February 19, 2021
By Audrey Stanton & Bytewrthy
In Clean Label

Cleanwashing: Can Customers Trust Natural Beauty Trends?

Beauty is changing in a big way. A decade ago, very few consumers were questioning what their skincare products were made of – flash forward to today and conscious consumption has taken over the industry. A new glossary of beauty terms is in vogue, with labels like natural, clean, organic, cruelty-free, and vegan dominating the space. Brands use these terms to claim their products benefit people and the planet, giving customers a seemingly simple way to vote with their dollars. But are customers really getting what they pay for?

What is Cleanwashing?

Cleanwashing is the beauty industry’s equivalent of greenwashing, a term coined years ago by sustainable fashion advocates and others to categorize products falsely marketing themselves as “green” or “eco-friendly”. Cleanwashing similarly means beauty brands are tossing around the terms natural, healthy, and vegan to capitalize on a trend without any interest in backing up their claims.

Naturally Empty Terms

According to Vox, natural beauty products “are notable for the ingredients they are free of: parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and more”. Within the industry, “clean,” “healthy,” and “organic” are often used interchangeably with “natural” as umbrella terms to categorize the movement towards better beauty. While Vox is correct in its description of natural beauty, the term, and its stand-ins, lack concrete definitions within the industry. This is where Cleanwashing thrives – this space between a seemingly objective and subjective definition. Without substantial information on what companies are actually doing to create a better product, these labels are essentially meaningless.

Additionally, the term natural contributes to the misconception that all natural things are good, and all chemicals are bad or unnatural. “Unfortunately, the natural versus synthetic debate falls very much in the gray region, and each and every chemical, or class of chemicals, must be considered on a case by case basis,” Scientific American asserted. In the scientific world, natural simply refers to materials produced by nature without any human intervention. Some natural materials can even be toxic to humans. Still, a 2018 survey conducted by Fashion Institute of Technology grad students found that “90% of consumers believed that natural or naturally-derived beauty ingredients were better for them”. Beauty brands are taking advantage of this by employing the term to create an illusion of health for individuals and the environment. Without standardized language or substantial evidence to back up these claims, specifics can get lost in translation.

Plant-Based Claims

The USDA tightly controls “USDA Organic” claims (when a product is labeled USDA certified organic, it means the product is made from 95% or more ingredients that are derived from a plant source), but neither the FDA nor the USDA enforces specific criteria for cosmetics ingredients which are merely labelled “organic”. Further, the terms “natural” and “organic” find common ground in the false narrative that either of them automatically produces superior product performance, experience, or even safety.


While there are no FDA guidelines as of yet for “cruelty-free”, a collection of organizations have attempted to fill that vacuum with certifications. Leaping Bunny Program, Beauty Without Bunnies, and Choose Cruelty Free are all third party entities which guarantee no animal testing occurred at any stage of the production process.

The real misconception with cruelty-free beauty is the assumption that the term means products are vegan as well. If not specified, cruelty-free products may not be completely vegan, and vegan products may have elements which were tested on animals. Regardless, neither term guarantees a healthy product. Vegan beauty simply refers to products which do not contain any ingredients derived from animals. Just like vegan food, vegan beauty does not necessarily mean products are free of harmful chemicals. This is a mistake that many consumers make, and beauty brands take advantage of – it is the vegan version of cleanwashing.

The truth is, without regulations or universal standards, beauty brands will continue to define each term for themselves. While waiting for those clarifications, customers must commit to doing their homework and to digging deeper than a brand’s claims. If a company is actually invested in transforming the industry for the better, they will provide specific information about how they are doing so. Transparency is key to the future of the beauty industry.

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