Health & Beauty

Cleaning Up Clean: How The Clean Beauty Industry Has Changed in 15 Years

June 14, 2024

Clean beauty is believed to have sprung from California’s “clean living” movement, and early brands like REN Clean Skincare, Tata Harper and Beautycounter began to emerge in the noughties. The initial goal was eliminating ingredients that were commonly used in beauty products and that were believed to be harmful to health. “Beautycounter, as the creator and leader of the clean beauty movement, recognized two critical things when we launched,” says its founder and CEO, Gregg Renfrew. “The industry wasn’t moving fast enough to put safer, health protective options on the market and that creating a world where all beauty is clean beauty would require stronger oversight and regulation of the industry.” 

Barb Stegemann, founder of Halifax-based 7 Virtues, which makes clean perfumes, says that when she started her company in 2010, there wasn’t really a name for what they did. “I just knew that people were coming up to us, saying that we were the only perfume they could wear—that people who felt like they were reacting to other scents could wear ours.” 

In the early days, “clean” beauty was “essentially a small group of forward-looking brands that drew a line in the sand and said ‘no more’ to formulating with specific toxic ingredients like hormone disrupting phthalates and cancer-causing formaldehyde,” Renfrew says. However, there was never a definition of “clean.” So as time went on, things became murkier. “More and more brands started to claim they were “clean” to capitalize on increasing consumer demand and gain greater market share—and the honest truth is that we’re now in a space mixed with authenticity and greenwashing,” Renfrew says. 

How do the OG brands navigate that space and demonstrate their integrity to customers? How do new ones figure out how to set out their stall? And how do they collectively push things forward to make things ever better for everyone? 

One key move within the industry is that “clean” has come to mean something more than “not formulated with potentially harmful ingredients.” Many brands are using the word to also encompass sustainable sourcing and packaging, social responsibility, ethical treatment of people, and transparency. One way in which these can be validated is via B Corp certification—a status that Beautycounter and 7 Virtues both have. “It was a year-and-a-half journey, and we learned a lot,” says Stegemann. “But is it so hard to get? I don’t think so! If a family-run company in Nova Scotia can do it, it’s a lack of will. It starts with having that frame of mind where you want to do the right thing. We have that thinking, so of course we became the first fragrance company at Sephora to be B Corp certified, because we are consistently trying to do good things.” 

Omy Laboratoires co-founder Rachelle Séguin says that B Corp status was on her mind when she and Andrea Gomez conceived the brand—and she agrees with Stegemann that it doesn’t have to be too difficult to achieve. “We didn’t have to put some things in place to get the certification—it was already there.” 

She believes that while it will become increasingly important, there’s still some consumer education needed. “It’s much easier for consumers to say, ‘OK, this is certified vegan’ because it just means one thing, but in the case of B Corp, it means so many things at once that people need help to understand what value it brings,” she says. “But I think it will grow because consumers are learning more about what they want in terms of value, and they have more expectations—they don’t just want a vegan company or a company that doesn’t test on animals; they want everything at once.” 

In her business she attempts to stay ahead of what’s happening, banning ingredients that aren’t on some companies’ or customers’ radars yet, and staying ahead of future legislation. One of her forward-looking ideas is personalization—her brand allows its customers to choose ingredients that target their skin needs to a base formula for day cream, night cream and serum. Not only do you get a more effective skincare product but you get the tools for a lifelong skincare system, so you’re less wasteful because you’re not throwing out unused products. A study conducted in 2014 by Vaseline said that women waste an average of 5,846 beauty products in their lifetimes—over $300,000 worth—and use only 10 per cent of the things they buy. So personalization can be a solution to that overconsumption. 

“We can’t imagine one person sticking to exactly the same formula for all their life,” Séguin says. “With personalization it brings that edge off, you can still evolve the product—if after two months you don’t want to have the scent of cucumber, you can just switch and choose the unscented or the mango.” All the brand’s refills fit into the same packaging, so you can, for example, choose a serum instead of a moisturizer for the summer if that’s all your skin needs. It also can make products more affordable (that it’s only available for the wealthy has always been a major criticism levelled against the clean beauty industry). 

Personalization is a key tenet of Vancouver-based Obakki’s new skincare range, which includes facial oils that can be added to your own moisturizer or the brand’s lotions and body butters, as well as soaps, bath oils and scrubs. And like many of the brands in this space, the range sprang from an authentic need to do good, rather than a business case. 

“I think honestly with us it’s about staying true to our own morals and values as a company, not trying to launch a cosmetic brand with layers or find loopholes that haven’t been founded in beauty,” says founder Treana Peake. Obakki is a lifestyle brand that seeks to provide a platform for artisans around the world to sell their wares and in doing so, support themselves, their families and their communities—in this case, by using ingredients like shea butter and cold-pressed oils of prickly pear, baobab and balanites in its natural skincare range. “We’re putting everything through a development lens—people first, all the time,” Peake says. “I’ve never gone in [to a community] and said, ‘Let’s do this, I think this will help you, let’s try this idea from my western world.’” To that end, she ensures that suppliers also have a local way of selling ingredients that they produce, so they’re not entirely dependent on producing for the vagaries of an overseas market. 

What happens next for clean beauty? Peake is committed to developing Obakki’s beauty products only in a sustainable and thoughtful way. “I want to do it right because I’m representing women co-ops,” she says. “There’s opportunity to grow but not all at once—it’s about being conscious of that as well. It’s important to be a respectful business partner and have respectful growth.” 

 Renfrew hopes that other brands will follow Beautycounter’s MO of testing, rather than banning, explaining: “We knew banning ingredients was the easy part. Actually screening those that do enter your products, safety testing, responsible sourcing and sustainable packaging, now that’s the real work.” She also spies a big opportunity for perfume. “I expect consumer demand for clean fragrances to really take off in 2024,” she says. “Very few brands are marketing clean fragrances, which makes sense when you consider the fragrance industry’s long history of secrecy and safety problems, yet fragrances make up over 25 per cent of the prestige beauty market.” To that end, the brand has just announced its first scents—a set of five EDPs. She also believes that consumers will continue to put pressure on brands to do better in terms of packaging—for example, with programs like Pact Collective (an initiative to encourage recycling that she helped kick off in 2018). 

Stegemann sees big opportunities in perfume too, as well as just the general rise of clean. “It’s really a given now—a lot of people expect you to be clean as a baseline,” she says. “We will see some giants fall and clean indie brands becoming legacy. The landscape is changing and I think it’s good. It leads to a better community, better mental health, people flourishing, and people feeling good about their life choices.” —Aileen Lalor


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