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Coming Clean About Green Beauty and Grooming Products

(and organic and natural and botanical and eco-friendly and…)

By Adriana Ermter

Clean. It’s the buzzy cosmetics category and shopping label applied to lotions, shaving items, deodorants, makeup, shampoos and other products deemed healthy and safe to apply from head to toe. Yet, never has a five-letter word been so simultaneously popular and confusing. With many definitions, connotations and interpretations within the $60 billion-dollar beauty and grooming industry, it’s easy to wonder: what does clean actually mean?

“It’s a catch-all term that can refer to a broad range of approaches for skincare brands,” explains Bill Baker, the president and founder of Consonant Skin+Care, a natural skincare company based in Toronto. “Formulations of green beauty brands can be everything from 100 per cent natural to not very natural at all, but clean. The problem with these descriptors in the beauty industry is that none of the terms are regulated. Each brand determines if their products are clean or natural or green, and that puts the burden on consumers to really understand how to read packaging so they know exactly what they’re buying.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, understanding what you were buying was fairly straightforward. Products such as Cheer laundry detergent, Pepsodent toothpaste and Brillo Soap Pads used ‘clean’ as a literal descriptor in conjunction with the product’s function: to create a pristine, spotless outcome. Advertisements, while sometimes goofy, typically left no room for interpretation courtesy of clear messaging like, “Tide’s got what women want! No soap – no other ‘suds’ – no other washing product known – will get your wash as clean as Tide!” Or how about Spic and Span’s promise to make “Spring cleaning magic!” while Kolynos Dental Cream “Cleans in between.”

During the early ’70s, however, the meaning behind a product being called clean shifted. No longer simply aligned with hygiene and homecare or even the hippy-dippy, patchouli-rich creams and fragrances favoured in the ’60s, clean was getting an upgrade. For example, bigwig beauty brand CoverGirl, with their “Clean Make-up” line of foundations and powders, defined clean as interchangeable with healthy, natural and fresh-looking skin, and they ran print ads featuring clear-complexioned models Lotte Dessau, Daniela and Cybill Shepherd to validate these claims. And just like that, the label stuck and a new marketing category for subsequent feel-good, do-good beauty products was born.

“Green or clean beauty has always been around – most people can remember looking at all-natural skincare and makeup at the health food store,” affirms Michelle Bilodeau, a writer, editor, and creator and curator of The Eco on Instagram. “But the current wave of green/clean beauty started just over 10 years ago, when Tata Harper founded her namesake line and was featured in major [women’s consumer] publications like US Vogue. That’s when the idea of all-natural, luxury lines started to take over the beauty space.”

Pioneers like 100-year-old Weleda, 50-year-old Dr. Hauschka, 40-year-old Neal Yard Remedies and 26-year-old Lush brands, which had previously owned the once small and under-tapped botanical, natural and organic skincare space, were suddenly being joined by handfuls of new, clean, indie brands. And their numbers increased with each passing year.

In 2019, the clean beauty and grooming category hit an all-time high with, according to the US-based market research firm NPD Group, a 39 per cent growth in the industry, earning approximately $22 billion per year. Current favourites like Tata Harper, goop, Drunk Elephant, Tatcha, SheaMoisture, Ilia Beauty, Bulldog and Province Apothecary, to name a few, are often credited with this seemingly overnight explosion. Their presence and domination on Instagram with its e-commerce sales has transformed them into household names, each one boasting upwards of five- to six-digit followers and counting, despite an ever-fluctuating market.

“Social media has helped level the playing field for these smaller indie brands, giving them the means to reach a larger audience,” affirms Bilodeau, an audience made primarily of Millennials and Generations Z and Alpha. Renowned for their belief in purposeful product consumption, this demographic – as noted by global digital measurement and engagement platform Khoros – is the largest consumer of Instagram complete with its click-and-buy capabilities. Of the one million people worldwide consuming Instagram each month, 51 per cent are women, 67 per cent are ages 18 to 29, 47 per cent are ages 30 to 49, and 60 per cent of each household has an annual income of US$100,000 per year. “These consumers are actually interested in purchasing products that work,” adds Bilodeau. “So with people purchasing in this category, that means big conventional brands are now paying attention to what consumers want: products with cleaner ingredients and more sustainable packaging.”

Not to be left behind, powerhouse brands like Revlon, Kiehl’s and L’Oréal are upping their ante by adding freshly mix-mastered clean options to their existing skincare, body, haircare and shaving pillars, while seeking and creating sustainable packaging options. Big-box retailers Amazon and Walmart have also stepped up with their eponymous, clean skincare lines, while Sephora has been stamping an in-house seal of approval on some of the products they sell based on the individual brand’s refusal to include some or all of a blacklist of 50-plus potentially toxic and/or banned ingredients.

Smaller retailers, like The Detox Market (in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto), are also gaining notoriety in the clean game by solely dedicating their shelf space to items with formulations containing non-toxic ingredients and showing transparency in their labelling. “We only offer products with pure, beneficial ingredients,” affirms Romain Gaillard, founder of The Detox Market. “Our teams of experts review thousands of products to ensure their safety and efficacy. We review ingredient labels, test formulas and ask brand founders hard questions.”

Yet some of these questions remain unanswered. Aface serum containing one drop of a plant-based essential oil such as lavender or rose, for example, can be deemed botanical, while a night cream can be classified as organic yet list a not-organic moisture-carrying agent like propylene glycol on its label. Furthermore, one retailer may highlight a product as clean, while another may not. In any of these circumstances, it can be challenging to know who is right. “The biggest challenge for brands now is breaking through this clutter and noise in the green space,” says Consonant’s Baker. “Independent beauty is hot right now, and every brand that comes to market these days is either green or clean or natural. So brands have to answer the question, how is my green skin care better than their green skin care?”

Lending a helping hand is Cruelty Free International with its universally recognized, third-party, gold-standard certification the Leaping Bunny seal. Beauty and grooming products that are awarded this approval must submit to a thorough, corporate audit of their internal standards and protocols inclusive of their supply chains and product ingredient lists. Other helpers are retailers like Beautycounter, Follain and The Detox Market, which are trying to create better clarity by publishing “dirty” or “hot” ingredient lists on their e-commerce sites, while the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada both showcase their prohibited and restricted choices on their corporate websites and in literature, as well.

However, according to Treehugger (a global, eco-driven hub for more than 120 million readers annually), nearly 90 per cent of the 11,000 cosmetic and skincare ingredients recognized by the FDA have not been evaluated for safe usage, with 1,300 of these ingredients named on Europe’s blacklist. So at the end of the day, no one list of ingredients is uniform, and all have the ability to leave consumers assuming the confused emoji position with their hands up and shoulders shrugged.

“Different countries have their standards for cosmetics and natural health product regulation,” explains Gaillard. “For Health Canada, all products must be registered and approved for sale either as a cosmetic or natural health product, and Health Canada review ingredients and packaging to ensure they’re compliant for sale. Unfortunately, many unsafe ingredients can still be found in beauty and personal care products, as there is little government oversight. Synthetic fragrances, phthalates, parabens and other harmful ingredients can be avoided, but you have to make sure to do due diligence.”

And yet, despite (or possibly because of) the vast array of reading materials available to consumers online, at retailers, through government communications and beyond, clean is not going to become a clear-cut category or descriptor any time soon. To believe or become a believer of clean benefits remains an individual choice.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” says Bilodeau. “It will take years to know if these products and ingredients have had a detrimental effect on our bodies or not.” For those concerned with what they are rubbing onto their bodies, Bilodeau recommends playing it safe and integrating organic or green products, into their daily regimes despite the current lack of information. Because sometimes, “just knowing you’ve switched over [to products that may be healthier for you] can certainly help. Or [try to use clean] products that cover the biggest surface area of the skin, like lotions and body washes. Most importantly, know that green and organic beauty products are now leaps and bounds ahead of what we had 10 years ago. They work just as well as contemporary cosmetics and beauty products.”

Your go-to glossary
“There are many different varieties within the clean and green categories,” says Bilodeau. “But generally speaking, here is what they look like.”

Organic: While the Canada Organic Regime requires mandatory certification to the Canadian Organic Standards for food to be labeled as organic, there is no current regulation for cosmetics. Currently, all lotions, lipstick and other cosmetics branding themselves as organic are operating under the good-faith policy and are ideally, made of ingredients that are 100 per cent organic. These ingredients are typically grown without the use of genetically modified organisms, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
Natural: A product that is made of 100 per cent natural/organic ingredients. “Some brands will hover close to 100 per cent and will say they’re 96 per cent natural, for example, with no synthetic chemicals or preservatives,” says Bilodeau.
Botanical: A product derived exclusively from plants. “Botanical is just a fancy way to say the product has plant-based ingredients in its formulation,” says Bilodeau.
Clean: A product that may use chemical ingredients but stays away from some of the big toxins, such as parabens, phthalates, sulfates, petroleum, etc., and any variation thereof.
Eco-friendly: A brand that is “thoughtful about their ingredients’ impact and, for example, uses mostly natural or organic ingredients, and takes packaging and production into consideration,” explains Bilodeau.
Green: This is a broad term that can encompass any of the above terms.

ADRIANA ERMTER is a Toronto-based, lifestyle-magazine pro who has travelled the globe writing about must-spritz fragrances, child poverty, beauty and grooming.

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