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Brand Purpose Science Cosmetics

Here’s the dirt on ‘clean’ v ‘science-based’ beauty products


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 23, 2021 | 11 min read

With Covergirl and other major brands entering the fray, the ‘clean‘ beauty revolution shows no sign of slowing. But with no universal definitions for buzzwords like ‘clean‘ or ‘natural‘ – and a crop of new brands claiming their products are ‘science-based‘ – what should we make of it all? Here’s what you need to know about these explosive categories as well as what’s on the horizon – including new regulatory proposals.

Woman's face in bathwater surrounded by orange slices

Clean beauty is on the rise

Karen Behnke, founder of Juice Beauty, has spent much of her adult life thinking about health and wellness. An entrepreneur, she masterminded one of the first corporate wellness companies in the US, PacifiCare Wellness Company – which has since been acquired by United Healthcare – and became a defining voice in the space of workplace health and wellbeing. She had always been thoughtful about what she put in her body and how she stayed healthy. But it wasn’t until she became pregnant with her first child that she began considering what was in the topical products she used every day.

“It was the first time I’d ever read a beauty product label,” she says. “Yet I had specialized in health, wellness and nutrition – I was a triathlete and vegetarian and everything, but I was slathering low-end, high-end and mid-market level products all over me.”

Behnke’s mission was to create products that work “as well or better than conventional chemical products, but be the healthiest products on the market.” So in 2005 she founded Juice Beauty. Today it is one of the leading ‘clean’ beauty brands in the US. “My concept was to take rich organic, botanical juices like grapeseed and apple that are already filled with vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants, and then add healthy, powerful ingredients so every organic drop would feed your skin,” she says.

In recent years, the space has witnessed an explosion of innovation, competition and marketing cache. While there is plenty of competition (including Kosas, Kjaer Weis, W3LL People, True Botanicals and ILIA) in the clean beauty category, major traditional brands like Covergirl have also tried to seize a piece of the pie. Covergirl launched its Clean Fresh line last fall, which serves as a more affordable product line alternative to more boutique brands. And then there are new competitors like Amyris, boasting that it will become the L’Oreal of clean beauty.

Within the $19bn ‘prestige beauty’ category, clean beauty brands jumped 39% last year, per NPD Group, a market research firm. The clean skincare category, in particular, now accounts for 13% of high-end skincare sales. In four years, it doubled in size.

It appears the ceiling is high for these perceived ‘better-for-you’ brands, but as the category grows, so too do questions such as, “Are these products actually inherently healthier or safer?” and “What does it even mean to be ‘clean’ or ‘organic?’”

WTF is ‘clean’ and ‘organic’ beauty anyway?

“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a definition of ‘natural’, ‘clean’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ or any of these things that consumers are demanding,” says Jennifer Orendi, who founded Cosmetics Law Counsel and is a Washington, DC-based attorney and licensed cosmetologist specializing in Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) law.

In fact, the FDA and FTC are notoriously hands-off when it comes to regulating the marketing of cosmetics products. The FTC’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 necessitates that brands display the name and address of the production facility as well as a toll-free phone number as well as active and inactive ingredients – but not much else. And just eight chemicals – including chloroform, methylene chloride and mercury compounds – are banned or restricted for cosmetics uses by the FDA. The sector is largely unregulated, giving brands the freedom to formulate and market products in virtually any way they please.

Even the FTC’s truth in advertising laws are difficult to enforce since “‘clean’ to one brand might mean something completely different to another brand,” Orendi says. “Unless there is a unified definition for these terms, it’s really going to be the company’s responsibility to make sure that it’s not misleading or deceiving its customers.”

The driving force behind the creation of Juice Beauty was Behnke’s observation that the market has been dominated by two schools of products. In one camp were the “conventional chemical brands [that] start with a lot of petroleum and butylated hydroxytoluene, propylene glycol” and other chemicals that may be harsh but, largely, prove to be efficacious. In the other camp were new brands promoting their products as ‘natural’. These products eschew many harsh chemicals, but rarely yielded the same results as the conventional brands.

Behnke has built a brand around the message that clean, organic, farm-to-table beauty is superior to common chemical options. And it continues to grow in terms of sales and stature. Earlier this year actress Kate Bosworth became the celebrity face of the brand, joining Gwyneth Paltrow, who is a key shareholder and who, with the help of Juice Beauty, launched her own clean beauty brand, Goop. Goop has achieved a cult-like status among some consumers.

Is science-focused messaging superior to the ‘clean’ message?

Of course, many other players in the cosmetics category – which appears to be set for a significant post-pandemic rebound – don’t see clean beauty as the be-all and end-all that others hype it up to be.

In fact, “the ‘clean’ label has become rather meaningless, in my opinion,” says Dr Suzanne Saffie-Siebert, the founder, chair and chief science officer at Good Science Beauty. Good Science Beauty is representative of a new crop of brands that have arisen in recent years, if not in direct opposition to the ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ beauty revolution then in an attempt to woo consumers with science-focused messaging.

Good Science Beauty was born out of the R&D lab of Saffie-Siebert’s biotech company SiSaf Ltd, through which Saffie-Siebert has developed a range of drug delivery systems designed to make medicines safer and more effective. Saffie-Siebert applied her expertise in drug delivery to develop and patent a new technology that employs biodegradable silicon as a carrier system for cosmetic ingredients.

“Many ingredients are unstable and without a carrier system – they degrade quickly and lose their efficacy,” Saffie-Siebert says. “Plus, the outer layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, is designed to keep foreign materials out of our body. So ingredients need to be formulated with some kind of penetration enhancer to be able to permeate the outer skin layer. [Our] technology does both: it stabilizes ingredients and supports their skin absorption.”

Saffie-Siebert, who holds a PhD in drug delivery from University of London’s School of Pharmacy, makes it clear that she’s not opposed to ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ beauty brands, but rather that she thinks these terms are simply marketing tactics with little weight behind them. “We are trying to use natural ingredients wherever possible, but often synthetic ingredients are much purer and ‘cleaner’ than natural ingredients, so we wouldn’t call ourselves a natural skincare brand,” she says.

That said, Saffie-Siebert claims “there are no ‘nasties’” in the brand’s formulations. “However,” she says, “it seems self-evident that you don’t put unsafe materials into your formulations, and I suspect that 90% of all beauty brands in the US could claim they are ‘clean’ brands. Why make it a marketing claim if everyone else can make the same claim?”

‘Science is not exclusive to certain brands’

At the end of the day, there isn’t a hard line between ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ beauty brands and ‘science-based’ beauty brands. “To formulate these products and manufacture them in a way that balances both efficacy and safety, there’s science involved in every single step,” Orendi, who studied neuroscience, physics and organic chemistry before completing her law degree, says. “Science is not exclusive to certain brands – just because a brand is a ‘clean’ brand doesn't mean there’s not science behind it. It all involves chemistry.”

Behnke agrees. She says Juice Beauty’s products speak for themselves – but it doesn’t hurt that the brand spotlights the results of various clinical studies on its website as evidence of the products’ effectiveness.

Some brands, like B2B supplier Beebe Lab, the brainchild of Dr Lindsay Wray, are positioning themselves at the intersection of clean and science-based – rather than emphasize one over the other. Wray, who holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from Tufts University, says that science sits at the core of what Beebe Lab does. She helped to develop a proprietary synthetic spider silk ingredient that fortifies the skin’s barrier function. But she also considers Beebe Lab to be part of the clean beauty movement. “We’re thinking about what is best for the planet and we are trying our hardest to upgrade the industry with more clean ingredients,” she says. “I’m really proud of the clean beauty movement.”

Wray acknowledges that the lack of universal definitions for terms like ‘clean’, ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ is problematic and leads to inconsistent use of these terms. But she believes that will change. “There‘s not one definition [for ‘clean’]. But that‘s no reason for the movement to lose its momentum, because one day it will have a definition,” she says.

Legal experts like Orendi aren’t so sure. “I can‘t see that there will be [universal definitions for these terms] any time soon.”

The US government may be the ultimate decider on who says what and how. Alongside a few smaller state-level proposals, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2019, a new proposed legislative package, could represent a new direction for the industry. The proposed bill, which could go into effect as soon as next year, would require significantly more testing and validation for cosmetics products than is currently required in the US – a qualification that would likely lead to more safe and efficacious products, but that would also put major corporations at a significant advantage over smaller beauty brands with fewer resources.

In the meantime, Orendi believes that in order to win over consumer trust, brands should focus on being transparent. “There‘s a lot of information at consumers’ fingertips. But there‘s also a lot of, if not misinformation, then incomplete truths and incomplete analyses,” she says. Aside from complying with laws like the FTC’s truth in advertising laws and Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, she says that brands should be able to point to evidence that supports the claims they make about any given product. “It’s helpful [for consumers] when brands cite studies that demonstrate how effective the product is and that it does what they say it does.”

“Consumers are becoming more aware of what‘s in their products – just like in their food products. They’re more savvy about science too,” says Orendi. “People want safe products. They also want products whose performance is commensurate with whatever the company says can be expected.”

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