We’ve got the scoop on what clean beauty actually means, plus some of the brands that are really doing it right.

By Melanie Rud
Updated April 06, 2020
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
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Whether you buy your beauty products online or in person, drugstore or high-end department store, there’s no denying that "clean beauty" is omnipresent. What was once a very small part of the industry featuring indie brands that you could only get at health food stores has gone massively mainstream. Huge retailers such as Sephora and Target all have clean beauty categories, retailers that sell exclusively clean beauty (such as Credo) offer an entirely new type of shopping experience, and it seems like every day another thousand brands hop aboard the clean beauty bandwagon. It’s no longer just the patchouli-wearing, health food store-shopping customer that’s looking for more natural beauty alternatives; these days, it seems like everyone wants to "clean up" their products.

And that’s not a bad thing—according to the Environmental Working Group, women use 12 personal care products per day on average, exposing themselves to 168 chemical ingredients. The only issue? As popular as it’s become, the clean beauty arena is essentially the wild, wild west. There are no industry-wide regulations or even agreed-upon guidelines as to what makes a product “clean.” Not to mention that it’s a completely lawless space as well; pretty much any manufacturer can slap the word "natural" on a label, even if it’s full of chemical ingredients.

So if you are looking to make the switch to clean beauty, it’s more important than ever to be an educated, savvy shopper. First and foremost, don’t be swayed by product alone; take the time to actually read the ingredient label. There are a few, more well-known categories of chemicals to steer clear of, parabens and phthalates being two of the big ones. It’s also about avoiding fragrance or perfume/parfum, says clean beauty expert Jenny Duranski, owner and founder of Lena Rose Beauty in Chicago. “Synthetic fragrance can be loaded with other ingredients and still be labeled as just fragrance,” she explains.

Duranski also recommends avoiding formaldehyde, toluene, and any ingredient that starts with PEG-. Searching for third-party seals is another good idea. Duranski likes the EcoCert seal, as well as the Made Safe certification, the latter of which has the highest standard when it comes to ingredients. But you may want to think beyond just the ingredients. “Clean beauty to me means that products are crafted with intention so that the ingredients, packaging, and life cycle of the product are good for both the people and planet,” says Duranski, who adds that she also seeks out certified B-corp companies as an indication of the brand’s ethos.

Hopefully these tips are a helpful starting point for your next clean beauty shopping trip. But when in doubt, you can also pick up goodies from any of the six clean beauty brands we’ve vetted below.

1
One Love Organics

This standout skincare and body care line gets our vote for a variety of reasons. The products are next-level great, all things clean beauty aside. Effective yet gentle, the brand utilizes largely plant-based, botanical ingredients (the majority of which are also organic, to the clean beauty point). You truly can’t go wrong with any of them, but we’re especially partial to Skin Savior Multi-Tasking Wonder Balm ($49), Skin Dew Coconut Water Cream ($58), and Gardenia + Tea Antioxidant Body Serum ($39). There are no questionable chemicals in any of the products, which are so clean they also have the EcoCert stamp of approval. Plus, per Duranski’s point about thinking beyond ingredients, all of the products are housed in recyclable glass packaging, and the company itself is a Green America Gold Certified Business.

Try: One Love Organics Skin Savior Multi-Tasking Wonder Balm ($49; oneloveorganics.com).

2
Town & Anchor

This female-owned, Chicago-based company is tiny but mighty, featuring a small array of vegan facial oils and skincare tools. Not only are all of the ingredients non-toxic and natural, but the brand also places a huge emphasis on where and how it sources those ingredients. The brand never uses conventionally grown ingredients, and instead use only organic, cold-pressed oils that are ethically harvested in the wild with fair-trade practices. Sustainability is a huge emphasis for Town & Anchor as well; the packaging is recyclable and it also sells earrings made from old product bottles.

Try: Town & Anchor Vegan Anti-Aging Face Oil ($39; townandanchor.com).

3
Laurel Skin

“This brand sets the standard for plant-powered skincare,” says Duranski of one of her favorite clean beauty brands. “They source sustainably from their own garden or from farms within 100 miles of their lab, then they hand harvest and make their formulas in house. It’s an unadulterated product line so you’re getting the most nutrient dense skincare out there.” Given this attention to detail and quality, it’s impressive that the range is so wide; no matter your complexion concern or what type of skincare product you need, the brand has you covered.

Try: Laurel Skin Antioxidant Mask ($68; laurelskin.com).

4
Ilia Beauty

It can be tricky to find clean makeup that actually delivers the same type and level of results as you get from conventional brands, but Ilia manages to do just that. Not only are the makeup products clean, but the brand also includes lots of skincare-centric ingredients in the formulas. The end result? Products that are not only clean, but also give you a two-for-one bang for your buck. On that note, try the cult-favorite Limitless Lash Mascara ($28) and brand new Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 ($46) and thank us later. We also appreciate the brand's commitment to minimizing its impact on the environment. Thanks to its partnership with TerraCycle, customers can mail in up to five empties each month (for free) and Ilia will handle recycling them.

Try: Ilia Beauty Limitless Lash Mascara ($28; sephora.com).

5
Acure

This brand offers both skincare and hair care, the latter of which we’re especially big fans of. The 100 percent vegan formulas are free of parabens, sulfates, mineral oil, and petrolatum (just to name a few things), and are also cruelty-free. Not to mention that there’s a large selection of shampoos, conditioners, and stylers (25 different SKUS, to be exact) to fit any and all of your hair wants and needs. But perhaps one of the best parts? The prices are super affordable, which isn’t always the case when it comes to clean beauty.

Try: Acure Ultra Hydrating Shampoo ($10; ulta.com).

6
Fitglow Beauty

Another one of Duranski’s picks, she lauds this brand for its use of active ingredients that deliver real results. Created as a solution for the founder, who found conventional products to irritate her rosacea-prone skin, all of the products are free of a long list of questionable chemicals. Instead, they tout ethically-sourced, vegan ingredients in the skincare and makeup. We also appreciate that you can easily find the ingredient list for each and every product on its website.

Try: Fitglow Beauty Lumi Firm Highlighter ($39; fitglowbeauty.com).