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Clean Beauty 101: What Does “Clean” Truly Mean?

Title: Clean Beauty 101: What Does “Clean” Truly Mean? 

Cleanse. Detox. Go green. Choose organic. The revolution that once overhauled our food choices has crossed over into the skincare world. Led by celebrity lifestyle gurus like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba, the clean beauty movement has gained steam in recent years. The result? Women are breaking up with their traditional skincare products faster than you can say “conscious uncoupling.”


Non-toxic beauty is more than a trend: it’s a health issue, and even a political issue.  But it’s also one with a lot of gray areas. As part of our four-part series, we’re breaking down our list of ingredients, explaining why “all natural” does not mean it works better, and empowering you to make the best choices for your skin (and yourself) by truly understanding what your skincare ingredients do—and don’t do.


First things first. What does “clean beauty” actually mean?

While there is no universal definition of “clean beauty,” it typically is used to imply that minimal to no synthetic ingredients are used, and the absence of any ingredients deemed controversial. 


It’s also crucial to note that “going clean” doesn’t mean that ingredients are all-natural, OR that products that aren’t “clean” are full of toxins. A lot of synthetic ingredients are perfectly safe, and conversely, many natural ingredients are not. 


Typically, clean beauty products leave out a long list of controversial ingredients such as: 

  • sulfates (sodium lauryl sulfate, SLS and sodium laureth sulfate, SLES)
  • parabens
  • formaldehydes
  • formaldehyde-releasing agents
  • phthalates
  • mineral oil
  • oxybenzone
  • coal tar
  • hydroquinone
  • triclosan
  • triclocarban

The problem is, there are no regulations around the term “clean beauty.” While over 1300 “toxic” ingredients are banned from cosmetics in Europe, the US only mandates that personal care companies steer clear of 11 of them. According to the FDA, words like “natural” “non-toxic,” “clean,” and “safe” have no official or legal meaning when it comes to cosmetic labeling.

What is the difference between “clean” beauty, “natural” beauty and “organic” beauty? 

“Natural” beauty, another unregulated label, is mostly used to describe the level of processing of the ingredients. If you’re reaching for a product that’s “natural,” chances are you’re looking for a formulation with ingredients that are very similar to how they exist in nature, without having been highly processed or chemically synthesized in a lab. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get only natural ingredients in a product labeled “natural.” For example, while the label may tout Indian geranium and jojoba oil, these ingredients may coexist with many ingredients that are synthetic or lab-made.


“Organic” skincare and beauty products are regulated by the USDA, and require that a certain percentage of their ingredients be organically grown. But there’s gray area here, too: the source of the ingredient does not necessarily determine its safety. An FAQ on the FDA’s website on organic ingredients states that many plants and “natural” ingredients, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic. 


Are all natural ingredients “clean,” and therefore better for me?

Surprisingly, just because an ingredient is natural (or even organic) doesn’t mean it’s “clean.” Many natural ingredients are actually toxic. For example, you wouldn’t want to apply a derivative of poison ivy to your skin. Or less obviously, thymol (common thyme oil) is a widely used natural antibacterial agent that’s also a known allergen that can harm our health. In fact – you’re much more likely to be allergic to a “natural,” unprocessed substance than to a lab-synthesized, clinically-standardized version of the same compound.

Plant-derived substances can be unsafe, interacting with our skin and other substances in products to cause reactions. Chemicals are not the enemy…everything in nature or man-made is a chemical, at its most basic level. (Water is a chemical, coconut water is a chemical…and even though they’re “natural” chemicals, they can be processed in many different ways for different uses.)

Why and when to choose “clean” beauty products

Simply put, if you want to avoid natural and chemical substances that are, at best, questionable when it comes to safety, “clean” products are a smart way to go.  Check labels for words like ‘natural, organic, or botanical’ to make sure that the product meets your specific criteria.

“There’s going to be a lot of definitions as to what “clean” skincare is, and most Perricone MD products meet the mark because they steer clear of the list of ingredients that “clean” skincare avoids,” says Rosalba Martone, Perricone Director of Education.

Here are some of our favorite “clean” beauty products from Perricone MD:


Cold Plasma Plus+ Eye

Our proprietary liquid crystal delivery system drives the most potent combination anti-aging powerhouses deep into skin, where they can work their magic—lifting, firming, smoothing and visibly brightening and erasing dark circles. The combination of copper tripeptide, Vitamin C Ester and omegas 3, 6 and 9 are unparalleled in treating the delicate under-eye skin.


No:Rinse Intensive Pore Minimizer

Talk about a genius ingredient! DMAE visibly lifts and plumps sagging skin over time. This airbrush effect combines with salicylic acid, which notably exfoliates oily skin, clearing out debris and minimizing the appearance of pores, and copper complex, which increases the look of elasticity  (the loss of which contributes to the look of larger pores as we age).


High Potency Classics Face Firming Serum

The OG of our High Potency Classics, this cult favorite was “clean” before “clean” was a thing.  Just as importantly, its list of mega-actives—DMAE, hyaluronic acid, alpha lipoic acid—is unmatched in minimizing wrinkles, refining the look of enlarged pores, and creating a radiant glow that many of us feel we lost years ago. 


Hypoallergenic Gentle Cleanser

The first key to healthy skin is proper cleansing, and this hypoallergenic feather-light gel removes impurities and every trace of makeup while nourishing and protecting even the most sensitive skin. Uber-gentle alpha hydroxy acids slough away dead cells, while green tea extract protects with antioxidants. But the hero of this cleanser is vitamin E, which disperses within the skin’s surface for long-term dramatic hydrating results.


There are plenty of other Perricone MD products that have earned the “clean” label—a great example of how non-toxic natural and synthetic ingredients combine to make a safe, highly effective skincare product.  We’ll continue to demystify “clean” beauty in our four-part smart skincare series, designed to help you make the best decisions for your skin and your lifestyle.