Everyone’s got their fingers in the “clean beauty” pie these days — from fresh-faced indie brands to the industry’s biggest guns. It’s a revolution of “clean”, “natural” and “organic” in the form of minimalistic, seemingly more honest routines. But how well do you really know these buzzwords? Or are their definitions far murkier than we think? 

If you’ve been enamoured by the presumed goodness of “clean”, “natural” and “organic” beauty but haven’t actually gotten into their nitty-gritties…well it’s about time! Before you overhaul your entire skincare regime, here are some fundamentals to keep in mind.

What Is Clean Beauty?

There is currently no fixed definition of “clean beauty” in the industry and this is where things get complicated. The label is pretty much up for easy grabs, given the lack of official guidelines on what constitutes it. 

Scouring through the websites of established clean beauty brands and its advocates however, will likely lead you to a more consolidated idea. And taking it all together, we think the definition of “clean beauty” according to The Clean Beauty Box sums everything up quite nicely: 

“Clean beauty is defined by products that are mindfully created and produced without any proven, or suspected toxic ingredients. Clean Beauty products include ingredients ethically sourced and are made with the health of our bodies and the environment in mind.”

Ready to take this apart further? 


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Above: The Clean Beauty Box is a US-based clean beauty subscription box that also vets the best in clean beauty.

The Chaos Of Clean, Natural & Organic 

The bottomline: “clean”, “natural” and “organic” beauty do not share the same definitions. Although despite not being one and the same, these buzzwords almost always show up together. 

It is a common misconception that “natural” and “organic” labels automatically mean a product is “clean”. This is not the case. While the non-toxic requirement of clean beauty ingredients means that they should be as skin safe as possible, natural and organic ingredients are not always safer or healthier for the skin. 

In essence, while “clean”, “natural” and “organic” tend to exist in one another’s orbit and regularly reinforce each other, they are fundamentally different. It is paramount to get familiar with what they entail, in order to make a more informed choice for your skin. 

The Glossary

We’ve given you our definition of clean beauty — now get acquainted with these other buzzwords!

1. “Natural”

Natural ingredients are free from synthetic chemicals; they can be a plant, mineral or animal by-product. *Hence natural does not automatically mean vegan. 

Similar to the lack of regulation on clean beauty, there is no formal system that polices “natural” labels. Unfortunately, this means that “natural” can easily become a marketing ploy. Any company can claim a product to be “natural”, even if it contains a smattering of natural ingredients and tons of other synthetic ones. The best way to ascertain how natural a product is, is to scrutinise the label yourself and crosscheck it against a reliable ingredient dictionary

Finally, natural ingredients are not always safer and better for everyone. Case in point: fragrant essential oils (particularly citrus oils like lemon and bergamot) are notorious for being common triggers of skin irritation, despite being 100% plant-based.

(Psst! Read more about how to properly include facial oils in your skincare regime here.)

2. “Organic”

Organic ingredients refer to those grown in accordance with organic farming standards; this primarily means no chemical fertilisers, genetic modification and the use of growth hormones. 

The good news is “organic” labels may be more regulated as compared to “clean” and “natural” ones. In many countries, products can be “certified-organic” — although Singapore is not one of them just yet. Do note however, that organic skincare does not necessarily have to be certified-organic to be labelled “organic”.

Why? Because unfortunately, using organic ingredients and getting organic certified are both costly processes. So instead, brands may choose to independently label their products as “organic” (which is not illegal). The problem is, this can be done even when products contain a disproportionately dismal amount of certified-organic ingredients (think 1% organic-certified ingredients and 99% non-organic, harsh chemicals). Truly organic skincare should ideally contain 70-95% organic-certified ingredients.  

Nonetheless, keep in mind that even truly organic beauty often cannot be 100% organic, due to the industry requirement for preservatives in skincare. *Preservatives in organic skincare are typically naturally-derived, but synthesised in a lab. This does not qualify as traditionally organic.

3. “Sustainable”

The mindful element of clean beauty is often fulfilled by sustainable-sourcing and production. Ethically-sourced ingredients are those that won’t harm the environment in the way they are sourced, processed, used and when they eventually go down the drain. Truly sustainable packaging should also be environmentally-conscious i.e. biodegradable, recyclable, or made from recycled materials. 

The Clean Conclusion

So we return to the core of clean beauty, that it should be non-toxic. This mandates that clean beauty products do not contain any ingredients that will risk your health (or the environment). You might have realised that the definitions of natural and organic do not directly concern the safety/toxicity of such ingredients. So while clean beauty can be natural and organic, it is not a requirement. Vice-versa, not all natural and organic beauty can be considered clean too.  

Remember that the main requirement of clean beauty is it must be safe. As long as ingredients are proven non-toxic — synthetic or not — they can be incorporated into clean beauty. 

The baseline? Always look for transparency! Transparent labels will quickly make clear whether products are truly natural/organic and/or clean. So instead of looking at big but vague titles (that are mostly marketing ploys), look towards brands that promise transparency — because clean beauty should be straightforward and honest. (Psst! Some cult-favourite clean beauty brands that pledge greater transparency include: Farmacy, Drunk Elephant and Herbivore.) 


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The Dirt On Clean Beauty: To-Avoid List

So there you have it, the basics of clean, natural and organic beauty. If you’re looking to  build a cleaner skincare routine, start by ditching these 10 toxic ingredients that should not feature in clean beauty: 

  1. Parabens
  2. Sulfates e.g. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  3. Formaldehyde & formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
  4. Hydroquinone
  5. Fragrance
  6. Chemical UV filters Octinoxate and Oxybenzone
  7. Diethanolamine (DEA)
  8. Triclosan
  9. Phthalates
  10. Lead

When I first started getting into skincare I often found myself falling hard for charismatic labels that were short, sweet, but very vague. It’s easy to get lost in trendy buzzwords and fancy marketing. So as you get into skincare, also get into scrutinising labels, ingredient lists and brand profiles. That way, you can make the more informed, as well as empowered choice. Good luck!

(Psst! For more clean beauty talk, stay tuned to our interview with the founder of A For Apothecary, a homegrown brand specialising in ultra-clean formulations for the most sensitive skin.)

Take care,

Melisa Goh

Melisa Goh

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