3 beauty leaders get candid on the meaning and the future of clean beauty, something you could factor in your innovation strategy and brand story.

Below is an in-depth Q&A with Jodie Pappas: Founder, Clean Kiss Lifestyle-Clean at First Sight Skin Care, Emmanuel Rey: Founder, YUNI Beauty-Mindful Beauty for an Active Life, and Scott Kestenbaum: Sr. Vice President, The Maesa Group-Incubating Beautiful Brands, on the perception, evolution, and the future of clean beauty.

1.It is widely perceived that Clean beauty rose as an alternative to ever-growing claims of natural and organic and instead a new term appeared conveying safety versus merely being natural/organic. How do you view clean beauty versus natural and organic beauty? 

Jodie Pappas-Clean Kiss Lifestyle

Great question! I think there is a lot of misconception about clean vs natural vs organic in the beauty space (and we can throw the term “green” into the mix too!). I believe it is vitally important that we understand the differences between these terms and define what they mean to me as a skincare brand founder and formulator.

I personally view clean beauty as that which is simple and safe for consumers to comprehend ~ it is clean in every sense of the word. This includes simplicity of the packaging, the raw ingredients, the process, the application and the outcomes. Since clean does to me mean simpler, fewer ingredients that are consciously sourced, I would also say that clean means a safe product that will not bring harm to those that use it.

When I formulate and create skincare products under my brand Clean Kiss, we always maintain our Clean at First Sight Skincare manifesto so that there is never anything hidden!

Emmanuel Rey-YUNI Beauty

Truly, clean beauty is a notion conceived by retailers (and brands) not necessarily to replace natural/organic claims but rather to underline that “clean” beauty products are “non-toxic” (good news !).

The fact is the US regulations only forbid a handful of ingredients in beauty products as opposed to thousands in other parts of the world (EU in particular). Because the consumer is more aware and educated about the toxicity of some ingredients (although “legal”, for example, parabens, phthalates, phenoxyethanol…), the Beauty industry tried to follow in creating the “clean” category.

To be clear, “clean” does not necessarily mean “natural” (it can be synthetic), is not necessarily “plant-based or vegan” (it can be animal-derived) or sustainable (it can be petroleum-derived).

The reality is that it is much cheaper and easier to make formulas that are not natural or organic. So the “clean” category gives the opportunity to traditional brands to reassure the consumer about the non-toxicity of their products while not having to change their formulas or increasing their costs.

Note that the definition of “clean” changes from retailer to retailer (Target vs Ulta vs Credo etc). As such, one can wonder if it is not going to confuse the consumer even more.

To be fair, natural/organic does not necessarily mean “safe” and it can be more complex in its definition than ‘clean”. At the same time, “natural/Organic” does not necessarily mean less effective.

Scott Kestenbaum-The Maesa Group

Natural beauty and Clean beauty are two completely different concepts.  Simplest way to think about it is that Natural refers to what’s “in” the product, whereby Clean beauty refers to what’s “Not in” the product.  “Natural” beauty has been thriving in the U.S. for decades despite the fact that word “natural” has no consensus definition in the industry, is not regulated by the FDA, and is tossed around loosely by Marketers. 

The term “Natural” has been so overused by marketers, that it has lost some of its previous luster.  Some private citizens have more recently tried use deceptive marketing laws to regulate the use of the word “Natural”.  For example, Colgate’s Tom’s of Maine brand has multiple class action lawsuits against it, over its misleading claim of “Natural”, but the cost of settling these lawsuits is but a miniscule expense to a company like Colgate and just a small cost of doing business. 

The overuse & misuse of the word Natural was certainly one of the factors that gave rise to the shifting consumer sentiment toward  “Clean” Beauty, which has been on the rise in the U.S., during the past several years. 

Q2. What, in your opinion, is the consumer’s perception of clean beauty versus natural/organic? Is it a narrowed down, refined, subset of natural/organic, or an overlapping set, which is perceived to be to be both safer and better in performance? How much of clarity does the consumer have?

Jodie Pappas-Clean Kiss Lifestyle

I actually don’t think the consumer is clear on their understanding of the word clean as it applies to skincare. These terms are very confusing in fact. I liken it to the clean eating/dieting trends that abound right now too. In the sense of clean eating, it means unprocessed, unrefined, whole foods are consumed in your diet. If you take the same logic to the skincare industry it should mean something similar in that skincare manufacturers are using whole/natural raw ingredients, unadulterated, unrefined, very little processing, and in their most holistic sense possible.

When it comes to skincare this is ideal but it may not actually be the best practice because for safety purposes ingredients need to be processed in such a way as to ensure their safety and efficacy from things like microbial growth that can cause harm without a degree of heat processing. 

Emmanuel Rey-YUNI Beauty

“Clean” is seemingly easier to understand for the consumer and more reassuring while still “feels” efficacious. Since retailers have created a “clean” category, then the consumer perceives the pre-selection job has been done.

To your point, it is very likely that at this stage, the consumers are fairly confused and aggregate the 2 categories in their minds. Unfortunately, these are fairly complex notions that require a minimum of attention which is quite hard when a consumer just spends a brief moment in front of a shelf where the number of options is overwhelming.

Scott Kestenbaum-The Maesa Group

Trying to define a singular consumer here would not paint an accurate picture, as similar there are a multitude of consumers, each with different levels of understanding & perception, as it relates to the health of their bodies, and thus healthiness of ingredients within the beauty products they use. 

If you look at other industries, for example, food – we’ve known for decades that diets high in simple sugars and trans fats are the leading cause of obesity and heart disease, and yet every day tens of millions of Americans shuttle to fast food joints to consume vast amounts of cheap plates of sugar & trans fats. 

Similarly, so long as it is legal in the U.S. for beauty brands to include toxic chemicals in their products, there will be a cohort of mostly underserved Americans that will opt-in favor of cheap readily accessible products, irrespective of the health consequences. 

Fortunately, consumer sentiment is shifting quickly, as more & more Americans are becoming more health-conscious in every facet of their lives, including what’s in their beauty products.  Prominent leaders of the Clean beauty movement in the U.S. such as Gregg Renfrew of Beauty Counter & Jessica Alba of Honest Company, have started awakening & educating Americans, that what they put on their skin matters similar to what they put in their body. 

While independent retailers such as Follain & Detox Market were the earliest pioneers to curate selections of Clean Beauty, this has now been proudly embraced by larger more mainstream retailers such as Sephora & Target.  Terms such as “Phthalate free” and  “Sulfate-Free”, largely unspoken & unknown a decade ago, have become part of the modern beauty discourse.   

Q3. Do you think clean beauty is moving towards more safety-tested ingredients and getting more and more selective like Beauty Counter’s Clean Promise-with safety, sustainability, quality, codes of conduct etc. or trending more towards wellness and health-oriented ingredients like CBD or microbiome?

Jodie Pappas-Clean Kiss Lifestyle

I think we are seeing both trends happening right now but they appeal to different consumers with different priorities.

Not every consumer will understand the benefits of using a CBD product or one that promotes a healthy microbiome, such as we do with our natural deodorant that contains prebiotics. When we launched it, and even now, the fact that we have probiotics in 8 out of our 10 natural deodorants, is not something that consumers ask questions or inquire about, they just know that it works, it is clean and that’s good enough for them!

Emmanuel Rey-YUNI Beauty

I think these are 2 different categories and issues. It would sound logical that “clean” beauty moves toward more safety, sustainability etc.

In order to be credible and accepted, the wellness category has to be both: clean and health-oriented (otherwise it would defeat the purpose). Their innovation comes obviously from the ingredients (CBD etc).

In the case of YUNI, our approach from the start has been to have very effective formulas while being ‘clean”, non-toxic and sustainable.

We use EWG as a formulation guideline and our formula is registered with the EU standard.

We use natural/organic ingredients because we think using petroleum-derived ingredients are not sustainable in the long term.
We use plant-based ingredients as we are opposed to any animal ingredients (and testing), make our products in solar-powered or wind-powered factories in the US (to minimize transport) and we also use responsible packaging (bio-resin, PCR, FSC paper, soy ink…)

Scott Kestenbaum-The Maesa Group

Individual ingredients will have their moment in time until the next magic ingredient comes along, but what is undeniable and here to stay in the U.S., is Clean Beauty. 

What we refer to as “Clean Beauty” here in the U.S., is simply “Beauty” in Europe and almost every other modern industrialized country.  The federal government of the United States, infamously, has not passed any major legislation regarding the safety of cosmetic ingredients since 1938. 

The European Union has banned thousands of known toxins, “chemicals of concern”, while the U.S. has only banned 11.  Last week, Governor Newsom of California signed the “Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act”, which banned another 24 ingredients, all of which of course are already banned by the EU.  This was an important step in the right direction to have the U.S. catch up with the rest of the world.  Until the U.S. government does, it will remain the purview of the U.S. Beauty industry to self-regulate itself and educate women on the impact ingredients can have on their bodies. 

If enough consumers and advocates demand change, Clean Beauty is will eventually become the norm here in the U.S. as well.  “Clean” has already started to merge into one of the important pillars of “Conscious” beauty, that is being used to describe brands that holistically embody the ideals surrounding products that are not only good for ones’ body, but also good for the world around us such as Vegan, Cruelty-Free, environmentally sustainable packaging, and philanthropic efforts. 

Q4. How big an opportunity does Clean Beauty offer to brands in demonstrating initiative and leadership, like Beauty Counter, to both elevate standards of beauty and differentiate, by leaps and bounds, itself in the process?

Jodie Pappas-Clean Kiss Lifestyle

I believe as a skincare/beauty brand founder, I have a tremendous opportunity and privilege to elevate the industry standards every day by educating consumers and leading by example.

I simply will not put a load of fillers, unsafe, “dirty” ingredients in our products and want consumers to know that they are getting a clean product every time they use Clean Kiss Skincare for their body, face, armpits, or hair. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Emmanuel Rey-YUNI Beauty

More than an opportunity, it will hopefully become a given. Medium-term, it is hard to think that not all brands will not be clean. It will become a standard. The differentiation will come from innovations and performance. Hopefully, the volume will help to reduce some costs and hence make clean products available to a larger audience.

Scott Kestenbaum-The Maesa Group

By almost every metric, those brands that have led the Clean Beauty awakening have reaped the rewards.  For example, Tiffany Masterson’s Drunk Elephant quickly rose from obscurity to become the leading skincare brand at Sephora, and was recently acquired by Shiseido for almost a billion dollars. 

Retailers across the spectrum are devoting more & more shelf space to those brands that have become synonymous with the Clean Beauty movement. 

Q5. What is your recommendation to beauty brands claiming to be clean or planning to go clean?

Jodie Pappas-Clean Kiss Lifestyle

Prove it and be clear on how you define clean! You can’t make a claim that you are unwilling to back up with comparative data or be unwilling to reveal any information about the ingredients and process of bringing their products to market. 

Emmanuel Rey-YUNI Beauty

Plan it from the inception in all aspects of the mix because it is very hard to change afterward. Use a 3rd party standard like EWG to help you select clean ingredients. Work with formulators and factories that are comfortable using these ingredients.

Go beyond the current list of “no-no” ingredients, as it might change very quickly. Do not make very large production rounds just to get good costs as you might have to pay for it in the long term. Do not launch products that are clean but do not perform. Be innovative.

Scott Kestenbaum-The Maesa Group

Clean up or Clean out.

Key takeaways for future of clean beauty

Clean Beauty emerged from the need to break away from the clutter and perception of natural to create a new category of beauty products and brands that did away with toxic ingredients without compromising on performance irrespective of whether the ingredients are natural/organic or not.

Clean Beauty was an alternative way to communicate the safety of ingredients that were high-performing but not necessarily natural.

The term has now evolved to mean clean in every sense, as Jodie mentioned, whether it is simplified ingredients, sustainable and transparent packaging, application, outcome, etc.

Beauty Counter’s Clean Promise and Clean Kiss’s Clean Manifesto are examples of the broadening scope of Clean Beauty.

Emmanuel offers comprehensive words of wisdom, from his learnings with YUNI Beauty, on the need to plan your clean right from the get-go, using 3rd party like EWG for validating ingredients, working with formulators and factories that are comfortable and aligned with your clean plan, and not limiting yourself to the current “no-no” ingredients but thinking ahead to gain an advantage.

Scott pointed to Clean Beauty being much bigger than an ingredient trend and that the US regulations would likely move towards way higher EU standards.

Echoing Scott’s words, I, too, believe that Clean Beauty offers a tremendous opportunity for beauty brands to demonstrate category leadership and differentiate yourselves while reaping rich benefits as a result.

Want to feature your take on clean beauty with us? Leave a comment below.

ROHIT BANOTA, Founder of StorySaves, has transformed dozens of beauty brands with brand story, strategy and innovation for *10X organic growth delivered from day 1 and powered by direct to consumer.

He has over 17 years of marketing and business experience growing consumer packaged brands including with startups and MNCs like P&G Beauty and Grooming.