There’s a beauty movement happening right now that might be coming to a bathroom cabinet near you soon. Clean beauty, which started out as a big old eye-roller of a trend, has slowly simmered into something quite unavoidable and permanent. A glut of products professing "clean" credentials has cropped up on the high street, presenting the next step in the "cult of clean” (see also eating and sleeping). But what’s it all really about and do we need to pay any attention?
First, a quick digest of what we’re dealing with here. Clean beauty is the sweeping term for skincare, bodycare and haircare (even perfume and make-up) that is free from industrial chemicals and synthetic ingredients. More proficient than "organic", less ambiguous than "natural"; a true clean beauty product is environmentally conscious, sustainably sourced and cruelty-free, but should also feel beautiful and perform brilliantly.
The message from clean beauty brands is that "dirty" ingredients such as parabens, petroleum-based compounds (PEGs), sulphates, petrochemicals and phthalates (basically, the cheap non-nature-derived things that make something feel nice, shift grease quickly and stop it from growing fungus), plus ingredients sprayed with pesticides at source are unnecessary, ecologically unsound and often harmful to your skin, causing irritation and inflammation.
Honestly? I think the majority of modern women have pretty resilient skin that can cope absolutely fine with a bit of preservative here or there and, if these agents were genuinely damaging to the skin, major brands wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole. The clean beauty companies that emblazon their products with "natural" are playing a very naïve game, because everything – everything – is a chemical. The air we breathe is a chemical. The purest droplet of elixir squeezed from a sliced aloe leaf is a chemical. I could carry on picking holes in the worthiness of it all (for instance, it is impossible to control greenfly manifestation in rose fields worldwide without pesticides, so rose oil – used all over the clean beauty sphere – can’t truly be organic), but this is not about it being right or wrong. You can’t tell women what to do – it doesn’t work. But you can deliver options symbiotic to lifestyle choices and this is precisely what clean beauty is about.
What hasn’t helped the movement is that is started off too exclusive and too expensive. It smacked of inaccessible tiny Notting Hill members’ boutiques and rich blonde #blessed health warriors in white skinny jeans. The kind of product Gwyneth bleats on about (yawn).
And most of them didn't work. In the past, an insipid, organic cleansing milk could in no way shift 12-hour-wear, silicone-packed foundation. And a detergent-free shampoo had no chance against day-three scalp grease and toffee-strength hairspray. However, in recent years the doors have been opened for revolutionary textures, packaging and ingredients that do the job. “There has never been a more inventive time for clean beauty products,” says skincare expert Joanne Evans, who has developed the Skin Matters app (99p on iTunes) to help consumers decipher ingredients on product labels – part of the transparency trend we’re seeing a lot of in beauty. “In the past, ‘free from’ beauty was few and far between, smelling great, but without any long-term benefit. We now have scientists focusing on ingredients that penetrate the epidermis inspired by key elements we need internally that also work externally – such as supergreens, berries, avocados, minerals – even crystals.”
And, crucially, they deliver tangible results. Having once been an industrial-chemical superfan, I’ve had a mostly positive experience with free-from products, notably my "wildcrafted" luxury £88 facial oil (see below) that’s made me bin everything else on my dressing table, it’s that good (and so, in my opinion, worth the expense).
I say "mostly" because occasionally, there’s a slippery little sausage that doesn’t quite stack up. Like the vegan, gluten-free body oil containing lemon essential oil, a known skin irritant when exposed to the sun. Or the 100 per cent pure night cream that doesn’t penetrate in the slightest, leaving skin saturated and gagging for an SLS-packed car-shampoo cleanse.
I love the purity, results and thoughtful concept of my facial oil, but that doesn’t mean I’m going 100 per cent clean. There are just too many irreplaceable synthetic products that are crucial to our routines. The mascara-melting marvel that is bi-phased eye-make-up remover is as far from natural as you’ll get, as is the youth-revealing power of a glycolic acid-based exfoliating tonic. There’s no way in hell my hair leaves the house without the cementing, gluey wizardry of my beloved anti-static blow-dry spray, and when I take my kid on holiday, we are both head-to-toe in the impenetrable, chemical sunscreen-loaded, all-day magic of Ultrasun (which consequently is free from synthetic perfume, mineral oils, silicones and preservatives).
We all just need to calm down a bit and remember that balance, as ever, is the most sensible approach. You needn’t start binning everything on your bathroom shelf, but a free-from product here or there might alleviate some of the accumulated industrial synthetic load from your skin and conscience. So, if you’re keen to explore clean beauty that delivers on morals as well as visible wow, these are a few of the brands to look at.
L’OREAL PARIS BOTANICALS FRESH CARE
This isn't a trend platitude– this is a really, really good concept full of excellent haircare products that don’t contain silicones, parabens or colourants. The shampoos do, however, have a very mild detergent, but it has been deemed dermatologically safe, having been trialled on L’Oreal’s innovative Episkin (a type of reconstructed skin technology that has ended all animal testing by the company). Of all the affordable, "clean" haircare products out there, this one balances efficiency with purity better than the rest.
STAR PRODUCT: L'Oréal Botanicals Camelina Smooth Ritual Frizz Antidote (£9.99 at Boots) tames hair using omega-rich camelina oil grown in antibiotic- and pesticide-free crops run by a cooperative in Vendée, France, supported by L’Oréal.
This is on the expensive side but, crikey, it’s as virginal as you’ll get, plus the results are astounding. Founder Tata has her own skin farm in Vermont, where they harvest many of the brand’s active ingredients and hand-pour her entire collection to ensure optimum product potency (there’s an average of 35 actives in each product; most brands have two or three). Every ingredient is 100 per cent non-toxic, traceable and non-synthetic, and comes in recyclable glass packaging.
STAR PRODUCT: The rich but refreshing Reparative Moisturiser (£94 at Space.NK) ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a luxury day cream: it’s quenching, it stimulates age-slowed cell function, it reduces the appearance of imperfections and it creates a brilliant non-sliding surface for make-up.
"Natural" make-up often screams of bland colours and poorly crushed mineral pigments clustering on your skin. Not this one. Think flattering shades and exquisite textures, with the durability and presentation of a high-end brand. Founder and make-up artist Rose-Marie Swift says: “I was surprised to learn that the majority of ingredients used for "natural cosmetics" are refined, bleached, deodorised, clarified, fractionated and heated to high temperatures. That makes them equivalent to man-made chemicals.” Instead, her range (which also includes skincare and bodycare) is formulated with raw food grade and organic ingredients in their natural state, free of harmful chemicals, synthetic preservatives and GMOs.
STAR PRODUCT: Magic Luminizer (£30 at Cult Beauty) is a champagne-toned highlighter balm that emits a stunning, grown-up, non-sparkly glow. Blend it on to cheekbones and browbones, and swipe the excess down your nose and over your lips for skin that looks waxy-fresh and bathed in holiday sunsets.
This is the facial oil to end all facial oils. And, before you bang on about the price, think of it as your do-it-all-skincare to replace serum, moisturiser and eye cream, so it’s actually not that steep. Founder Olivia Thorpe has developed this indulgent, rich elixir using just 11 ingredients– each one either certified by the Soil Association or certified pure, as it only grows wildly. The recipe provides solace from dehydration, free-radical damage, broken capillaries and pigmentation clusters, plus it regulates sebum production and delivers anti-inflammatory properties.
STAR PRODUCT: There is just one item from the brand: No1 Nourishing Face Serum (£88). Use on its own (or you can supercharge your moisturiser with a couple of drops if you favour more of a creamy texture). From my personal experience, I cannot tell you how liberating it is to use just one product post-cleanse, and my skin looks vastly better for it.
If you’re striving to live a genuinely toxin-free lifestyle, then you’ll want to wash your clothes and clean your home with KINN products. The collection is Soil Association certified, vegan, cruelty-free, fully traceable, made in Britain, recyclable and all with a sweet family heritage story to read up on here. The Washing Liquid is only £3.50 and really does work (without ripping the living daylights out of your clothes like a normal industrial product would).
STAR PRODUCT: The Body Lotion (£18) has a good texture and sinks in quickly, but it’s the scent that really steals the show. It’s a soft, sweet, botanical blend of ylang ylang, lavender and tangerine, delivering freshness with heady florals and calming herbs.
A few more Clean Beauty brands to check out:
Rahua– Rahua oil comes straight from the Amazon Rain Forest and has nourishing effects on both hair and skin. Not only are the products great, the brand has a great ethos and works closely with the indigenous people of the Amazon.
REN– one of the first ever genuinely clean brands that still leads the way with stunning bath, body and skincare products.
Clean Beauty Co– Undiluted, plant-based products for hair, skin and body created by sisters Elsie and Dominika, who run natural food and beauty workshops all over the country.