Clean Beauty vs Natural Beauty: What’s the Difference?

With all the buzzwords being thrown around about beauty products lately, it can be challenging to decode what they actually mean. There’s a growing interest in purchasing beauty products without harmful ingredients, but how can you tell when a product is actually safe? The beauty industry is predominantly self-regulated, which means companies have almost no guidelines or restrictions on how they can label their products. In fact, the last piece of legislation relating to the ingredients allowed in beauty products was passed in 1938! 

Although we now have a much better understanding of how certain ingredients impact our health, the legislation has stayed the same, allowing companies to use ingredients that are known to be harmful and label their products as they see fit.  The good news is that clean beauty is a powerful trend sweeping the beauty industry as more people become aware of the dangers of common ingredients. 

One of the most confusing distinctions to make is the difference between “clean beauty” and ”natural beauty” products. 

  • Clean beauty products are non-toxic products that are made without ingredients that are linked to harmful health effects like hormone disruption,  skin irritation, and cancer and that are ethically sourced and sustainable
  • Natural beauty products are those made from pure, nature-derived ingredients without synthetic ingredients made in a laboratory.

When a product is “natural,” its ingredients should include only plants, botanical extracts, and minerals, like aloe vera or argan oil. While it might seem like natural beauty products would by definition also be “clean,” this is not the case: harmful ingredients like poison ivy and lead are also naturally occurring substances, but that doesn’t mean they are safe and non-toxic. 

By contrast, clean beauty products have ingredients that can be natural, synthetic, or both. Many clean products use synthetic ingredients that are manufactured in laboratories to mimic natural ingredients, and as long as these ingredients are non-toxic, ethically sourced, and sustainable, they are still considered clean. 

While it is possible to find clean beauty products that are also 100 percent natural, a label of “clean” does not indicate naturally sourced ingredients. You’ll want to read the ingredients list to be sure! Clean beauty products are sure to avoid toxic ingredients like parabens, fragrances, aluminum compounds, ethoxylated agents, formaldehyde, refined petroleum, hydroquinone, talc, triclosan, silica, and oxybenzone, which are known to cause harmful health effects. 

If you’re interested in making the switch to clean beauty products, you can use online tools to prioritize your based on their toxicity. The Environmental Working Group has a free database online that ranks over 50,000 personal care products on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the least toxic and 10 being the most dangerous. You’ll be able to search for everything from shampoo to mascara and body lotion and find out which of your products should be replaced first. 

Clean beauty products are also often vegan, meaning they contain no animal-based ingredients, and/or cruelty-free, meaning they are not tested on animals and have not harmed animals during their production. If vegan and cruelty-free products are important to you, make sure to look for products carrying these labels, as they undergo certification.

Regardless of whether it’s most important to you that your beauty products be clean, natural, vegan, cruelty-free, or all of the above, make sure that you take the time to read the labels and check for unsafe ingredients. Virtually no brand produces all of its products 100% clean or 100% natural, so it’s important not to make assumptions about any product. Know your ingredient list and you’ll become more and more familiar with the specific brands and products you can trust over time.