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What Is ‘Clean’ Makeup, and Does It Live Up to the Hype?

Alima Pure velvet lipstick in Olivia, Antonym Croisette Eyeshadow Quattro, Joséphine Cosmetics liquid metallic eyeshadow.
Alima Pure/Antonym/Joséphine Cosmetics

“Clean” makeup is one of the latest beauty trends, but what exactly is it? If you’ve been wondering, or this is the first you’re hearing about it, we’re breaking down the details!

We’d all like to hope that anything we’re putting on our face could be described as “clean,” but it’s a pretty vague term. That’s why we’ve done the research for you, so you can decide if clean makeup is worth the money.

What Is Clean Makeup?

You might also hear clean makeup referred to as “nontoxic,” “green,” or “natural” makeup. Those are nice-sounding words, but they still don’t tell you much. So, what’s this trend all about, anyway?

As you probably guessed, “clean” refers to the ingredients in the makeup. Generally speaking, it means a product is free from ingredients that are thought to be potentially dangerous or damaging. Those ingredients can include everything from talc, a mineral that’s possibly linked to cancer, to sulfates, which can dry out hair and skin.

There are many reasons people might want to avoid certain ingredients in cosmetics, like health concerns, environmental considerations, and simple personal preferences. However, buying clean makeup isn’t a guaranteed way to avoid specific ingredients. That’s because each brand decides for itself what clean means.

For example, one brand’s clean products might be talc-free, but another’s might not. The word “clean” means something different for each company.

Related terms, like “green” and “natural,” run into the same issue. Any brand can use these terms, anytime. While some companies are committed to actually removing risky ingredients, others use these terms for marketing purposes only. Besides, even “natural” ingredients are sometimes unsafe for use on the skin.

The one clean makeup-related term that does have some meaning is “organic,” because it’s government-regulated. Beauty brands, just like food brands, can’t just claim anything is organic. However, this only means the ingredients don’t use toxic pesticides—it doesn’t mean the ingredients themselves aren’t possibly harmful.

Is Clean Makeup Worth It?

A woman applying Lip/Power Liquid Lipstick.
Joséphine Cosmetics

With this in mind, you shouldn’t trust a product just because it says “clean” on the label. While the hype might be compelling, this term doesn’t really tell you anything about your products.

That said, there’s no need to avoid or ignore clean beauty products, either. Some brands that claim to be clean really are striving to remove harmful ingredients from their cosmetics. You certainly might find something that works for you in the clean beauty space, especially if you’re sensitive to certain ingredients. It’s just that “clean” isn’t a guarantee.

When shopping for cosmetics, you’ll get the best results by focusing on finding specific brands and products that work well for you. When you find a brand you trust, it’s easy to feel good about trying new things from that brand. And once you’ve found products that work for you, you can stick with them as long as you like.

However, just seeing “clean” on a label won’t tell you anything. Instead, if you’re working to find brands and products you like, you’ll want to actually check the ingredients.

Deciding What to Buy

Alima Pure foundation samples, and three shades of blush.
Alima Pure

When reading ingredients lists, a little research can help you decide what you’re comfortable with putting on your face.

For example, there are products, like talc, which might be linked to disease, but not conclusively. Of course, it’s wise to play it safe and avoid these potentially harmful products, but it’s ultimately a personal choice (unless, of course, there’s been a product recall).

Other products might not be potentially harmful, but just irritate some people’s skin. For example, if cosmetics with fragrances make you break out, you’ll likely want to shop for fragrance-free items.

Unfortunately, ingredient lists can be really confusing, and you probably won’t be familiar with every item listed. Luckily, there are resources to help with that! On EWG’s Skin Deep database, you can search by brand, product, or ingredient to learn more about concerning ingredients, so you can make informed choices.

The FDA also offers information online about certain ingredients and possible contaminants to watch out for.

Below are some popular brands to check out for clean beauty products:

  • Alima Pure: Founded in 2004, this company is completely transparent about its ingredients, and even has a glossary of terms on its website. You can also order samples of the foundations to find the perfect one for you.
  • Antonym: Particularly popular for its baked blushes, this company also has an Ecocert designation, which means you can trust you’re getting truly clean, organic products.
  • Josephine Cosmetics: This brand coined the term “haute naturals,” and is known for having deep, bold shades that are also vegan.

Those are just a few—a quick Google search will send you on quite an adventure. Through research and experimentation, though, you’ll soon discover which products work for you, and the ingredients you should avoid. Then, whether it’s labeled “clean” or not, you’ll always feel good about what you’re putting on your face.

Whether you’re into clean makeup or not, it’s always a good idea to know what’s in the products you’re using. Now that you know what the term “clean” really means in reference to beauty products, you’ll be able to ignore hyperbolic marketing and make the best choices for your skin.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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