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CircleUpFebruary.10.20203 min read

The Cleanwashing of Clean Beauty

I recently covered clean beauty branding and the ambiguity associated with how clean beauty brands market themselves. Front label messaging associated with the word “clean” can be unclear, which suggests that the lists of both ingredients and non-ingredients (e.g., parabens, sulfates, phthalates) matter.

I’d ask what specific ingredients give meaning to the term clean. Are brands that market themselves as “clean” truly free of “dirty” ingredients?

Digging deeper into the ingredient profile of beauty products using Helio, we found common ingredients across both clean and non-clean beauty products.

Clean isn’t simply a yes/no, an either/or. The length and contents of the “free from” ingredients list aren’t determinants of how clean a product is.

Rather, important variables, such as the concentration of an ingredient and the specific combination of contents, are additional key components of how clean a product is.

Take a look below at the most common ingredients associated with beauty brands.

Indeed, 9 out of 10 of the most common ingredients in beauty products are associated with both clean and non-clean beauty brands.

Digging into each of these common ingredients, we’ve found that cleanliness is a point on a spectrum, and beyond that, different dimensions of the term matter, which I’ll call the 3 C’s—ingredient Concentration, Content, and Combination.


Consider phenoxyethanol, for example. This common preservative used in beauty products is prohibited, according to the clean standards set by noteworthy beauty retailers, such as Sephora and Credo, in concentrations of more than 1%. Our data show that nearly 56% of brands that contain phenoxyethanol market themselves as clean.

The amount of an ingredient is thus a key dimension to consider. The non-ingredients list isn’t necessarily a box to check to determine whether a product is clean or not.


Fragrance is another frequently used ingredient. (It’s also referred to as “perfume” or “parfum”). Approximately 51% of brands that market themselves as clean use fragrance.  However, cosmetic companies aren’t required to disclose contents that are considered trade secrets, including fragrance, which means that fragrance formulas can include toxic ingredients.

Also, consider stearic acid, tocopheryl acetate, and disodium edta, which are all ingredients deemed dirty by certain retailers. Surprisingly, this is not because they are linked to consumer health issues, but because they may be a problem for the environment…

Again, the inclusion or exclusion of an ingredient doesn’t determine whether a product is clean. Rather, the specific content and its impact are dimensions on the scale of clean that matter.


The combination of ingredients is another critical variable to call out. Potassium sorbate is a key example. There is some evidence that the combination of potassium sorbate, ascorbic acid, and ferric salts mutates cell DNA. Our data indicates it is present in ~27% of clean beauty products!

Focus on the 3 C’s

Ingredients really matter for consumer health, and consumers are going to demand more in terms of cleaner and more sustainable production methods, labor practices, and impact on the environment. But digging deeper into common ingredients, we find that there is so much ambiguity. Focusing on the 3 C’s will provide a better sense of cleanliness.

The prevalence of certain ambiguous ingredients across brands marketed as clean beauty products is noteworthy. What I’m seeing is a cleanwashing of clean beauty, and an opportunity.

Entrepreneurs have an ability to educate consumers directly through fully transparent online marketing, and they can also signal cleanliness indirectly through their choice of distribution through clean retailers that set their own standards.

As investors, the data gets us excited about brands that communicate clean in a unique way that is transparent but also simple. Beyond clean, we’re identifying real consumer problems that deserve not only a clean, but also a highly effective solution.