A Guide to “Clean” Cosmetics

Talia Vicars and Jane Pennoyer
Cover Image for A Guide to “Clean” Cosmetics

Cosmetics have a special place in our hearts; from the products we carefully apply under our eyes, to the moisturizers that keep us smooth, to the bright and bold lipsticks that just make us feel put together, cosmetics are just one way to go from feeling good to feeling great.

Prepare yourself though, here's a hot take: there's no such thing as a 'clean' cosmetic...despite July 15th being deemed National Clean Beauty Day. So, what is a 'clean' cosmetic? When brands talk about 'clean' products, they may be referencing those that are free from formaldehyde, parabens, and/or other ingredients that can be harmful to both human and planetary health. Or, it might be a whole lot of hogwash. To be clean - excuse us, clear - every product has some impact on the environment. In other words, no product is entirely 'clean.'

The good news is that there are some brands making products that are way better than their conventional alternatives when it comes to human and planetary health. If that's what you're looking for, then you're in the right place! We've pulled together this guide to make it just a little easier for us to up our cosmetics game, while keeping the planet in mind. Like the four steps of an excellent skincare routine (cleanse, exfoliate, treat, and moisturize), we've rounded up a list of our top fave more sustainable cosmetics.

One quick note on exfoliation before we dive in...Exfoliating is intended to remove dead surface cells, improving the effectiveness of topical skincare products and, DUH, leaving your skin looking brighter. When you're looking for exfoliators, you probably are deciding between two choices: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators are grainy and work by physically sloughing off dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliators work by loosening the bonds between cells with acids or enzymes. We prefer physical exfoliators because they can be made with a few simple, but effective ingredients. Back in the day, many physical exfoliators were made with plastic microbeads. While they've since been outlawed in the U.S. for all 'rinse off' products (like face wash), it's worth checking the ingredients of any physical exfoliator you buy to ensure you're avoiding them.

More sustainable products for your daily skincare routine:

Step #1: Cleanse

Eminence Organic Skincare Stone Crop Gel Wash

  • Our favorite thing about this facial cleanser is that it is made with only a handful of ingredients, and is made with ingredients that aren't known to be associated with cancer or developmental toxicity. Win! One of its primary ingredients is stone crop, a small succulent found in Hungary. Stone crop is a popular plant used on green roofs because it can survive almost anywhere with minimal care, it doesn't attract pests, and is resistant to disease. This low-maintenance plant has also been shown to be great for healing dry skin.

Peach not Plastic Facial Cleanser

  • What can we say... we love a plastic-free option (because we don't love single-use plastics)! This facial cleanser is packaged in a cardboard box rather than a plastic bottle, and it is beloved by users, according to public reviews. While this product is also verified by the Environmental Working Group to be free of ingredients with health, ecotoxicity and/or contamination concerns, we're not 100% on the business model of EWG, so we're paying closer attention to the fact that is is ALSO certified by Leaping Bunny, meaning none of its ingredients were tested on animals, AND that it's B Corp Certified.

Want to see science-backed sustainability ratings on all of your fav products?

Step #2: Exfoliate

Fat and the Moon Light as a Featha Cleanser

  • Made from mostly organic ingredients (though we're still sleuthing out what exact certification is used), this exfoliating cleanser uses clay to exfoliate, honey to cleanse, and coconut to moisturize. It's a super simple, yet effective formula that, best of all, is dry! That means there's no water weight in shipping this stuff, and thus, it uses less energy and releases fewer emissions by saving fuel in transportation. Woohoo!

100% Pure Matcha Oat Face Scrub

  • This scrub has just four ingredients - clay, matcha, glycerin, and oats - that work to remove toxins, battle inflammation, lock in moisture, and soothe the skin, respectively. If there was an exfoliator for minimalists, this would be it! If glycerin is an unfamiliar ingredient to you, know that it's just a naturally-occurring alcohol compound that is used to hydrate the skin. However, glycerin isn't necessarily hypoallergenic, so if you have sensitive skin, consider doing a patch test before lathering it on your face.

Step #3: Treat

Orgaid Organic Sheet Mask

  • This face mask is made with 73% organic ingredients, and is free from sulfates. Organid defines ‘organic' based on California Organic Products Act (COPA). Why is that good thing? Well, sodium lauryl sulfate, also known as SLS, is an emulsifying cleaning agent used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can't get rid of on its own. It also happens to be a highly toxic threat to aquatic life, including plants or animals whose primary ecosystem is in water, from algae to frogs to fish. This sheet mask is also free from synthetic fragrances, and is scented with organic lavender extract and organic rosemary extract instead.

Fat and the Moon's Sunkissed Golden Highlighter

  • Treat yourself with this warm and glowy highlighter! With just seven ingredients, this highlighter is free from parabens...a word that's thrown around a lot in the cosmetics space. Parabens are cheap preservatives that are used to prevent the growth of mold and harmful bacteria. (Most have prefixes, but they will always end with paraben.) They are pretty easy to avoid, but are often found in hair, face, body and cosmetic products. The problem is, though, that they have been associated with endocrine disruption in humans and certain kinds can kill coral, even at low levels of exposure. No, thanks! This highlighter gets you that sunkissed look, without the general yuck that are parabens. Not to mention, the sunflower oil used to create that shine is organic (though we're still sleuthing out what exact certification is used). Booyah.

Step #4: Moisturize

Booda Butter Tub of Love

  • There's nothing quite like lathering up to avoid ashy knees and elbows - slugging, anyone? Get your slug on with this certified organic lotion. It's made with Fair Trade shea butter, Fair Trade cocoa butter, coconut oil, olive oil and jojoba oil. Like with all things sustainability, Fair Trade certification isn't so black and white. While you can rest assured that some evidence-based threshold is being met, check out our glossary entry for some of the biggest watch-outs when it comes to Fair Trade certification. Otherwise, feel good about this product being free of those pesky emulsifiers (cough, cough, SLS), and make sure to keep it in a cool place. Without ingredients like SLS, some moisturizers can, well, melt.

Fat and the Moon's Aloe Lotion

  • Ugh, we just love a good, rejuvenating moisturizer. And, we love it even more when it comes in packaging that doesn't give us the ick. The labels on this jar are compostable, so make sure to peel it off and get it to an industrial composting facility before recycling (or reusing!) the glass jar and its tinplate top. Just make sure to use it up within four months -- this product isn't made with harmful preservatives, like formaldehyde, so it won't last forever. Didn't know many moisturizers have formaldehyde? Yep... Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling chemical found in an array of products, including those made with wood and paper. Products made with formaldehyde can release the chemical in gas form which, when inhaled, is known to cause skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation. Cheers to preservative-free moisturizer!

Just because it's National Clean Beauty Day, doesn't mean we have to get ourselves (or a special someone) something new. And, because we can all get a bit shop-happy when trying to make ourselves feel great, or on a holiday basically created for the sake of consumerism, it's important to be mindful of purchasing for the sake of purchasing. We encourage you to think about what you're buying and what you want the impacts of those things to be.

Total Gift Roundup:

Disclaimer: We've assessed social and environmental considerations when making this gift guide, even though not all physical products have been put through the wringer of our proprietary algorithm (yet). We also don't get any cut of the sale if you decide to buy these products; we just really love them.