season open on the list of ‘nasties’ that seems to be getting longer as regulation and science progress.

Mineral oils, silicones, plastic derivatives, MIT/MCIT, formaldehyde releasers, EDTA, PEG, aluminum salts, phthalates, sulfates, logiparabens, triclosan, triclocarban, phenoxyethanol, BHA/ BHT, benzophenone, kojique acid, enzacamene (4-methylbenzylidene camphor) propylparaben, resorcinol, octocrylene, homosalate, benzyl salicylate, genistein, daidzein, as well as animal-based raw materials: while it may be tricky for the average person to decode, the blacklist created by new online brand Seasonly sets the tone. Claire Basini, CEO and Co-founder, follows a strategy based on anticipation.

“Smaller product lines, shorter formulas, ingredients that are traceable and active in recycled and recyclable packaging: for us, clean means doing better with less while staying ahead of the legislation. We eliminate all suspicious ingredients from our formulas, even if they aren’t yet banned.” This monitoring activity means that Seasonly regularly updates its formulas. “As an independent brand, we are more agile than the heavyweights, especially since we work exclusively with small quantities to keep our formulas fresh,” she explains.

Clean. . . and maybe more

These formulas are available in personalized versions. “Our products are developed and created for (and by) real women in real life: although we work with a team of experts, we also co-create with our community,” explains Basini. “So it was logical to offer our clients products that verge on custom-made. Unique, our day cream, is formulated according to their needs and their lifestyle and is revised and adapted as the seasons change.”

The packaging is also personalized: the client’s first name is laser engraved on minimalist frosted glass bottles. “We chose simple lines that highlight an ultra-contemporary typeface in pop colors: just because we’re clean doesn’t mean we can’t be cool. We have to leave behind the sterile packaging of organic’s early years.”

This approach is at work at Almathea, another online brand launched in 2018 by Maryll Beaux, who also advocates a vision of women, “freed from the constraints of beauty standards.” The brand systematically rejects dubious ingredients (essential oils and allergens included) and works with an ultra-limited number of ingredients to create simple routines (three products for face and one for the body, all customizable). “Our products are 99% natural in origin (100% for our botanical oils), certified Cosmos Organic and vegan, and packaged in a refillable glass bottle,” explains Beaux. “On her first order, the client buys the product and the bottle. Thereafter, she returns the (numbered) bottle for a refill in the package it originally came in. Only the pumps are not reusable.”

How do Almathea’s clients feel about the “constraint” of the deposit model? “We have a high rate of return customers, and the subscription portion of our sales is growing.”

Makeup is on the way 

Refills are also part of the equation for US brand Kjaer Weis, the first if not the only “clean” makeup brand with a clear luxury positioning. Danish makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis entrusted the design of her refillable cases to French designer Marc Atlan. (Comme des Garçons, Helmut Lang, Yves Saint Laurent, etc.). “I would have liked biodegradable packaging, but what is recyclable, unfortunately, looks recyclable most of the time. I wanted something sustainable and luxurious. Reloadable packaging was essential, and the heavy zamak compacts with white enameled KW logos that Marc designed are little jewels. In fact, we present them in red textured coffrets like jewelry.”

Why did the makeup artist turn to clean beauty? “On photo shoots, not a week went by without one of the models warning me that she was allergic to this or that product (editor’s note: “sensitive” skin accounts for 50% of the US market). There were no natural makeup collections that could stand up to the demands of a professional photo shoot.” Formulated in Italy using 95% natural or certified organic ingredients, KW’s collections pre-empted the trend, to great success. “For the last two years, our sales have doubled or nearly doubled,” explains Weis. It is of note that contrary to skincare, color cosmetics is lagging behind in the clean segment, in the same way that clean and luxury don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.


Founder of agency Trend Sourcing, Pascale Brousse observes, “In terms of sensorial qualities, today’s clean skincare is every bit as good as conventional cosmetics. Where makeup is concerned, durability and depth of color remain concerns, but new brands are overcoming the obstacles little by little. The current context features both a demand for transparency and an increase in allergies, and means that luxury brands must act fast if they don’t want to lose their foothold.” She concludes: clean is the way forward and there’s no looking back. “Of course, it will take time for bigger brands to catch up: ‘cleaning’ a formula doesn’t simply mean substituting a safe and/or natural ingredient for a suspicious ingredient. It means reworking the entire formula architecture to maintain the same sensorial experience and qualities.”

Who’s out?

Do luxury brands have a choice? Popular opinion says that they do not. And they’re already hard at work reformulating. From Chanel (Huile de Jasmin), Clarins (with its new vegan line My Clarins) and Guerlain (L’Essentiel) to Dior (Hydra Life), green is touted more than clean in France, but the experts agree: 2020 will be the year of the great cleanse across all beauty categories. “During her lifetime, a woman may ingest up to two kilograms of lipstick— in other words, two kilos of petrochemical derivatives. Don’t you think the client who buys conventional luxury lipstick and deciphers the formula on Yuka might get the impression that there is a real problem in terms of value for money?” asks Alexis Robillard, founder of All Tigers. She says she prefers natural, vegan, and stylish to clean. “We stay ahead of the official list of controversial ingredients, but our lipstick collection is best described as natural (82% to 100% natural ingredients, of which 30% to 40% are organic) and totally devoid of animal products (even cochineal pigments).”

The result is color and durability that compares to a classic lipstick. “Our shades are co-created with our Instagram community, and to date, we’ve already sold twice as many lipsticks as forecasted. We intend to grow our range and expand it with a collection of nail polish, which is a real challenge, considering that varnish is a concentration of controversial ingredients.” All Tigers lipsticks are in line with luxury’s visual codes with packaging by Corpack (applicators) and MR Cartonnage Numérique (cases). But the company’s positioning is clearly sustainable. “We chose PEHD—which is recyclable— for the applicator bodies, and for our sleeves, which are made with acrylic glues, we used neither varnish nor hot-stamping: the high quality result was obtained by working the relief effects and color saturation.”

The digital sell

With a strong digital presence and physical concept stores, All Tigers, like most clean indie brands, avoids traditional selective retail. Creator of online store Bazar Bio, Héléna Marino was the first to distribute pioneering clean brands in France—from REN in 2009 to Tata Harper in 2012. These two American brands have also cleaned up their packaging: corn-based plastic for Tata Harper; plastic sourced from the ocean and beaches for REN; soy-based inks, and systematic use of PCW materials. To date, Bazar Bio’s catalog includes 31 brands, but Marino is torn between organic and clean. “I’ve always based my selection more on ingredients than on appellations and labels: pure, natural, powerful ingredients without unnecessary fillers. Today, I still favor organic over clean.” Again, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and in the last several years, Bazar Bio has given prominence to brands—clean and/ or organic—with a holistic vision of beauty. “For example, lithotherapy (skincare that uses the energy of stones) is an emerging trend that is fast developing in both sectors. In general, new gestures and rituals combining cosmetics, massage accessories (like Solars Laboratories NY), and superfoods are all the rage in both organic and clean products,” she says.

And these superfoods are clearly drawing on beauty packaging’s codes. Examples include The Super Elixir clean beaut-teas collection by WellCo, packaged in jewelbox-like jars and Reboot dietary supplement travel sets by wellness brand Nue Co, presented in cases that resemble those used for daily cosmetic routines.

What about fragrance?

Fragrance remains under-represented on and pioneering US sites like, and and in the clean movement in general. Of course, new fragrances are generally poorly adapted to online sales, the preferred distribution for clean brands. But that’s not the real problem: barring several iconic brands (like Honoré des Prés) and a handful of niche players (Ajne, Osmia, Ormaie, Hiram Green), the offer is struggling in the luxury sector. 

For Jeanne Doré, cofounder of and magazine Nez, this is not surprising. “Avoiding all synthetic ingredients (most of which are derived from petrol) in a perfume means cutting out half the notes available,” she says. “Few brands can maintain true creative quality.”

She laments certain deviations. “I find claims like ‘paraben-free’(2)—no perfume contains parabens—‘gluten- free’and ‘cruelty-free’ rather irritating: once a fragrance is distributed in China, it is tested on animals. Let me be clear: I have nothing against natural fragrance, but I find many brands’ message to be unclear,” she says, reminding us that “since the 1990s, perfumes have been regularly reformulated to meet regulations: the industry didn’t wait for clean beauty to self-regulate.” “However we’re seeing—especially in the US—growth in alternative perfume, natural and/or clean; self-taught creators that are developing fragrances as though it were a new craft.”

That is the path—at least in spirit—chosen by Camille Le Feuvre, creator of pH Fragrances, a cross-sector collection combining fragrance for the body and home fragrance (candles, diffusers, and cleaning products), firmly positioned Luxe’n’Clean. “I developed my brand around the safety of the consumer and the environment by excluding all suspicious ingredients, even those that are not banned,” she explains. “None of my products bear the classic symbols that warn consumers of the dangers related to a product.” Gone are the “Harmful to” (the environment, human health, and aquatic organisms) and “Long-term use may provoke side effects” indicators.

A first for home care, this innovation implied creating a particularly restricted list of specifications. “I’m often asked how I’ve managed to cover all olfactive families while avoiding so many ingredients, but it’s pretty simple: I took the time (two years of R&D) and I paid the price. You have to know where you want to invest: in consumer tests? In marketing? Or in quality raw ingredients? For the eight fragrances developed with Givaudan, Le Feuvre selected exceptional perfumed oils by Orpur “collected ethically and responsibly.” Following the clean model (do better with less), she uses just one perfumed oil for each category (personal care and home care) “to be more sustainable.” In the same spirit, all components are made in France—to reduce CO2,—including the packaging: “For the body perfumes, I drew inspiration from old stoppered emery perfume bottles.”

The fragrances come in tinted glass to protect the formulas and the juice doesn’t contain UV filters. The bottles are presented in cellophane-free sleeves. “Clean up the formulas, clean up the packaging: we are rethinking our consumption habits—and not just our consumption of cosmetic products—within a global world view,” says Gagliolo. “Less bioaccumulation, more sustainability and more respect: organic was the watchword 15 years ago, now it’s clean, but the idea is the same: what kind of world do we want for ourselves and for our children?

(1) Cosmetiquemag

(2) Since July 1, 2019, a number of “-free” claims likely to mislead consumers—especially “-free” claims targeting ingredients already banned from cosmetics— are no longer authorized.

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