Skip to main content

Curious about the differences between clean and green when it comes to beauty products? Not sure what ingredients to avoid? Us too. To tease out the nuances in this space, we asked leaders at three clean beauty brands to share their perspectives and insights. The bottom line: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but there’s a collective effort to be kinder to our skin, and the environment.

Who: Gregg Renfrew, founder and executive Chair, Beautycounter

Handout

In 2011, Gregg Renfrew founded Beautycounter after realizing that many chemicals used in personal care products in the United States had actually been banned or restricted in the European Union. She set out to create effective, clean beauty products that would also be safe for human health. Since then, the Certified B-Corp brand has been an advocate for ingredient safety and transparency in the United States and Canada, created a Blueprint for Clean set of safety standards, and committed to using only recycled, recyclable, refillable, reused, or compostable packaging by 2025.

How do you define clean skincare?

For us, taking chemicals of concern out is the first step, and our holistic and comprehensive approach to clean looks at a variety of different factors to try to bring the highest performing and safest products into the market that take care of the health of people, but also take care of the health of the Earth.

What ingredients would you never use?

We have almost 1,800 ingredients that we’ve banned or restricted on our Never List, including formaldehyde, coal tar, parabens, classes of phthalates, PEGs [polyethylene glycol] and EDTA [ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid]. We offer a consumer-friendly version that offers a quick reference for ingredients of concern to help guide consumer decision-making when purchasing cleaner personal care products. We have shared this list of about 17 ingredients openly since we launched in March of 2013, which I think has helped inspire a lot of the “never” and “restricted” lists for many companies.

Is there an ingredient that consumers worry too much about?

Preservatives are there to kill bacteria and mold, which you don’t want on your skin. We’ve done a lot of testing on phenoxyethanol and have felt comfortable with it. You can say that preservatives are toxic, but you can also say that putting mold and bacteria in your skin is not good for you. A lot of people have gotten excited about things that are preservative-free. But the reality is, unless it has a very short shelf life and has to be refrigerated, it’s not preservative-free.

Do you believe green skincare and clean skincare are the same?

I think they’re different. When I started Beautycounter, the entire industry was talking about green, which is why we sort of switched it to be clean. I think [with clean skincare], the brands are trying to drive performance and safety simultaneously. They are not necessarily using all-natural ingredients. And there are some very harmful natural ingredients, like heavy metals. There are some completely benign synthetic ingredients that can be used to drive performance that are fine for human health and health of the Earth. I think clean tends to be a combination of [both]. The green ones are really focused more specifically on the environment and being all-natural.

What one thing about conventional skincare do you think should be put on blast?

First of all, age defying, anti-aging, aging gracefully lines are often built with retinol … and retinol is a chemical of concern to us. We’ve been able to use Retinatural Complex [made with bakuchiol and Swiss Alpine rose] and so I think that retinol is not the end all, be all and that there are other sources of ingredients that can give you the same effect.

The other thing is that … many of the most offensive ingredients are found in fragrance, and because of international intellectual property (IP) law, you don’t have to disclose the ingredients that go into your fragrances, and so people hide a lot of the nasties in fragrance. I always say to consumers, “If there’s one thing you can do, it’s shop fragrance-free.”

Who: Alexe Pierre, founder, Apprenti Ôr’ganik

Handout

Apprenti Ôr’ganik’s body care products are made in Montreal using organic and natural ingredients such as Egyptian geranium and Italian petitgrain. Founder Alexe Pierre launched the company from her kitchen in December 2018 with just two products – a geranium hand and body wash and a geranium body lotion – and the range has since expanded to include incense, candles, and even an all-purpose home cleaner. Sustainability is also top of mind for this green Canadian beauty brand – some products are available in a compostable wheat-straw plastic bottle, and there are refill-sized bags for the body washes.

How do you define clean skincare?

There’s two ways to see it. Some people see it as ethical and humanely sourced, and some people really go into the ingredients and where they come from. Since I’m a small business and it’s only two employees, the human side is already pretty much clean. We don’t outsource, we don’t have manufacturers in other countries. We really focus on where our ingredients come from and if they comes with [organic] certifications. We try our best to make sure that they come from organic places and that the farming is done ethically and fairly.

What ingredients would you never use?

My rule of thumb … is everything that is not natural – that cannot grow on dirt, on trees – is a no for me. For some people, the effectiveness of the product is more important than the effects. But when we put a product on the skin, we will never know the adverse effects [over time].

Do you believe green skincare and clean skincare are the same?

My products are clean, but I don’t like the word because it only implies that the products are free of any harmful ingredients – it doesn’t mean that the ingredients are natural. For me, any synthetic ingredient is to some extent not helping your body thrive. I prefer the term green, because to me that means the products are environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural. Of course, green doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody, and that’s where the confusion is. For some people a product can be not natural but still green because it’s quote-unquote sustainable and they use environmentally friendly materials.

What one thing about conventional skincare do you think should be put on blast?

People need to know that with a lot of conventional products, they’re paying for the marketing and not for the product itself. People think that the price tag of a product and the brand name, like if it’s from a higher brand name, they will put so much faith in that product. People really need to go back to the basics and look at the ingredients and strip away the marketing and even how the bottle looks, because what you’re actually using is what’s inside.

What’s a clean habit you stick to daily (that has nothing to do with skincare)?

For me, number one is to eat farm-to-table when possible, and organic produce. There’s two ways to nourish your skin: topically and orally. So what you eat will also speak through your skin. For me that’s even more important than the clean skincare habits.

Who: Catherine Gore, global brand president, Biossance

Handout

Biossance is a clean and sustainable beauty brand owned by Amyris, a California-based synthetic biotechnology company. The hero ingredient of Biossance’s skincare range is sugarcane-derived squalane, which is hydrating, vegan and renewable. The brand bans over 2,000 toxic ingredients from its formulas, practices ethical and sustainable sourcing, offers carbon-neutral shipping, and has committed to being zero waste by 2025 (currently, their tubes, bottles and outer cartons are all recyclable).

How can biotechnology help create sustainable skincare?

Created consciously and sustainably, [biotechnology] doesn’t deplete our limited natural resources. In the case of our sugarcane-derived squalane, we’ve created an alternative for an ingredient that was traditionally procured in a manner that harmed sharks, and therefore the larger aquatic ecosystem. Through biotechnology, we’re able to create squalane sustainably, at such a scale that we sell it back to competitive skincare brands, giving them access to an ingredient that will ultimately make their formulas perform better – all while benefiting the health of our planet. Making our squalane accessible to other brands diminishes the need for them to turn to other sources, ultimately saving two million sharks a year.

What ingredients would you never use?

I think it’s important to start with what ingredients you should use. For us, that starts with squalane … as a standalone ingredient, it provides incredible hydration that perfectly matches the moisture in our own skin and absorbs ten times faster than other plant-derived oils … it helps other ingredients perform better and penetrate more deeply into the skin.

Do you believe green skincare and clean skincare are one and the same?

At Biossance, we’re pioneers in innovative, efficacious skincare that considers every aspect of a product, from sourcing, to sustainable ingredients, to sustainable packaging – we believe this is skincare beyond clean.

What’s a clean habit you stick to daily (that has nothing to do with skincare)?

I don’t use any single-use plastic. I also educate my kids on how to consume less overall; they will lead us into the future of sustainability for generations.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.