Is clean beauty a scam?

Here’s how to spot a false claim

BEAUTYcrew Beauty Editor / March 22 2023

We’re all familiar with the term ‘greenwashing’ and the deceptive ways that brands market themselves to consumers as environmentally friendly to help boost sales. 

But it seems our familiarity with greenwashing’s hollow claims has created a subsequent diversification of marketing terminology. Enter: clean beauty. 

While green beauty plays on the anxiety of a society in the midst of a climate crisis, clean beauty is invested in a consumer’s ignorance of ingredients in the products they’re using.

What is ‘clean washing’?

“As with the case of greenwashing, clean washing misleads consumers into unknowingly supporting companies that are not genuinely committed to the causes they say they are,” explains Nutritionist, Physiologist and founder of My Way Up Steve Collins. 

Beauty brands do this — sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally — in a variety of ways. 

“They might use vague or misleading language to make claims about their ingredients such as using terms like ‘natural’, ‘untouched’, ‘harnessing nature’, ‘pure’, and the list goes on, when describing ingredients or how they are sourced,” says Collins.

Some companies make claims “that are difficult to substantiate or verify”, while others may exaggerate a product’s benefits. “They could emphasise the lack of harmful ingredients in their products but do this to take away attention from other harmful ingredients that are in their product that they don’t actively highlight,” warns Collins. 

Clean brands can utilise paid partnerships with credible experts and ambassadors to boost interest in their products. They can also hide the fact that they source ingredients using unethical or unsustainable practices. 

What is ‘clean’ beauty?

“The industry is largely unregulated,” says Collins. “So brands get away with a lot of questionable marketing activity.”

“[However], the word ‘clean’ in the health, wellness and beauty industry is typically synonymous with ‘non-toxic’,” he explains. “The term should be used to describe products – or brands – that are free from harmful chemicals — ingredients like parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and synthetic fragrances.” 

“Some ingredients are known to be harmful to humans,” he went on to say. So it’s only natural that consumers would have a vested interest in the impact of these chemicals for personal use and on a broader scale, such as “the impact these chemicals could be having on the environment [and] our waterways”. 

How to spot false clean beauty claims

So how can you ensure you’re not buying a product that doesn’t align with your values? 

Don’t be afraid to do your research — “research the company and their products in depth,” advises Collins. “Don’t just buy a product based on face value.” 

Look at the ingredients list and “if there are a lot of scientific names that you don’t understand, do a quick Google search to find out what they are.”

A quick Google search is all it takes to learn about the ingredients, formulas, manufacturing and sourcing practices a company uses. “Look for information about their supply chain, carbon footprint, and environmental initiatives to make sure they’re not also greenwashing you,” recommends Collins. “If you can’t easily find the information on a brand’s website, don’t be afraid to ask them directly – if they’ve got nothing to hide, they should be open and honest with you.”

Another way to ensure the legitimacy of a company’s ‘clean’ claims is to “look for third-party certifications” from reputable organisations. “These certifications can help verify that a product meets certain standards and has undergone rigorous testing and evaluation,” explains Collins. 

Some reputable certifications include B Corporation, COMOS/Ecocert, Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance.

According to Zendaya’s Aesthetician Vanessa Marc, it’s a skin care mistake to think natural means better. 

Main image credit: Getty

Briar Clark got her start in the media industry in 2017, as an intern for Marie Claire and InStyle. Since then, her keen interest in fashion and beauty has landed her gigs as a Digital Content Producer and Beauty Editor with titles like Girlfriend, Refinery29, BEAUTYcrew and beautyheaven. She loves the way seemingly innocuous topics like skin care and style have the ability to put a smile on people’s faces or make them think about themselves a little differently. A big believer in self love and experimentation, Briar has made a point of becoming the Australian beauty industry’s unofficial guinea pig for unusual treatments and daring hair trends. When she’s not testing out the latest beauty launches, Briar is big on broadening her horizons, mostly in the form of food but she’s also partial to travelling to new destinations both near and far (and of course, allocating an extra bag to bring their best beauty offerings home with her).