This week, “clean beauty” faces a new set of detractors.

“Clean beauty” is going through a transformation.

Since I arrived at Glossy about three years ago, the reoccurring soundbite from industry founders and executives has been that “clean beauty is table stakes.” There was no clear definition for the phrase ‘clean beauty,’ but brands and retailers saw the success of the likes of Drunk Elephant, which for its part built its ethos around ingredient elimination, or the “Suspicious 6.”

It wasn’t that Drunk Elephant’s definition was perfect or all-encompassing, but as Robin Tsai, a general partner at VMG, said, “Tiffany [Masterson] from Drunk Elephant drew a line in the sand and said, ‘This is what clean means for me.’ She was very clear about what it was and what it wasn’t, and I think that resonated with consumers. We look across the board at a number of the businesses that we work with, whether it’s Sun Bum, whether it’s Bill [Creelman] over at Spindrift — he’s defining what clean means for him within the beverage space. We’re oftentimes delving into categories that are still a little amorphous. ” VMG invested in Drunk Elephant in 2017.

Drunk Elephant went on to become one of the most sought-after clean acquisitions, selling to Shiseido for $845 million in 2019. Tatcha, of course, was another buzzy clean brand that sold to Unilever that same year for a reported $500 million.

Since that time, no-no lists have abounded, and beauty retailers like Sephora, Target and Ulta Beauty have taken it upon themselves to create their own criteria for curation. But recently, there has been growing pushback against the “clean beauty” wave. Last week, Deciem came out with its stance around clean beauty, stating on its website and social media, “Everything is chemicals, including ‘clean beauty.'” The company, which formulates without many popular no-no ingredients like parabens and sulfates, went on to say in a manifesto that clean beauty fearmongering was being used as a form of marketing.

Deciem CEO Nicola Kilner elaborated further. “When the concept of ‘clean beauty’ began to gain popularity within the industry and among consumers, we were confused. As various interpretations began to emerge, it became apparent that there wasn’t a collective definition, and the word ‘clean’ in particular came with a lot of misconceptions that dismissed clear science,” she said.

Kilner, who underscored Deciem’s place in making beauty more transparent, from prices to ingredients, said that the company follows “the core principle of [the] toxicology-dose makes the poison. We understand that, while everything around us might pose a hazard, the circumstances under which we come into contact with this hazard are what truly make the risk.”

While the criticism is not necessarily new, the larger beauty response to Deciem’s declaration was quick. Accounts like Estée Laundry called out clean beauty’s losing momentum and actress Kate Hudson spurred her Instagram community to action by asking, “What are your favorite clean beauty products?” Meanwhile, fellow skin-care brand Youth To The People followed Deciem’s lead with its own declaration that “Chemicals are your friends.”

For some, the backlash is expected.

“There has been a rise in clean, but there has also been a quiet wave of influencers in the dermatology and chemistry spaces, myself included, speaking out about how beauty marketing in the clean beauty sphere is detrimental to consumers’ perception of ingredients,” said Lisa Guerrera, a chemist by trade and the co-founder of Experiment, a new Gen-Z beauty brand.

Guerrera was one of the social commenters who called out Youth To The People on Instagram by saying, “@youthtothepeople hey friends love this and all but like…also check yourself. The ‘clean’ movement you stand behind perpetuates the idea that chemicals are “bad” sooo this feels kinda bandwagon-y without looking internally!” Youth To The People is a key brand within Sephora’s clean assortment.

For Guerrera, the fundamental issue is that “clean beauty” has no definition and, because of that, “clean beauty messaging is either misinformed or basically laced with fear-focused rhetoric.” While that trend has worked thus far with millennials, Guerrera believes Gen Z is having a harder time being marketed to this way.

“Gen Z is really going to be the most educated beauty consumer we’ve ever seen. They have a much better or a much clearer understanding of skin-care science. My general prediction has always been that the pendulum will basically swing back the other way,” she said.

Kelly Dobos, an independent cosmetic chemist, agrees that fear has been at the crux of the clean beauty movement but argues that indie brands originated the fear-mongering they are decrying now. And Dobos doesn’t necessarily trust that those indie products are safer. “A lot of these indie brands say the FDA isn’t regulating cosmetics, but it sufficiently does and, yes, could do more. Big brands spend a lot of time and effort on making sure products are safe and employ toxicologists that do safety testing. There’s a lot of work that happens there because they don’t want to harm consumers and their reputation is important.”

Still, Beautycounter, another original purveyor of clean beauty, stresses the need for greater transparency. The company endorsed Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins’ reintroduction of the Personal Care Products Safety Act bill that is expected to be proposed next week.

“Beautycounter was founded on the idea that consumers deserve better, so we’ve been paving the way for lasting change by defining industry-leading standards for safer products and by pushing for science-backed regulation so that others would be required to do the same,” said Gregg Renfrew, founder and CEO of Beautycounter. “We believe that, in today’s underregulated market, this work is more important than ever. It’s only when Congress passes legislation that consumers will finally be able to trust that any product they purchase has been screened for safety.” Since 2013, the company has worked on nine pieces of legislation that have advanced personal-care product safety in the U.S.

Beautycounter svp of social mission Lindsay Dahl said that, fundamentally, the root of the problem is the lack of definition of safe and unsafe ingredients under current law. The last update to regulate cosmetics was in 1938.

“No one in our government has the ability to say which ingredients are safe or unsafe, nor can the FDA recall products,” said Dahl. Because of this, she said, “no one single consumer brand can solve the problem.”

While Beautycounter has an extensive 1,800 ingredients that it bans from its products, Dahl said that all retailers and brands need more guidance. “We’ve always felt it’s important to have laws that would make sure that, no matter who you are, you can go into a store and know that your shampoo — if you’re shopping at CVS, or if you’re buying from a higher-end brand — is safe. The concept around access and safety is really sold through legislation; that can’t be solved in the marketplace alone.”

Certainly, while more could be done on the federal front, customers are still craving a clean or better-for-you proposition in beauty. Alison Hahn, svp of merchandising for makeup and fragrance at Sephora, said she expects sales of clean products to double by the end of the year.

So while the terminology is still up for discussion, it appears that clean beauty’s first-to-market leaders are the ones able to call the shots. Like Drunk Elephant, Tatcha and even Deciem, Carlyle Group recently acquired a majority stake of Beautycounter, in a transaction that valued the company at $1 billion.” 

Inside Our Coverage

Is the influencer trip back?

Ofra Cosmetics founders step down following hate symbol controversy.

Sally Beauty builds on colored hair craze with TikTok campaign.

Hydrafacial goes on tour in the name of brand awareness.

Sol de Janeiro shares Brazilian culture with the world.

What We’re Reading

The long-awaited salon boom has arrived.

E.l.f. Cosmetics’ Twitch controversy continues.

Estée Lauder Invests in grooming startup Faculty.