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The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Clean Beauty

For most of our lives, we’ve bought our shampoos and body washes without batting an eyelash at the long list of ingredients on the bottle. And while we still swear by a slew of those same products, we’re also thankful for the long-delayed emergence of the clean beauty industry. We don’t need to wax poetic for long about why this moment is important. The answer is simple: We want a better understanding of the stuff we’re putting on and inside our bodies.

It seems we need a lesson on how to navigate it all. Is there really a difference among clean, green and organic? And if there is, is one better than the other? Ahead, Freedom Deodorant founder Ira Green helps us understand all the confusing language as well as where to start if we want to clean up our act in the beauty aisle.

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Natural versus all-natural

The only difference between these two terms is the addition of all. They mean the same thing and as of now, there are no FDA mandates on using the word natural. Unfortunately, this means the word is free for anyone to use, including brands whose products may not be so safe.

“You can have one natural ingredient and still call it clean or natural. Education comes into play with knowing and understanding the ingredients in your product,” says Green.

At the same time, just because a product can’t be called organic because of certification requirements (more on this in a sec) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for you. If you’re unsure of whether something is safe to use, the general rule of thumb is that the label shouldn’t look like gibberish.

“When looking at ingredients, you should be able to recognize the ingredients or be able to do a quick Google search, i.e., ‘cocoa butter’ or ‘beeswax.’”

More: How I Made the Switch to Natural & Cruelty-Free Personal Care Products


Now, if a product is labeled “certified organic,” that means that the USDA has confirmed it is actually made with 95 percent organic ingredients. But beware: There should be a certification label on the product. If it says it’s made with organic ingredients but does not have the USDA certification, it’s not the real deal.

The irony of this process is that a lot of legitimately natural/organic products don’t have that USDA stamp because their ingredients — despite their benefits — do not have a long enough shelf life for USDA requirements. For instance, shea butter on its own is only stable up to six months.

“We at Freedom deodorants run into this issue, as baking soda, water or magnesium is not organic [they can’t be certified], even though all our products are so clean. You can actually eat them!” says Green.

Another important tidbit to remember is that the FDA is actually pretty lax when it comes to approving products for use. In fact, the FDA doesn’t do the testing itself; all it requires is that cosmetics in particular not be altered or misbranded.

For this reason alone, you may want to consider adding at least one clean product into your routine.


If a product is labeled cruelty-free (including Green’s Freedom line), this means its ingredients, formulations and end products have been developed without methods that require testing on animals. Organizations such as PETA and Leaping Bunny keep searchable running lists of companies that make this claim, and those that do may display a bunny symbol on their packaging.

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Clean & green

There are so many words associated with the world of safer beauty products it’s become difficult to distinguish which ones fall under which category. According to Green, terms such as clean and green are simply marketing tools. Again, think of them the same way you would natural or all-natural.

These words can be used to describe something that includes just one true-blue natural ingredient or something that doesn’t have an ounce of the harmful stuff. But ultimately, there are no regulations that can technically keep any brand from using the terms. The only label that requires testing and a label to back its claim is “certified organic.”

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The no-no ingredients

With all that being said, there’s a laundry list of ingredients that are potentially harmful, regardless of whether the product is labeled “green,” “organic” or anything in between. Some of the bigger ones are:

Parabens: Preservatives that extend the shelf life of your products but can still enter the body through your skin and hair, causing a host of issues with your reproductive system. They come in a number of different forms and are usually a small part of product formulations.

Synthetic fragrance: The chemical compounds that determine how your product smells. Depending on the person and their body’s chemistry, any of these combinations can lead to irritation and allergic reactions.

Formaldehyde: In its purest form, this is a colorless gas that’s also used in paper and plywood. When used in cosmetics such as nail polish, it’s often converted to a gentler water solution, and with the help of preservatives (like parabens) is released in small amounts to protect against contamination. Unfortunately, it also comes with a host of potentially dangerous side effects, such as skin irritation and even hair loss.

Aluminum: An ingredient most often found in antiperspirants to decrease sweat. In short, what it does is shrink or plug up the underarm pores and inhibit bacteria so they don’t secrete as much. Decades of research says the ingredient is potentially linked to breast cancer since antiperspirants are applied so closely to lymph nodes near the breast and can also prevent the body’s immune system from freeing itself of cancerous bacteria.

Sulfates: This can refer to any of the following: sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate or ammonium laureth sulfate. Sulfates are surfactants, or molecules that attract both water and oil. So when you scrub on your body wash or shampoo, sulfates help pull away the dirt or oil. And when you rinse it off, they also aid the water in washing it away. It basically helps boost the effectiveness of whatever product you’re using. Unfortunately, they can sometimes work so well they also strip your hair or skin of all its natural moisture in the process, leaving it dry and damaged.

More: Is This Weird Beauty Tool the Key to Great Skin?

Where to start

Now that you’re armed with a better understanding of clean beauty, you may want to experiment with one product (unless you want to make your products at home). Fortunately and unfortunately, this sector of the industry has grown so much it can be challenging to figure out where your transition starts. If you want to shop around, websites such as Safe and Chic and Credo Beauty can be trusted.

We’ve also got a handy guide here, but Green says the easiest thing to start with is your soap.

“Find a milled soap that doesn’t have synthetic fragrance. I see them everywhere. You use this every day. It’s a big change.”

Ahead are three must-try soaps, all of which are considered either “natural” or “organic”:

Understanding Clean Beauty: Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Peppermint Bar Soap
Image: Target

Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Peppermint Bar Soap, $4.69 at Target

Understanding Clean Beauty: Osmia Organics Oh So Soap
Image: Osmia Organics

Osmia Organics Oh So soap, $15 at Osmia Organics

Understanding Clean Beauty: Schmidt’s Fragrance-Free Soap
Image: Schmidt’s Naturals

Schmidt’s Fragrance-Free Soap, $5.49 at Schmidt’s Naturals

Originally posted on StyleCaster.

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