Beauty brands and products proclaiming to be “clean” are everywhere these days. Why? “It’s possibly because The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which also oversees beauty products, has only banned a limited list of chemicals in cosmetics,” explains Birnur Aral, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty, Health and Sustainability Lab. What’s more: “Cosmetics regulations haven’t been modernized since 1938, leading to confusion as to the safety of our everyday cosmetics.”
So while it makes sense that more consumers and more brands are focusing on “clean” ingredients in cosmetics and skincare, it’s important to know that there’s no industry standard for “clean” beauty. “When beauty brands claim that they are clean, they may be referring to a variety of measures that they have taken in formulating their products,” explains Aral. To substantiate clean claims, “some brands may have obtained third party certifications that speak to some of these efforts,” she says. “Others might have formulated products based on an internal ‘no-no’ or ‘red list’ which avoids certain ingredients, and/or have done so to meet the standards of major retailers such as Clean at Sephora, Target Clean, Conscious Beauty at Ulta and Credo Beauty.”
But beware: “There are many brands being marketed as ‘clean’ without a clear definition of what that means for their brand,” says Aral. This can make it difficult to know which brands claiming to be “clean” truly are — and really work. That’s where GH Beauty Lab scientists come in. Our pros know that “clean” is largely a murky marketing term, so they work to thoroughly evaluate these claims in skincare, makeup and hair products to find the ones that live up to their promises in formulation, packaging, manufacturing processes and ensure the products perform well independently of their clean formulations. There are the brands we stand behind and actually work.
Our top picks:
- Best Clean Skincare and Hair Brand: Alaffia
- Best Clean Makeup Brand: Beautycounter
- Best Value Clean Beauty Brand: Love Beauty & Planet
- Best Drugstore Clean Beauty Brand: Garnier Whole Blends
- Best Luxury Clean Beauty Brand: L’Occitane
- Best Luxury Clean Skincare Brand: Babor
- Best Luxury Clean Hair Brand: Davines
- Best Clean Beauty Brand for Family: Mustela
- Best Circular Clean Beauty Brand: Lumene
- Best Anti-Aging Clean Beauty Brand: BL+
- Best Clean Body Skincare Brand: Natura Brasil
- Best Innovative Clean Beauty Brand: Grove Collaborative Peach
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Best Clean Skincare and Hair Brand: Alaffia
A GH Sustainable Innovation Award winner, Alaffia offers multi-purpose body and face skincare and haircare and styling products that are Made Safe and Fair For Life Fair Trade certified. They are made with no secondary packaging and 100% post-consumer recycled plastics. “We like that the brand focuses more on performance and value than on extra packaging — while still prioritizing sustainable materials,” GH Beauty Lab evaluators noted.
• Why we love it: Minimal ingredients, safe and effective formulas, eco-conscious packaging, fair trade, good value
Best Clean Makeup Brand: Beautycounter
Confirmed cruelty-free Beautycounter has won both GH Sustainable Innovation Awards for its body skincare and GH Beauty Awards for its makeup products, and it also offers a line of face skincare. GH Beauty Lab expert evaluators found that the product formulations and packaging analyzed were of high quality, and they are making strides in sustainability with refillable packaging. “The brand is also embracing the social aspects of sustainability,” Aral says.
• Why we love it: Quality formulas, some eco-conscious packaging
• Take note: Products can be pricey; room for improvement in sustainable packaging
Best Value Clean Beauty Brand: Love Beauty & Planet
With face and body skincare products (including bath) as well as haircare and styling, Love Beauty & Planet has GH Sustainable Innovation and Beauty Award-winning buys at a great value and in an array of scents. GH Beauty Lab experts were particularly impressed by the concentrated formulas that save plastic and water, as well as the 100% post-consumer recycled plastic used in some of their bottles.
• Why we love it: Value priced, widely available, variety of fragrance collections
• Take note: Some portions of the packaging (like caps) may not be as easily recycled
Best Drugstore Clean Beauty Brand: Garnier Whole Blends
Look no further than your local drugstore for a reputable clean haircare brand at a bargain price: Garnier Whole Blends is a multi-time GH Beauty Award winner. In GH Beauty Lab evaluations, experts were impressed by the brand’s transparency regarding their formulations, and that they were able to validate their fair trade and sustainable ingredients via third party certifications. Garnier Whole Blends was also able to substantiate their products’ performance claims via consumer and other studies.
• Why we love it: Great value, widely available, effective formulas, made with fair trade and sustainable ingredients, variety of collections for different hair types and needs
• Take note: Some scents can be strong
Best Luxury Clean Beauty Brand: L’Occitane
Known for botanical scents and pampering textures, L’Occitane’s skincare and haircare products have also been multiple time GH Sustainability Award winners for their efficacious formulations and thoughtful, minimal waste packaging. GH Beauty Lab expert evaluators loved the tested formulas, which are “rich in plant oils and butters” and “mildly herbal scented.” They also praised the “simple elegance” of the some of the product packaging, which utilizes fully recyclable aluminum, reusable formats and recycled paper.
• Why we love it: High quality and luxurious formulas and scents, plant-derived ingredients, sustainable packaging
• Take note: Some products are highly scented
Best Luxury Clean Skincare Brand: Babor
The German prestige skincare brand Babor, a GH Sustainable Innovation Award winner, proves you don’t have to sacrifice high-end quality for eco-conscious products made with naturally-derived ingredients. Expert evaluators liked that the brand uses renewable energy and has carbon neutral shipping.
• Why we love it: Luxurious formulas, eco-minded production practices
• Take note: Products can be expensive, room for improvement in sustainable packaging
Best Luxury Clean Hair Brand: Davines
The rare salon haircare and styling brand with conscious formulations and packaging, Davines is a GH Sustainable Innovation Award winner. GH Beauty Lab scientists appreciated the brand’s use of gentle plant-based ingredients, sugarcane-derived plastic packaging and its carbon neutral offices.
• Why we love it: Salon-quality formulas, plant-derived ingredients, sustainable packaging
• Take note: Products can be pricey
Best Clean Beauty Brand for Family: Mustela
Mustela creates skincare and haircare products for babies and children on up to adults, with a focus on mild natural ingredients and eco-consciousness. GH Beauty Lab evaluated products were found to be gentle and leave skin “clean and soft.” A GH Sustainable Innovation Award winner, “I am impressed by its approach, commitment and achievements,” Aral notes.
• Why we love it: Naturally-derived and organic ingredients, mild formulas, good pricing, strong sustainable practices
• Take note: Products are geared toward babies, children and mothers
Best Circular Clean Beauty Brand: Lumene
This skincare brand from Finland focuses on traditional plant-based ingredients and a deep commitment to circular sustainability, especially reuse and waste elimination. GH Beauty Lab Senior Chemist Sabina Wizemann found their initiatives “impressive, including up to 99% naturally-derived ingredients in the products, 100% of the skincare formulas being vegan, 50% of the Nordic ingredients used developed from side-streams from other industries and that 100% of the waste generated is recycled or obtained as energy.”
• Why we love it: Plant-based ingredients, longstanding sustainability practices (including use of upcycled ingredients)
• Take note: Some products can be highly scented
Best Anti-Aging Clean Beauty Brand: BL+
A GH Sustainable Innovation Award Winner, BL+ is a groundbreaking skincare brand from Iceland that utilizes sustainably-sourced natural ingredients like silica and microalgae in its anti-aging formulas. Its serums “plump and smooth skin immediately,” Aral remarked. Wizemann agreed: “I noticed positive changes after one night with both the face and eye serums: Plumper, clearer, bouncy skin that looked hydrated and refreshed,” she said.
• Why we love it: Natural and sustainable ingredients, skin smoothing and anti-aging effects
• Take note: Products can be expensive
Best Clean Body Skincare Brand: Natura
This Brazilian beauty brand Natura’s Ekos line, a GH Sustainable Innovation Award winner, features products with up to 97% naturally-derived ingredients that are housed in bottles or refills that contain 100% post-consumer recycled materials. The body lotion formula evaluated “absorbs well and leaves skin hydrated,” Wizemann found.
• Why we love it: Naturally-derived ingredients, recycled and recyclable packaging
• Take note: All of the products are fragranced and some contain colorants
Best Innovative Clean Beauty Brand: Grove Collaborative Peach
Grove Collaborative’s unique Peach line consists of face and body skincare and haircare products entirely in solid form to minimize waste. The plant-based bars of products like face wash, body moisturizer and shampoo stood out to GH Beauty Lab evaluators, as did the plastic-free packaging and refillable cases made of recyclable aluminum, which earned the brand a GH Sustainable Innovation Award.
Aral praised the “balm-like refillable solid lotion that applies easily.” Wizemann “enjoyed the lathering and scents of the solid shampoo and conditioner, which left hair feeling and looking clean and added softness without compromising volume.”
• Why we love it: Plant-based, minimal-waste solid formulas; plastic-free and refillable packaging
• Take note: Some evaluators commented on the use of colorants and that the scents were strong
How we choose the best clean beauty brands
The GH Beauty Lab’s curated list of brands includes only those which the Lab has closely vetted either as part of GH Sustainable Innovation Awards assessments or Good Housekeeping Seal evaluations. They are thoroughly evaluated via data analysis, Lab testing and other methods on factors like ingredients, claim substantiation, packaging and manufacturing processes. While the Lab has not tested all the products these brands offer for cosmetic acceptability and efficacy, we stand behind these brands’ ability to live up to their “clean” claims.
What makes a beauty brand truly “clean”?
“There is no universally agreed upon definition of ‘clean’ when it comes to beauty products and the same goes for brands,” Aral explains. “It is a marketing term used by brands to signal that their products are ‘better’ for the consumer for one reason or another. For example, a brand might be marketed as ‘clean’ if they are claiming to [be] vegan, cruelty-free, no petroleum ingredients, plant-based ingredients, no synthetic fragrances, etc.”
Though it’s not a measure of whether a product is “clean” or not, beauty brands often do their own testing for overall product safety. “Most major cosmetics manufacturers in the U.S. test the safety of their formulations in clinical studies such as Human Repeat Insult Patch Test (HRIPT or RIPT) and toxicology assessments, as well as ensure their microbiological stability per FDA’s standards such that no harmful germs will grow inside the products during its intended use,” says Aral.
But there’s more work to be done. “The GH Beauty Lab has been advocating for the passage of tighter regulations on cosmetics so that there is a national standard and the FDA is given the resources to conduct the necessary research on emerging concerns such as endocrine disruptors, allergens and more,” Aral adds. “Any modernization efforts regarding federal cosmetic regulations have stalled in the Senate since 2017, but there has been some new legislation at the state levels addressing issues with cosmetics ethics and safety.”
What to look for when shopping for the best clean beauty brands
For best results, keep your eye out for the following:
✔️ Clear and in-depth descriptions detailing what the brand bases its “clean” criteria on. “Consumers seeking ‘clean’ beauty brands should first look for the brand’s definition of clean on their website,” Aral advises. “Then they should seek out the details of how the brand assessed these clean attributes.”
✔️ Third party emblems to support claims. “This also requires some research to be able to recognize emblems of legitimate third party certifications versus those that brands have designed to signal their efforts,” Aral says. But these “selfie emblems” may only look legitimate, since they’re brand-created without a third-party vetting process to verify their claims. As such, she recommends familiarizing yourself with emblems from Leaping Bunny, Environmental Working Group, MadeSafe and USDA Biobased.
✔️ Sound environmental practices. “Many of these brands tend to focus on the ingredient aspects of their formulas, meaning what’s inside the product rather than entire product,” Aral adds. “We find this limiting and believe that any ‘clean’ brand should also have made strides in environmental and/or social impacts, meaning it is implementing principles of sustainability in making its products.”
✔️ Performance. Clean products shouldn’t just make you feel good — they should work as well as any other cosmetic product. “Any beauty brand that claims to be clean should make products that fulfill consumers’ needs for their intended use and feel and perform like their ‘conventional’ counterparts,” says Aral.
Why trust Good Housekeeping?
Birnur Aral, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the GH Beauty, Health and Sustainability Lab and has deftly led the Lab for almost 15 years. In addition to earning M.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering, she recently added a professional certificate in sustainability management from Columbia University to her credentials. Birnur has been an active leader in conceptualizing many of our green initiatives, including the GH Sustainable Innovation Awards and annual Raise the Green Bar Summit. Birnur and the Beauty Lab chemists also conduct the brand’s annual Beauty Awards selection process, a yearlong effort for the team that involves assessing hundreds of products. She is also known for her work on investigative pieces like “Is It Safe to Heat Food in Plastic?,” “Is Your Tap Water Safe?” and “The Truth About Keratin Hair Treatments”.
April Franzino is the Beauty Director of Good Housekeeping and has over a decade of experience working in the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab, including the past seven years serving as beauty director. In her role, she oversees all beauty editorial content of Good Housekeeping, working closely with the GH Beauty Lab scientists to develop, execute and translate product testing into compelling, factually accurate editorial across categories including skincare, hair, makeup, nails, fragrance, technology and devices and more.
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