It's time to reevaluate what you're putting on your body from head to toe.

By Kate Sandoval Box and Erin Reimel
Updated April 15, 2020
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Simply put, the meaning of "clean beauty" is confusing AF. Some brands define it as being free of chemicals like petroleum and phthalates, while others have extensive ingredient and packaging standards. “My definition of clean is creating responsible formulations that use safe ingredients, whether they come from synthetic or natural origins,” says cosmetic chemist Gloria Lu. A more holistic viewpoint: “We take into account the sourcing, safety, sustainability, ethics, and transparency of the brands we sell,” says Credo cofounder Annie Jackson. (And yes, there is a difference between "clean" and "natural.")

There is no “clean” certification (at least not yet), but many companies have their own standards, and some retailers position themselves as gatekeepers. Read on for the head-to-toe clean beauty products worth adding to your arsenal.

Lips

Formulating clean makeup is rule breaking, disruptive—and worthwhile. “The sensorial experience of swiping on and wearing these lipsticks can be superior. I love the slip, smell, and taste of a botanical oil rather than a purely synthetic mixture,” says Sheena Yaitanes, the creator of clean-makeup brand Kosas. And those oils, like castor, coconut, grapeseed, and sunflower, are rich in vitamins and antioxidants known to hydrate and protect skin in clean beauty products.

The vibrant hues can come from food and drug colorants (“FD&C” on labels)—the same edible ones used in gummy bears. Organic formulas turn to natural colorants like beets and blueberries. (Luckily, brands are getting better at creating brightly-colored clean makeup products.)

Eyes

Some synthetic ingredients are clean and safe. “We use only those that are sustainably sourced and that have safety data to support them,” says Vicki Geiger, a senior director of research and development at Physicians Formula.

One example: the synthetic mica in the rainbow of clean eye shadow and glitters available now (although it’s created in a lab, it’s made of natural minerals, not the micro-plastics that end up in our oceans). Synthetic mica is often paired with recently discovered plant-based film formers, which help an eye shadow glide on thinly and stay in place—and can also offer skin-smoothing and firming benefits. (FYI: Here's what vegan beauty products are all about)

Face

Many of the ingredients in face powders like blush, bronzer, and setting powder come from the earth: Titanium dioxide, zinc stearate, silica (derived from sand), clay, rice powder, cornstarch, and vegetable dyes create formulas in a range of shades that blend into many skin tones.

“The natural pigments we use are both safe and simple,” say Amy Carr and Mary Schulman, the cofounders of PYT Beauty. In clean beauty products, they also don’t clog pores, can impart a pretty radiance, and play nicely with skin-care ingredients like vitamin E and jojoba oil (to hydrate), moringa oil (to balance), and more. (Ready? Here's how to make the switch to a clean, non-toxic beauty routine.)

Hair

Shampoo is typically formulated with 80 percent water. To offset that, OWA Haircare created a waterless, sustainably produced powder shampoo, the OWA Haircare Moondust Collection: Hair Wash (Buy It, $29, credobeauty.com). On average, a container lasts seven times longer than a bottle of liquid shampoo. Sprinkle the clean beauty product into your hand and then add water. It suds up just like a typical shampoo, thanks to its natural surfactants, and it’s sulfate-free. “Sulfates get a bad rap, but they are not inherently unsafe or unsustainable,” says Mia Davis, Credo’s director of environmental and social responsibility. “But there are concerns that they can strip the hair of its natural oils.”

Nails

“Nail polish is a tricky category because making it vibrant, fast-drying, chip-resistant, and flexible has traditionally required concerning chemicals,” says Davis. Most polishes are already free of ingredients like toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalates. Sally Hansen’s new clean line of polishes, the Good. Kind. Pure. collection (Buy It, $9, ulta.com), is free of these, as well as acetone and animal-derived ingredients like carmine. Many of these ingredients have been replaced with natural alternatives, like potato, corn, and wheat, to create a plant-based formula.

Another great clean beauty product: Olive & June’s polishes (Buy It, $8, target.com), which are vegan and free of seven unhealthy ingredients. They last almost twice as long as other clean polishes on the market because their formula combines the base and color—just add a top coat.

Intimate Care

When it comes to intimate care, pH-balanced, fragrance-free products are best. “Vaginas are self-cleaning, so there’s no need to douche or cleanse inside,” says cosmetic chemist Victoria Fu. But you may want a product that hydrates the area. Lady Suite's Rejuvenating Botanical Oil for Intimate Skin (Buy It, $46, freepeople.com) is formulated without potential endocrine disrupters, while Good Clean Love’s Almost Naked organic lubricant (Buy It, $7, target.com) is carbon neutral, meaning the emissions produced are offset by the brand’s initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases.

Self-Tanner

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is the ingredient that gives you that golden cast in clean beauty products. “It’s a fermented sugar that reacts with your skin to darken its top layer,” says Lu. Australian Glow's Self Tan Mousse (Buy It, $20, ulta.com) uses sustainably sourced sugar beets to produce its DHA, and the product’s refillable packaging cuts plastic use by 83 percent. Just pour a refill of the solution into the original recycled ocean-plastic container when it’s empty. (Before you slather on the tanner, study these application pointers.)

Deodorant

Aluminum salts, commonly used in antiperspirants, clog the sweat glands in your underarm to block sweat. While there is no clear proof that aluminum is unsafe, some people don’t like the idea of the compounds being absorbed. “Aluminum-free options have improved so much over the years. There are better application methods, like squeezable tubes, and smarter formulations with ingredients like charcoal,” says Davis. Type:A's Deodorant (Buy It, $10, target.com) has a sweat-activated formula made with glycerin, which soaks up sweat and wicks it away. The brand even offers a fragrance-free option that fights odor with a combination of zinc, arrowroot powder, and low levels of baking soda that are released throughout the day. Even drugstore brands like Secret and Dove have launched aluminum-free options.

Shape Magazine, June 2019 issue

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