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What really makes a beauty product ‘clean’? – we investigate

Did you know there is no official standard for 'clean beauty'. There is no regulatory body that defines what it means, nor is there anyone that checks who is calling themselves 'clean' and who is not. There is also no standard for what ingredients are considered 'clean' and what's considered 'dirty'.

So how have some brands ended up as famed 'clean beauty' brands and others haven't? And how can we tell what really is a harmful ingredient and what's not?

In the pursuit of answers, we connected with founder of Dr Roebuck’s, Zoe Roebuck. Dr Roebuck's is an Australian beauty brand that identifies as 'clean' through its own set of guidelines - and is consistent and transparent about it. In fact, you'll find it's ingredients list easily on the about us page of the brand's site. Zoe worked in Pharmaceuticals and with clinical trials for 15 years before moving on to eventually found Dr Roebuck's with her sister Kim. Now Zoe is passionate about a less is more attitude to formulating product and gave as an industry-insider view on what consumers should know about clean beauty.


What does clean beauty actually mean?

Since 'clean' is not a regulated term, clean beauty brands are self-labelled. They're clean because they say they're clean. And the reality is that every company and every brand will have their own definition of what 'clean' means. As beauty director of Net-a-Porter Newby Hands said when we asked for her definition of 'clean beauty': "well it's everything, and officially nothing." But the general consensus suggests that 'clean' means to be free of harmful ingredients - although even what is considered harmful is up for debate.

"Like individuals, every company has their own definition of what clean beauty means to them so there are a lot of definitions out there," said Zoe. "There is no official governing body that defines what products can be classified as clean. It is up to each brand to be open and transparent to their customers as to what clean means to them."

"At Dr Roebuck’s, clean beauty means a clean conscience, using only the purest botanicals and skin-safe ingredients that have been ethically and sustainably sourced. We believe clean beauty is a simple but scientifically proven formula that heroes minimal ingredients for maximum results. Our products are PETA-certified, cruelty-free and do no harm to animals, local farming communities, or the planet. It’s a big ask for some, but it’s possible."


How is clean different from words like 'natural' or 'organic'?

"To differentiate clean from ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ you need to look at how each is defined," says Zoe.

Like 'clean', 'natural' has no regulated meaning here in Australia. Although it's accepted to mean that the ingredients come from a natural origin. When speaking to another brand found on the topic, Indie Lee, she says 'natural' means an ingredient that is taken from a natural source and is unaltered. If you alter the ingredient, it then becomes 'naturally derived' as opposed to just 'natural'.

'Organic' on the other hand is a regulated term and products can be certified organic. But it can get very murky when you're describing a product as a whole.

"A product that is labelled as ‘natural’ or ‘containing natural’ ingredients can also contain synthetic ingredients or fragrance in the formula. ‘Organic’ refers to how an ingredient was cultivated. They are naturally sourced ingredients produced without the use of chemicals or pesticides. However, a product that uses the term organic doesn’t necessarily mean that the formula is 100 percent organic, maybe only one or two ingredients," says Zoe.

"For some, clean may mean creating formulas that use natural or organic ingredients," she says. "We [Dr Roebuck's] care about where each ingredient has been sourced from and how it has been refined - and that’s what clean means to us."


Can 'clean' products contain chemicals? Are natural products inherently better?

Zoe is quick to dispel any myths here. Chemicals are not inherently bad or 'dirty'.

"Water is a chemical, so clean products do contain chemicals, just not harmful or unnecessary chemicals," she says.

In saying this, it's important to understand that just because something is 'natural' doesn't make it good for you. Poisons like arsenic and cyanide are natural - arsenic is a natural mineral and cyanide comes from apple seeds.

"Every person’s skin is different and responds differently to formulations. Some people find that their skin doesn’t respond well to natural products and are better suited to formulations with synthetic ingredients," says Zoe.

Unless something is on a TGA banned ingredient list, it's up to each brand to define what chemicals and natural ingredients are good and bad. But the presence of any chemicals does not write a product off as 'unclean' or 'dirty'.

"At Dr Roebuck’s we ensure that all of the ingredients we include in our formulations are on the low hazard rating as defined by the internationally recognised Environmental Working Group ( These ratings are based on genuine scientific data," she says.


How can consumers tell the difference between what's 'clean' and what's not when there's no official regulation?

As someone who has been researching writing about beauty for more than 10 years, the misinformation around "bad" ingredients is a constant source of frustration. If you've even read a little about beauty you've probably come across the discourse around parabens (a common preservative) and talc (a natural mineral used to make some baby powder). These have been labelled as harmful or 'dirty' ingredients that cause cancer by many in the industry without any definitive evidence that they're carcinogenic.

The American Cancer Society states: "no increased risk of lung cancer has been reported with the use of cosmetic talcum powder." And Cancer Researrch UK says: "No. Parabens do not cause cancer in humans, including breast cancer." Yet, in spite of this, 'clean' products won't contain either of these ingredients.

That isn't to say that many of the product labelled 'dirty' don't deserve their label. Pthalates for example have a proven potential link to cancer. The Australian government banned their use in children's toys and also cosmetics. But it can be hard for consumers to tell the difference between a for real 'dirty' ingredient with so much fear mongering in this space.

So, for right now, it's still up to us to do the research before we buy.


Where to do your clean beauty research

"Right now the onus is on the company to provide consumers with information, and for consumers to research individual ingredients listed on a product," Zoe says. "There are valuable resources and credible bodies that consumers can refer to when looking at ingredients like the Environmental Working Group (EWG.ORG) and Credo Beauty."

"Always do your research from a reputable site that is supported by scientific evidence. If you have concerns on a particular product or range, email the brand directly. We also believe that your values and ethics should align to any brand you shop with."

But she says that the genuine brands with and ethical mindset are easy to spot.

"I truly believe that skincare should be fun and don’t believe in fear mongering," she says. "Brands that are serious about being clean often have their list of ingredients readily available and take out the guesswork for consumers."


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