The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Clean Beauty

For most of our lives, we’ve bought our shampoos and body washes without batting an eyelash at the long list of ingredients on the bottle. And while we still swear by a slew of those same products, we’re also thankful for the long-delayed emergence of the clean beauty industry. We don’t need to wax poetic for long about why this moment is important. The answer is simple: we want a better understanding of the stuff we’re putting on and inside our bodies.

To the contrary, it seems we need a lesson on how to navigate it all. Is there really a difference between “clean,” “green” and “organic?” And if there is, is one better than the other? Ahead, FREEDOM Deodorant founder Ira Green helps us understand all of the confusing language as well as where to start if we want to clean up our act in the beauty aisle.

Natural Versus All-Natural

The only difference between these two words is the addition of “all.” They actually mean the same thing and as of now, there are no FDA mandates on using the word natural. Unfortunately, this means the word is free for anyone to use, including brands whose products may not be so safe.

“You can have one natural ingredient and still call it clean or natural. Education comes to play with knowing and understanding the ingredients in your product,” says Green.

At the same time, just because a product can’t be called organic because of certification requirements (more on this in a sec), that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for you. If you’re unsure of whether something is safe to use, the general rule of thumb is that the label shouldn’t look like gibberish.

“When looking at ingredients, you should be able to recognize the ingredients, or be able to do a quick google search, ie cocoa butter of beeswax.”

Organic

Now, if a product is labeled “certified organic,” that means that the USDA has confirmed it is actually made with 95% organic ingredients. But beware, they should have a certification label on the product. If it says organic ingredients but does not have the USDA certification, it’s not the real deal.

The irony of this process is that a lot of legitimately natural/organic products don’t have that USDA stamp because their ingredients–despite their benefits– do not have a long enough shelf life for USDA requirements. For instance, shea butter on its own is only stable up to six months.

“We at FREEDOM deodorants run into this issue, as baking soda, water or magnesium is not organic (cant be certified, it’s a form the farm has to fill out), even though all our products are so clean. You can actually eat them!,” says Green.

Another important tidbit to remember is that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is actually pretty lax when it comes to approving products for use. In fact, the FDA doesn’t do the testing themselves; all it requires is that cosmetics in particular not be altered or misbranded.

For this reason alone, you may want to consider adding at least one clean product into your routine.

Cruelty-Free

Anything labeled cruelty-free (including Green’s FREEDOM line) means its ingredients, formulations and end products been developed without methods that require testing on animals. Organizations like PETA and Leaping Bunny keep searchable running list of companies that make this claim and if they do, you may see a bunny symbol on their packaging.

Clean and Green

There are so many words associated with the world of safer beauty products that it’s become difficult to distinguish which ones fall under which category. According to Green, monikers like “clean” and “green” are simply marketing tools. Again, think of them the same way you would “natural” or “all-natural.”

They can be used to describe something that includes just one true-blue natural ingredient or something that doesn’t have an ounce of the harmful stuff. But ultimately, there are no regulations that can technically keep any brand from using the verbiage. The only label that requires testing and a label to back its claim is “certified organic.”

The No-No Ingredients

With all that being said, there’s a laundry list of ingredients that are potentially harmful, regardless of whether the product is labeled “green,” “organic” or anything in between. Some of the bigger ones are:

Parabens: preservatives that extend the shelf life of your products, but can still enter the body through your skin and hair, causing a host of issues related to our reproductive system. They come in number of different forms and are usually a small part of product formulations.

Synthetic Fragrance: the chemical compounds that determine how your product smells. Depending on the person and their body’s chemistry, any of these combinations can lead to irritation and allergic reactions.

Formaldehyde: In its purest form, this is a colorless gas that also used in paper and plywood. When used in cosmetics like nail polish, it’s often converted to a gentler water solution and with the help of preservatives (like parabens) is released in small amounts to protect against contamination. Unfortunately, it also comes with a host of potentially dangerous side effects, such as skin irritation and even hair loss.

Aluminum: an ingredient most often found in antiperspirants to decrease sweat. In short, what it does is shrink or plug up the underarm pores and inhibit bacteria so they don’t secrete as much. At the same time, decades of research say that the ingredient is potentially linked to breast cancer since antiperspirants are applied so closely to lymph nodes near the breast and can also prevent the body’s immune system from freeing itself of cancerous bacteria.

Sulfates: This can refer to any of the following: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. Sulfates are surfactants, or molecules that attract both water and oil. So, when you scrub on your body wash or shampoo, sulfates help pull away the dirt or oil. And when you rinse it off, they also aid the water in washing it away. It basically helps boost the effectiveness of whatever said product you’re using. Unfortunately, it can sometimes work so good, that it also strips your hair or skin of all its natural moisture in the process, leaving it dry and damaged.

Where to Start

Now, that you’re armed with a better understanding clean beauty, you may want to experiment with one product (unless you want to make your products at home). Fortunately and unfortunately, this sector of the industry has grown so much that it can be challenging to figure out where your transition starts. If you want to shop around, websites like Safe and Chic as well as Credo Beauty can be trusted.

We’ve also got a handy guide here, but Green says the easiest thing to start with is your soap.

“Find a milled soap that doesn’t have synthetic fragrance. I see them everywhere. You use this everyday. It’s a big change.” And

Ahead are three must-try soaps, all of which are considered either “natural” or “organic:”

STYLECASTER | Clean Beauty Glossary | Dr. Bronner's Castille Soap

Dr. Bronner’s

Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Peppermint Bar Soap, $4.69 at Target

STYLECASTER | Clean Beauty Glossary | Osmia Organics Oh So Soap

Osmia Organics

Osmia Organics ‘Oh So’ Soap, $15 at Osmia Organics

STYLECASTER | Clean Beauty Glossary | Schmidt's Fragrance Free Soap

Schmidt’s

Schmidt’s Fragrance-Free Soap, $5.49 at Schmidt’s Naturals