Why Clean Beauty Matters

I have been procrastinating writing this post for so long! While it is something I am SO passionate about, it’s intimidating and scary to write an informative post. I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I am a consumer who became concerned about my beauty and personal care products and has been working to replace products with harmful ingredients for three years. I am not a purist. I believe that taking some positive steps is better than taking none. So today I am here to share why clean beauty matters to me and how I changed the way I think about products I buy.

How I got started 
Did you know that the European Union bans about 1,300 ingredients from personal care products and the United States only bans 11? I was in a small group of women three years ago and someone stated this fact. It bothered me so much, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

One of the key factors in my early interest in clean beauty was fear. In this same time period I also had a lot of blog comments telling me that nail polish was one of the most toxic things we put on our bodies and that the face wipes and suncreen I was using were full of artificial and toxic ingredients. Was it true? How could I learn more? I was so frustrated because I had always tried to buy products that I thought were “more natural” based on the brands marketing and all of the sudden I found out the brands I was buying were just as “bad” as anything else.

I don’t believe in living in fear or making decisions out of fear, so I sought out to educate myself and try to gain more control over what was in my products. I started to read everything I could on natural beauty and began to get more familiar with brands that make clean products. It was a whole new world to me!

I will admit to you that it was discouraging at first. I spent a couple hundred dollars replacing all my “essentials” from makeup to body wash and a lot of the new products I tried I didn’t love. I quickly realized that to replace everything it was going to be a long-term project that could literally take years. After that initial experience, I began only replacing things as I used them up.

Three years later, I can go on and ON about clean brands I love. But it took time, trial and error. If you are serious about wanting to swap to clean beauty, it is very important to realize it is a long-term goal. Sure, there are cheat sheets (I give my friends lists of 5-10 brands to buy from all the time to get started), but to truly understand clean beauty and ingredients in general is a continual process. It became a hobby for me!

Think of it like you think of food labels 
The best advice I was given and that I can offer now is to think of learning about beauty ingredients EXACTLY like you think of food ingredients. If you’ve ever been on a special diet or tried to cut out processed food you know how important it is to read the labels and understand what you are reading. If you are trying to give up sugar, you have to know all the other ingredients that are still sugar going by different names.

The other parallel is how marketing factors into the products we buy. In the grocery aisle, you can buy something called “Veggie Chips” that has the same nutrition, calories and pretty much the same ingredients as “Potato Chips.” The only difference is how it is marketed. We all know that food labels can be deceiving. It can say “made with real kale” but be just as bad for you as conventional options, right? That’s marketing.

The exact same thing happens in beauty, only it’s even MORE frustrating because beauty brands are not required to print the ingredients on their packaging. So even if you know what to watch out for, you have to google things constantly. I will share the resources I use below to search, but I will say up front it that learning to research each product is absolutely necessary. You cannot trust any marketing claims. Terms like “all natural” and “free and clear” can be used by anyone and have no meaning. And when you see Organic* on a package, it might only mean there is one organic ingredient in that product. Learn to completely ignore claims on the front of bottles. It is very common for conventional brands to highlight one healthy sounding ingredient on the front of a package just like on food packaging.

When I first swapped over to clean beauty, I was horrified to learn that all my go-to brands were marketed as clean, but were actually just as dirty as any other conventional brand. I felt very betrayed! As a consumer who had been paying extra for brands that looked and sounded “better for you” since my early 20s, I felt kind of ripped off. A lot of people do.

Resources that helped 
There are two resources that changed my life. The first is a book, Skin Cleanse by Adina Grigore. This book is a must read! It completely changed how I thought about beauty, aging and skin health. About half the book is focused on food and can be summed up as drink more water and eat less sugar and you will have better skin (which I can confirm because every time I give up alcohol and sugar everyone starts complimenting my skin—it’s so annoying because I LOVE sugar and alcohol … ugh). The second half of the book is about what you don’t need in your skin care and all the information you need to get started in clean beauty. It’s a very easy read—highly recommend. I have read it twice now.

The second is an app, Think Dirty. I use this to look up products. It is not a perfect app (we’ve caught errors on it before, but it’s still so useful in the big picture!), but it is always improving, and I use it to get a general sense of brands when I am shopping. Here are the three main ways I use the app.

1. To check brands
Simply by searching “Neutrogena,” “Mrs. Meyer’s” or any other brand you aren’t sure about will pull up a bunch of products. You can quickly scroll through and see if their scores are generally high or generally low (anything above 5 I consider high and try to avoid—if it’s a lot of 8s and 9s, stay away!).

The database is not complete and it is imperfect, but most brands you see at Sephora or Target as well as many smaller brands will be included. I still think it’s important to research individual products before you buy them, but this can be a helpful way to check how clean a company is overall.

2. To check categories
When I first started looking for sunscreen and bath products for Nova, I would just type in what I was looking for “bubble bath” or “sunscreen” and find the products with lower scores to buy. It’s that easy!

Kids bubble bath and sunscreen can be horrifically dirty—it’s shocking. But, it was also SO EASY to find clean brands that I could purchase in regular drugstores— even at the grocery store.

After doing this for three years, I can honestly say that it does not have to be more expensive to buy clean bath products (beauty products are maybe a different story, but it’s still worth it to me).

3. To see the ingredients list
The last thing I love about Think Dirty is that if a product is in the database, it will show the ingredients list and it will color code them (green for clean, yellow for “half n’ half” and red for dirty). This is another good way to learn about ingredients. Common dirty ingredients are fragrance or “parfum” and preservatives that have long, hard-to-pronounce names.

EWG also has a database and a scoring calculator that we use to score the products we are considering for our beauty box. It’s a little more technical, but it’s a great resource because you can score anything. The scoring system is a bit different from Think Dirty because it averages instead of defaulting to the highest scoring ingredient. Both are useful resources that we trust and use often. Keely uses EWG to score every single item that we consider putting in our beauty box.

Personal recommendations
I have learned over time that the best way (for me!) to find products I love is not to stroll through the beauty store at Whole Foods, but rather to ask my friends who love clean beauty for personal recommendations. For example, I recently discovered my perfect-for-me foundation from my friend Sammie. For this reason, I love sharing products I try and love and this is also why we started our beauty box!

Here are a few helpful posts that I have published …

Tried and True Skincare Buys

Our Favorite Clean Beauty Masks

Essential Oils: How To Get Started

How To Shop Clean(er) at Target

Elsie’s Everyday Makeup Routine

I’d be happy to chat more in the comments and would LOVE to hear about your experiences with clean beauty as well! xx – Elsie

Credits//Author: Elsie Larson. Photography: Darling Juliet Photography. Photos edited with A Color Story Desktop.
  • So thankful for this post, as a clean beauty advocate my self I am so happy to read about your transition to cleaner beauty products, It’s very inspiring!

    Check this out guys very affordable and amazing product

  • Thanks for sharing your passion and I’ll certainly read the book, as well.

  • Hi, I didn’t know about the book Skin Cleanse by Adina Grigore, I’ll check it out. I do use the Think Dirty App. I’ve transitioned away from almost all the toxic products I use to use. Just 12 years ago my friends thought I was crazy when I stopped using dryer sheets or stopped using certain soaps and shampoo, especially on my children. Thankfully, the word is getting out that many of the products we once thought safe contain toxins we would do better avoiding especially on our children. I’m glad you are helping to educate others about them. We don’t have to make drastic changes all in a day but every little thing we do adds up and will help our long-term health.

  • Before I cared about clean products, I quit makeup entirely in high school. Now that I have a daughter who likes pretty things, I make more of an effort to look nice and not someone out of a Nirvana video. I care about natural and “clean” products, but conventional makeup I know is toxic.

    Thanks for doing a lot of footwork for us! As a fellow consumer, I trust others’ recommendations while doing my own research because what works for one person might not work for me. This post was spot on when you said check your beauty care labels just like you would check your food labels!

  • Thanks for this post, as a clean beauty advocate my self I am so happy to read about your transition to cleaner beauty products, It’s very inspiring!

    Eme x


  • this post is so great! I’m a little over a year into my clean beauty journey and I’m happy to see someone else acknowledging it takes time and a lot of practice.

  • Love this post! I totally agree that we have to take our health into our own hands. We can’t trust marketing or even doctors sometimes! I’ve been in the skin care industry for decades and finally came to the conclusion that making my own skin care was the safest way to take control of my beauty routine. Turns out, DIY skin care is such a fun hobby and I’ve seen such good results! Please continue to share more about making wiser decisions with all products including the products we use to clean the house with and detergents-it’s all adding up daily and can really wreck our health! You are making such a difference!!! Hugs!

  • Thank you so much for this, Elsie!

    It was worded very well and also very informative. I had to replace ALL of my beauty items and home items abruptly a few years ago for health reasons and had somewhat of a crash course, haha.

    I just want to reiterate what you said about the “Fragrance” or “Parfum” ingredients listed on any products…the US is one of the ONLY countries that DOES NOT have to divulge the ingredients that are considered “fragrance” in their product as a company’s specific formula falls under “company secrets” or trade secrets. This means that companies (even the green ones!!) can put anything they want in there and still label it “clean”, “organic”, etc. If you want a truly clean home and environment (and who doesn’t, since so many of these chemicals and ingredients cause so many people a variety of health problems, either immediately or over time!), it’s best to avoid all products with added fragrance or perfume listed in the ingredients, or make sure that the only scent that the product has is from (actual) essential oils, flowers, herbs, plants, etc.

    I know it sounds daunting, but it is possible! I have a TON of beauty products in my home without added chemical fragrances that I use all the time, haha. In fact, there are so many that they spill out of my drawers. 😉

    Just my two cents… 😉 Happy cleaning, everyone!

  • I love love love these posts! I began my clean beauty journey two years ago and haven’t looked back! I just made your face oil blend this week and it’s just amazing. I make my own deodorant and have just bought ingredients (which you need very few of) to make my own eye shadows and foundation.
    For years I thought I had dry skin, would use ‘sensitive’ face wipes and the ‘Simple’ brand, assuming the ingredients were gentle but my face would always burn, especially with the wipes. After watching a documentary on what’s really in your products I had a major moment, freaked out and began investigating… I was truly shocked at what I had been putting on my face and body for years. It has been trial and error for sure and yes – it is also a hobby, a passion that I share with everyone in my life. My skin has never been so healthy, soft and glowing. We have to make our own decisions when it comes to health and wellness and begin educating ourselves on what is really in these highly marketed and chemical filled products. Thanks Elsie and I look forward to future posts and recipes from you 🙂

  • Thank you Elsie, your well-articulated post has me thinking more about ways I can incorporate clean beauty into my daily regimen. The Think Dirty app is amazing, and reminds me of the Good On You app that serves a similar purpose in the ethical fashion space. Your journey of investigating clean beauty happened as I explored the disturbing realities of fast fashion, and like you said, once you know what’s really going on it’s hard to go back! This was especially true after my daughter was born in 2016; I just cannot justify buying her clothes made by people making less than a living wage in unsafe conditions. If it’s a topic of interest, I have no doubt that your public reflection and personal recommendations on how to say no to fast fashion would make a tremendous impact. There are so many fabulous tools and resources out there now, and it’s an exciting movement to be a part of!

  • Great post, and a very serious issue.

    In Denmark (EU member), we have a non-governmental consumer council called ‘Tænk’ (means “Think”). Among many other things, they focus on the chemistry in beauty/personal/house products. Tænk have developed an app that makes it possible to scan the bar code on a given product and then get told right away if the product contains any harmful (proven or under suspicion) ingredients.
    If you scan a product not listed in their database, you can ask them to test it for you. It’s a great app, and it makes it very easy for everybody to buy as clean as one want to.

  • Now you mention that the EU has a ban on more ingredients than U.S. Just so there is no doubt (because I’ve seen other Americans unfortunately believe that) even if you see a product sold in the EU, it does not mean that it is the same product in U.S. There is typically a difference in the ingredient list.

    The best known example in Denmark (when we talk about what to buy in U.S. by beauty) is that many products for unclean skin in U.S. contains benzoyl peroxide, which can only be buyed OCT, as medicines or prescription in EU. But there are also many products that contain the “bad” ingredients that we can’t find in European products.

  • Thanks for the app recommendation! I noticed they don’t have my favorite brand on there…Andalou Naturals. Have you used their products? EWG rates them 1-4. Although I’ve noticed that some of EWG’s ratings should be researched as well. I love that they point out certain allergens but if you’re not allergic to certain natural ingredients, I’m not sure how they gauge whether or not allergens are worthy of 3s and 4s. Do you find that this app is a more efficient way to rate products than EWG? Or do you use both for the different rating styles they offer?

  • I would recommend the app CosmEthics Where you can scan a barcode and get a list of all the stuff the product contains. You can make your own lists on what to avoid or use ready made ones. I don’t know how large the database is yet for products but should work for many brands sold in Europe atleast.

  • Always love your clean beauty posts! I probably missed it but any deodorant recommendations?

  • When I was growing up, my mother always told me that hair dye and nail polish were toxic, but I did go through a rebelious phase… When I was thirteen-years-old I bought some sparkly nail polish and glitter hair gel at the dollar store. My best friend and I painted our nails, wore hot pink t-shirts, and slathered our hair back into glittery ballet buns, which we secured in place with shimmering, bouncy butterfly clips. What innocent looking rebels we were!

    These days, I typically go makeup free, but on special occasions I will wear Ecco Bella flowercolor blush (my mom always used that brand) and Milani color statement lipstick (which I found out about through EWG—we’re so lucky to have such an excellent free resource). 😀

    Contrary to your experience, my skin was very dry and acne-prone during the 8 years I was sugar-free. Now that I’ve been eating loads of sugar (1/2 cup or more daily of fair-trade turbidano sugar) as part of my diet for over 4 years, my skin is clear and glowing and soft!

    Anyway, completely agree with you about misleading marketing terminology, and I’m so glad you’re offering information about this, and promoting natural beauty. 🙂

  • I too have been on a mission to clean the toxins out of my life for the past 3-4 years. I has indeed taken that long to finally use up the last of the cleaning products.

    There is increasing scientific evidence that we are surrounded by toxins which is in part responsible for the soaring cancer rates. Check out www.greenmedinfo.com and search for any number of subjects regarding toxins in beauty products and household cleaning products.

    If cost is prohibitive, you can make your own from simple ingredients including essential oils. For skin care, my favorite is Ann Marie Gianni products. Not inexpensive, but so little is needed that it lasts a long time.

    At 71, my skin looks better than it ever has, despite a few wrinkles that come with the territory.

  • It can be overwhelming for sure! I started my clean journey about 17 (yikes!) years ago when I made the connection between perfumes and my debilitating migraines. Having children and moving to a house with ‘well’ water only intensified the search for non-toxic options. My approach mirrors yours and evolved into a methodical ongoing lifelong process.
    I find it both infuriating and horrifying that here in the US a chemical is considered ‘safe’ until proven otherwise. It’s as if we’ve been offered up as test subjects without our permission.
    Thanks for sharing what works for you and your tips for cutting through the noise! Every little bit helps.

  • I totally agree, using clean products on my skin has really made an incredible difference to my overall skin quality

  • Ever since starting dating my boyfriend who swears on good skin care products, I’ve been digging more and more into clean beauty products! Our skin goes through so many changes that it just makes SENSE to go for clean make up.

  • Wow! Now I’m rather happy to be living in Europe…nonetheless, I find it so good to be aware what’s in your beauty products. Thank you for informing and sharing this with us!

  • I started looking at clean beauty products a few years back and it’s crazy how much things have changed. There are so many more options and I’m SO thankful for that.

    For any Canadian gals looking for clean makeup, Elate Cosmetics is vegan, non toxic, cruelty free and use packaging with minimal environmental impact. Any of their compact powders come in packaging that can even be planted and grows into flowers for the bees! It’s amazing. I mention this only because a lot of clean beauty companies I’ve found happen to be in the US and I’ve paid duties which can be a real drag. I’m just so glad there are OPTIONS out there now!

    • Oh, I love that they even consider the packaging too! (And of course the vegan and cruelty-free aspects as well!)

  • Clean beauty and looking at Nova are pretty much my go to reasons for following your blog. It’s been so helpful to learn. I will say I’m still struggling with price points on clean beauty and bath products but I’m getting used to do the searches for cheaper yet still good items. My biggest frustration has been trusting a brand and then finding out that not all their products are as clean as you think!

  • I don’t know much about the EU regulations with regard to skin care products, but I learned recently on a trip to Britain that they regulate such ridiculous things as the curve degree of a banana and the size of a strawberry, which prohibit the marketing of these fruits outside their country of origin in the European market. There is such a thing as taking a good thing too far.

    I did want to comment though that I’ve been following your beauty transition for a few years and your routine really agrees with you- your makeup just glows and I always admire your photos! I picked up some frankincense oil from a small company at a London street fair and it makes my complexion look amazing! I’m inspired to consider new alternatives to my tried and true products- thanks, Elsie!

    • Stephanie’s comment about regulation in the UK/EU of the curve of a banana, size of a strawberry etc is nonsense. These were oft-cited misrepresentations used to discredit the EU in the Brexit referendum.

    • The “bendy banana law” is something Eurosceptics like to crow about as if it proves the EU is pointless. In reality it simply relates to how the fruit is graded for the wholesale market and might affect is base price by tenths of a cent. A badly deformed banana might not be worth as much as a regular shaped one, but that’s about it. I’m studying horticulture and there’s a lot of misconceptions about food production and distribution that are simply not true.

      In terms of what is banned in the EU, if you look at the list (available here: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:342:0059:0209:EN:PDF ) you’ll see a large percentage of the list is made up of prescription medications and things that are 100% known to be poisonous/deadly to humans. When you’ve got 30 member states operating in a free trade area I guess it can be necessary to put “don’t be an idiot” into law.

  • I have recently came around the topic of clean beauty. For the pasts, I’ve been procrastinating on researching and today, I thought I should begin researching but wasn’t sure where to start. Behold, I checked A Beautiful Mess and your wrote a specific blog for it. =) Could you please share your favorite clean skincare and beauty brands?

  • I know you’re not a scientist but I think it would be helpful to provide some evidence or background information on what makes ingredients “clean” or “dirty” and why you’ve chosen to avoid them. There are a lot of misconceptions of the “all chemicals are bad for you!” variety that aren’t based in facts.

    Totally agree with not putting any stock in the “clean, green, natural, organic, etc.” type of labels though – they almost always mean absolutely nothing.

    • Totally!
      The resources I listed above helped me learn about ingredients, what is clean, what is dirty and why. They’re legit! 🙂

      I totally agree that there are a lot of misconceptions with terms. :))

    • I agree! As someone who doesn’t know much about this, I am confused as to what makes something “clean” or “dirty.” Is it how harmful it is to your skin? How harmful it is to the environment? A combination? Or some other measurement? I just wanted to more fully understand the benefit of “clean” beauty.

  • I’ve been loving your posts on clean products so much! This one sheds more light on why we should go natural and clean. Thanks, Elsie, for the enlightening read!! 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

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