There’s a fine line between informing and overwhelming a consumer while they peruse the ingredients list of a clean product. How does a brand define clean beauty? Can a brand guarantee the ingredients in its products are clean?
Globally, the clean beauty market is estimated to reach $22 billion by 2024, motivated by a growing consumer base focused on ethical and environmental concerns. To meet this demand, some major beauty retailers offer standards and guidelines on how to be more “clean,” especially in vetting the ingredients that go into beauty products. For example, Sephora’s Clean + Planet Positive policy includes a Restricted Substances List (RSL), a list of banned ingredients brands must avoid to maintain the seal.
However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to define claims like clean or cruelty-free, leaving the beauty industry to steer a largely self regulated ship. However, this poses as an opportunity; brands have the autonomy to adhere to standards they care about, and even create their own “banned” list— developing a deeper customer relationship by keeping them informed.
We compared the RSLs of various established clean beauty and cosmetics retailers, and incorporated other common restrictions, including but not limited to: animal content free, microplastic free, cruelty free, and sustainably sourced palm derived ingredients. Below is the list of the most commonly banned ingredients across such retailers.
What they are: Chemicals that prevent UV light-related changes to scent and color, and keeps lip balms and nail polishes colorful. It’s also added to perfumes for its notes of sweetness.
Why they’re banned: These chemicals are linked to hormone disruption, organ toxicity, and cancer.
What they are: Man-made preservatives and stabilizers that extend the life of a product, and can be found in eyeshadows and lipsticks. Also known as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BTA).
Why they’re banned: These preservatives have been linked to hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, and cancer.
What they are: Sulfates and polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are responsible for the bubbles and rich lather that products like shampoos can create. Additionally, they are used as emulsifiers and humectants.
Why they’re banned: The manufacturing process produces toxic byproduct 1,4-Dioxane, a forever chemical linked to cancer.
What it is: One of the oldest preservatives used in beauty products, known for helping hair lock into a straighter position during keratin hair treatments.
Why it’s banned: Regular exposure can lead to sore throats and nosebleeds. Also known as a human carcinogen linked to cancer.
What it is: A topical bleaching agent used in skin lightening and hyperpigmentation treatments to alter skin color and appearance.
Why it’s banned: This bleaching agent has been linked to allergies, immune responses, and cancer.
What it is: A petroleum-based moisturizing agent, often found in face creams and lip balms.
Why it’s banned: Found to be the largest accumulated contaminant in the human body. A 2019 study also raises flags on its environmental impact, as accumulated mineral oils clog pores in the soil, making them less permeable to water and air.
What it is: A chemical compound that’s effective at blocking harmful UVA and UVB rays from being absorbed in the skin. Commonly found in most drugstore sunscreen products.
Why it’s banned: Oxybenzone has been linked to hormone disruption and skin irritation.
What they are: Preservatives and antimicrobial chemicals that prevent bad bacteria and molds from growing in products.
Why they’re banned: These chemicals have also been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive issues, and skin irritation.
What they are: Chemical binding agents that improve the aesthetics and form of a product, like making fragrances last longer and keep nail polish and hair spray pliable. Fragrances don’t have to be disclosed because they are considered trade secrets, meaning phthalates often go undisclosed as well.
Why they’re banned: Phthalates have been linked to hormone disruption and reproductive issues.
What it is: A stabilizer consisting of antibacterial and antimicrobial chemicals that prevent bad bacteria and mildew from growing. Can be found in hand sanitizers, body soaps, and mascaras.
Why it’s banned: While this ingredient is understood to usually stabilize or elevate a product, adding triclosan to over-the-counter (OTC) hand sanitizers wasn’t found to be more effective than good old soap and water. The FDA took action in 2019 to ban it from OTC hand sanitizers stating that it did not provide a benefit to human health. It’s been linked to hormone disruption, liver fibrosis, skin cancer, and the growth of superbugs.
What it is: An antimicrobial agent similar to triclosan.
Why it’s banned: Similarly, it hasn’t been found to improve or benefit the sanitization effect of products compared to washing with soap and water. It’s linked to hormone disruption and organ toxicity, and is known to accumulate in the environment, including soil, air, and water.
The journey to being featured on a clean beauty shelf often begins with using official ingredient terminology, and supplying source codes when they’re available. The official terminology set by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) is Novi’s bread and butter. Ingredients are coded at this level so that when you navigate a particular clean beauty standard, an ingredient will be flagged for each restriction that it raises.
Some of these clean beauty standards have additional hoops to jump through to verify ingredients. Certain restrictions require information at the supplier and trade material level to meet a particular standard.
You don’t need to check off cruelty free in order to grace most clean beauty selections, but getting “Cruelty Free” or “PETA certified” is an easy way to expand the market of a product. Remember, brands can self claim cruelty free because the FDA hasn’t clearly and legally defined it. But a little detective work pays dividends when looking into how brands and retailers define and verify cruelty free.
Without any real certifications or standards in place, choosing between the endless packaging options can turn into a game of chance—will a product’s packaging exclude it from a retailer’s shelves?