The Truth About Cleanwashing

There’s a trend in the beauty world at the moment to bash clean beauty. And while much of the uproar is just plain mind-boggling and uninformed, there is a nugget of truth that we want to address. And that topic is ‘Cleanwashing’. In today’s blog we’re chatting about: 

  • What does clean mean?
  • What is cleanwashing? And how to spot it.
  • How to vet products and choose truly clean
  • The ingredients to look for & avoid 
  • Our stance on clean
  • Clean at Sephora: is it cleanwashing?
  • What you can do for safer, cleaner beauty


There’s no legal or even industry-wide, agreed-upon definition of clean. 

In the truest sense, however, clean beauty means products that are mindfully created without any proven or suspected toxic ingredients. Many cosmetic ingredients have been linked to hormone disruption, cancer, and skin irritation - true clean beauty is formulated without all such ingredients.

While research keeps showing these linkages between cosmetic ingredients and health problems, regulations have nowhere near caught up. The last update to US cosmetic ingredient regulation was in 1938 when 30 ingredients were banned. Since then 16,000 unregulated ingredients have been introduced and are in-use in cosmetics.

In comparison, Canada bans over 500 ingredients and the EU bans over 1300 substances they deem toxic or harmful in cosmetics. And definitions between retailers vary also, but many are beginning to recognize at least the most popular proven toxins. Clean at Sephora bans 50 of the most toxic ingredients, while Clean Beauty retailers like Credo Beauty and The Detox Market ban over 1400 toxins, and only accept cruelty-free products. At ĀTHR Beauty, we ban over 1500 ingredients, are vegan, cruelty-free, and only use sustainable, ethically sourced, child-labor-free ingredients. 

So the truth is, the definition of clean is still very split. And while knowledge is spreading, without clear regulation, brands are still free to interpret this term how they like. 


This vague, inconsistent (entirely unregulated) definition of clean is where cleanwashing comes from. Any brand can say they’re ‘clean’, ‘natural’, and even ‘non-toxic’ without any truth to their claims.

That’s not to say all ‘clean’ brands are misleading you. Clean beauty began because people started learning about (and experiencing) the adverse health effects of many conventional beauty ingredients. These early brands were created solely on the premise of safe, non-toxic product formulation. It started with small, indie brands who wanted to change the toxic, negligent ways of the beauty industry.  

As clean beauty started gaining momentum, the industry started to pay attention. Brands big and small realized they could capitalize on this ‘trend’ (crazy to call not using toxins a ‘trend’), and began using these buzzwords in their own marketing efforts.

That’s where cleanwashing came in – companies trying to capitalize on this ‘trend’ without actually carrying through these claims into their formulations. They’re keeping the toxins, but changing the claims.



The truth is, this $90B industry is dominated by large cosmetic businesses that are motivated first and foremost by profit. These brands aren't prioritizing (or even considering) how their products affect our health.  

Reformulating products (especially whole product lines) costs A LOT of money. It means a huge amount of research, testing, new packaging for ingredients labels, and not to mention the more expensive clean ingredients! If profit-driven brands can get around this cost, and capitalize on the trend with zero (or very small) formula changes, that's definitely the more profitable option.

And, since it’s so difficult for consumers to decipher what’s truly clean and what’s not (there are over 16,000 cosmetic ingredients out there and they all sound like scary chemicals), brands can get away with this. As long as the regulation is next to zero for this industry, and consumers buy their products, this will continue.  

When we consumers start demanding better, however, when we expect total transparency, and only settle for truly safe, effective products, brands will have to make the shift. Why? Because when people aren’t buying those tired old toxic formulas anymore, they’ll start losing money. And they’ll have no choice but to clean up their act (literally) to regain their customer base.



Free-from labels

This is the most common one – brands will pick a proven toxin (usually parabens or sulfates) and say ‘free from ______’. While that’s great, usually it means they’ve removed one toxin from their formulas while keeping the other 20 toxins (and sometimes replacing the omitted ingredient with an equally toxic one). Because most consumers don’t have the time to research all 16,000 potential ingredients, they try to avoid the most well-publicized ones and when they see ‘sulfate-free’, they think it’s a safe (or at least safer) choice. And sometimes it is, but usually, it means very little in relation to the rest of the formula.

Using ‘Green’, ‘Organic’, ‘Natural’ or ‘Clean’ in the product name or description

As we said, there’s no regulation on the use of these terms, so any brand can use them, and many do, whether it’s true or not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid all products claiming to be clean, but it does mean we have to look deeper than surface-level marketing claims.  

Hiding behind ‘Vegan’ or ‘Cruelty-Free’

While we’re so happy that vegan and cruelty-free are gaining momentum, these terms do not equal clean. A product can be vegan and still be totally toxic. And the reverse is true too - a completely clean product could be chock-full of non vegan ingredients.


Because brands aren’t required to disclose ingredients making up a fragrance, this term can hide any number of undesirable or toxic ingredients. If a company won’t disclose all ingredients in a formula, you can’t be sure it’s clean. Not to mention, it’s 2020 – no more cloak and dagger, behind-closed-doors, non-transparency. We all deserve to know (and choose) what we put on our bodies.


Shop at clean beauty retailers with strict clean standards

Clean beauty specialty stores like Detox Market, Credo Beauty, Follain and Beauty Heroes have strict ingredient and formulation standards that their brands must follow. And, these standards are very clearly outlined on their websites. You can be assured that every product they carry follows these standards. And that means, no ingredient-label-reading needed. Pick anything they carry, and know that it follows a high standard of clean.

The one caveat: you do have to read labels if you’re also looking for vegan products. None of these retailers require vegan formulations as of yet (though there are lots of vegan options to choose from). Although both The Detox Market and Credo Beauty's brands are all cruelty-free.

The other bonus: the staff in these stores specialize in only clean products – they know their stuff and can truly help you choose the right products for you. 


Read ingredient labels

This is the most thorough way to ensure a product is clean. Scan ingredient labels on Think Dirty or EWG Skin Deep App as a starting point, and look up any ingredients you aren’t sure about. And, even if you’re not shopping at Detox Market or Credo Beauty, you can use their ingredient intel to vet individual ingredients.  

If you can’t easily find an ingredient list on a product’s website, run! You deserve total transparency and should always know 100% what’s in your beauty products. #nomoremysteryingredients 


Besides the most well-known toxins like Parabens, Phthalates, Sulfates, Coal Tar, Formaldehyde, Toluene, and PEGs, here are a few more toxic and/or damaging ingredients to look for and avoid: 

Talc: While talc itself is a non-toxic ingredient, it naturally forms around asbestos and is very often contaminated with this known carcinogen. 

Propylene Glycol: this is literally antifreeze - the same antifreeze that is used in your car.

PTFE: This is a fancy way of saying Teflon. Yes, the same toxic Teflon that coats your cookware.

BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) & BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole): Preservatives linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and skin irritation. 

Mica: A safe ingredient, mica is unfortunately directly related to child labor. 30% of the world's mica production comes directly from child labor. And since brands are beginning to substitute talc for mica, we need to start asking brands (especially larger brands) where they're sourcing their mica from. After all, that beautiful shimmer shouldn't have to come with a hidden human cost. Read our blog 'The Truth About Mica' for more on this topic. 

Cyclic Silicones: Used to give products that slippery finish and to smooth out pores, this ingredient actually ages your skin faster by drying it out. It counteracts any anti-aging/hydrating benefits you might see from your skincare regime. You'll find these ingredients in many primers and foundations. 


ĀTHR Beauty is a sustainable clean beauty brand. That means we vet each ingredient to ensure it's clean and non-toxic but also sustainable in practices. We use organic, fair-trade, and non-GMO ingredients wherever possible and ban over 1500 ingredients  (and counting!) from our formulas. We are 100% vegan and cruelty-free forever.

‘Clean’ means more than just ingredients. Clean beauty means a clean conscience! It means that from our non-toxic, vegan formulas, to our sustainable, ethically-sourced ingredients, to our zero-waste, recyclable packaging, we are bringing only good into this world. #goodvibesbeauty

Our Founder Tiila Abbitt, left her job as a Lead Product Developer at Sephora after years of witnessing skincare issues, breakouts, and lawsuits in the conventional beauty industry. She wanted to channel her product development experience into creating products that performed just as well as conventional favorites, but without toxins, animal exploitation, irritating ingredients, or harm to the planet.  

If you have any questions about our ingredients or formulations, we are always here! We’re a completely open book and will share the whole truth with you 100% of the time.  



While it’s a beautiful thing that Sephora is now carrying clean beauty brands (and highlighting them in their stores), the Sephora clean beauty program is still at the progress stage – not yet perfection. Sephora has since expanded their clean criteria (read our blog on this) to ban 50 ingredients from all products bearing the ‘Clean at Sephora’ seal. And while that’s a great start, it doesn’t come near the 1400+ ingredients banned at clean retailers like Credo Beauty and Detox Market. 

Does that mean all ‘Clean at Sephora’ brands are cleanwashed? Definitely not. While many of the products bearing the Sephora seal are still far from other retailer's definition of clean, the ‘Clean Makeup’ endcap is so far only being stocked with truly clean products. So, that is a great place to start shopping! And beyond that section, again, reading ingredient labels is a must to ensure clean claims are true.  

To see Sephora’s full banned list, click here. If you’d like to see this list grow, reach out to Sephora and let them know that stricter ingredient standards are important to you. Tell them you want their clean seal to truly mean squeaky-clean - as in zero toxins.


Sephora Clean Makeup Endcap


Our hope for the future is that one day, ‘Clean’ won’t even be a necessary callout. It will just be a non-negotiable, no-brainer baseline that every beauty product adheres to. In reality, it’s pretty ridiculous that we even have to worry about toxins in our makeup – why was it ever ok to add toxins to cosmetics? And how is still ok now, even when we’re seeing the research on how harmful many of these ingredients can be?

Truthfully, it’s just not ok. And we as consumers need to expect way, way more. No more toxic ingredients, no more animal testing, no more animal-derived ingredients, no more unsustainable packaging, and no more human lives being harmed through the production or use of cosmetics! It’s time for the whole industry to enter a freaking revolution of #donoharm. Vote with your dollars, and speak up with your voice to demand #betterbeauty from every brand that’s sacrificing your health, this planet, or the animals to create products on the cheap and easy.



Here’s the truth: the cosmetics industry is the least regulated industry in the world, even less than pesticides. The laws governing cosmetic ingredients haven’t been changed since 1938, and brands can basically formulate with any/all ingredients that give the effect they’re looking for at the lowest cost, with little regard for the long-term health effects or environmental impact of their usage.

The FDA hasn’t banned a single ingredient (beyond a few color additives) in 80+ years. And not to mention, the FDA doesn’t have the power to remove a product from shelves that they’ve deemed harmful or toxic. They have basically zero power to regulate or enforce any aspect of cosmetics.

To change this, show your support for the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act that’s currently in congress. This bill would give the FDA more power to regulate cosmetics, specifically to:

  • Ban some of the most toxic chemicals in cosmetics
  • Require companies to register with the FDA, comply with good manufacturing practices, and disclose ingredients to the FDA
  • Provide public access to serious adverse event reports
  • Give the FDA authority to recall unsafe or misbranded products


Thanks for tuning in and for supporting #betterbeauty! Leave us your comments on cleanwashing and ingredient regulation down below <3

- ĀTHR Beauty xo

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