The last time that the United States passed regulations on the ingredients allowed in cosmetics, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his second term as president. The Wizard of Oz was still a year away from its theatrical release. And the beauty industry as we know it today was still in its infancy—which makes sense when you consider the fact that at the time, makeup had only recently gained widespread use. (Before, the only women who dared to wear it regularly were prostitutes.)
The year was 1938. And just five months after the bill’s introduction to the Senate by New York Sen. Royal Copeland, Roosevelt signed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act into law. It was then revolutionary: For the first time, the government was bringing oversight to the world of cosmetics manufacturing—up to a point. Unlike with food and drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not required to approve individual cosmetic products. Instead, it retains the right to remove products from the market, particularly when they contain unsafe ingredients or are inaccurately marketed.
Eighty-two years later, not much has changed in the U.S., even as other countries have steamed ahead. The European Union bans over 1,300 chemicals from being included in cosmetic products, and Canada prohibits 500—the U.S., on the other hand, just 11.
The United States, for example, hasn’t updated legislation to include more potentially harmful chemicals like parabens (preservatives found in makeup and lotion), formaldehyde (another preservative that’s also a carcinogen), oxybenzone (a common ingredient in sunscreens and lip balms) and phthalate (often used in fragrances and hairspray), among others.
Enter so-called clean beauty. The brands in this emerging category—typically young, independent and outspoken—have helped to create a larger consumer conversation around the ingredients in personal-care products. In the process, they’re educating consumers and challenging legacy players.
But if a lack of regulation created an opening for clean beauty, it also allows for interpretation.
“Everybody defines clean in a different way,” Larissa Jensen, vp and industry adviser for beauty at the NPD Group, tells Adweek. “There is no industry standard.”
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Which begs the question, what are consumers getting when they buy into clean beauty? And how did it become what Formula Botanica estimated last year is a $36 billion industry?
How clean beauty blossomed
Ten years ago, clean beauty was tucked away, just a niche in a colossal industry that at the time was worth over $383 billion and ruled by giants like L’Oréal, Coty and Estée Lauder.
“When I started the company [in 2013], people thought I was crazy and told me that no one would ever care about [clean beauty],” says Gregg Renfrew, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based clean beauty brand Beautycounter.
Instead, she was ahead of the curve, along with companies like Juice Beauty (launched in 2005), RMS Beauty (2009), Ilia Beauty (2011), Follain (2013) and Credo Beauty (2014). Since 2010, interest in the term “clean beauty” has multiplied tenfold, according to data from Google Trends. In recent years, in particular, consumers—especially millennials and Gen Z—have increasingly expressed concern about their health and the health of their planet, notes Laura Gurski, Accenture’s senior managing director and global lead for consumer goods.
What’s helped to propel this budding industry forward is the fact that these companies have for the most part remained independent and are therefore nimble. Few have been acquired by conglomerates like Procter & Gamble or Estée Lauder.
“In the last handful of years, we’ve had the local players start to shape the global markets,” says Gurski. “The local players are uninhibited by old infrastructure and old ways of thinking about brands and manufacturing, and they’re far more digitally native. They have a better understanding and a better pulse of the consumers.”
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