Clean beauty myths

6 min read

What exactly is "clean" beauty?

Clean is beauty’s favourite buzzword, and it is everywhere.In recent years, many clean brands have entered the spotlight, endorsed by large retailers who are providing "clean" stamps of approval.

In 2019 conscious consumerism pushed the UK organic beauty and wellbeing market to reach an all-time high.While it is great that the beauty community is trying to promote sustainable products that are good for our skin, this gives the impression that if a brand does not market itself as "clean beauty", other brands are "dirty" and immoral in comparison, full of toxic ingredients that are poorly sourced bad for your skin. Newsflash: it isn’t as simple as that.

Clean is a "feel-good" word, popular in marketing through "clean" lifestyles and "clean" eating, we often feel like clean is an honest and universal term, meaning that we almost never question it. This can leave the term open to misuse and misinterpretation.

So what does clean beauty really mean?

We’ve busted the top 5 clean beauty myths to get to the facts.

1. "Chemical-free"

Firstly, nothing can be chemical-free. Everything – including water – is a chemical. If you hear a product is chemical-free, you’re being punked, sis.

2. "All natural"

It is pretty much impossible to get ‘all-natural’ makeup. There are some great natural ingredients that you can use in beauty products, but anything claiming to be 100% natural is misleading. If nothing else, often a natural ingredient has gone through so many changes in production it is hardly fair to describe it as natural once it has been manufactured for cosmetics.  

Some ingredients simply must be created synthetically. Iron Oxide is a common pigment used in lipsticks and a naturally occurring mineral, however most countries (including the US and EU) ban the use of ‘natural’ Iron Oxides. Naturally occurring Iron Oxides are at risk of contamination by heavy metals (e.g. mercury, lead, arsenic etc.) which would make them dangerous to use in cosmetics. This is why by law, all Iron Oxides in beauty products must be synthetic.

If you see Iron Oxide on an ‘all natural’ don’t buy. Either it is widely considered too dangerous for use, or they just don’t know their stuff and someone in marketing got carried away… woops.

What is clean beauty?

1. "Chemical-free"

Firstly, nothing can be chemical-free. Everything – including water – is a chemical. If you hear a product is chemical-free, you’re being punked, sis.

What is clean beauty?

2. "All natural"

It is pretty much impossible to get ‘all-natural’ makeup. There are some great natural ingredients that you can use in beauty products, but anything claiming to be 100% natural is misleading. If nothing else, often a natural ingredient has gone through so many changes in production it is hardly fair to describe it as natural once it has been manufactured for cosmetics.  

Some ingredients simply must be created synthetically. Iron Oxide is a common pigment used in lipsticks and a naturally occurring mineral, however most countries (including the US and EU) ban the use of ‘natural’ Iron Oxides. Naturally occurring Iron Oxides are at risk of contamination by heavy metals (e.g. mercury, lead, arsenic etc.) which would make them dangerous to use in cosmetics. This is why by law, all Iron Oxides in beauty products must be synthetic.

If you see Iron Oxide on an ‘all natural’ don’t buy. Either it is widely considered too dangerous for use, or they just don’t know their stuff and someone in marketing got carried away… woops.

3. "Synthetic chemicals have harmful effects on our skin."

False: there is nothing inherently dangerous about synthetic ingredients. Equally, there is nothing inherently beneficial about a natural ingredient, as some can definitely harm your skin (think Deadly Nightshade). Instead of generalising, it would be much better to consider each product for its own merits on an individual basis.

What is clean beauty?

4. "Preservative-free!"

"Preservatives" has become a dirty word. Preservatives are not bad and are actually essential most of the time* for safe and effective cosmetics. Any product that contains water is at risk of microbial contamination, the process where microbes such as bacteria, yeast, mould, fungi, virus, prions, protozoa or their toxins and by-products will grow in it, yikes...

This is bad news for our skin, and can cause skin irritation and sometimes life-threatening infections. Preservatives "preserve" the cosmetic product from the time it is made and throughout its use to keep products safe. If you see a product with water in it that is labelled "preservative-free", it could be bad news.

*Preservatives are needed whenever we have water in the product. The type and level of preservative does depend on the nature of the product - e.g. mascara or eyeliner, due to how we apply them - and how it’s packaged - for example, aerosols have less contact with the consumer and air and so are lower risk.  

What is clean beauty?

4. "Preservative-free!"

"Preservatives" has become a dirty word. Preservatives are not bad and are actually essential most of the time* for safe and effective cosmetics. Any product that contains water is at risk of microbial contamination, the process where microbes such as bacteria, yeast, mould, fungi, virus, prions, protozoa or their toxins and by-products will grow in it, yikes...

This is bad news for our skin, and can cause skin irritation and sometimes life-threatening infections. Preservatives "preserve" the cosmetic product from the time it is made and throughout its use to keep products safe. If you see a product with water in it that is labelled "preservative-free", it could be bad news.

*Preservatives are needed whenever we have water in the product. The type and level of preservative does depend on the nature of the product - e.g. mascara or eyeliner, due to how we apply them - and how it’s packaged - for example, aerosols have less contact with the consumer and air and so are lower risk.  

5. "60% of your skincare will penetrate into your bloodstream in 26 seconds"

Sounds scary, right? Especially when ingredients lists are long, hard to pronounce and confusing. You guessed it: it's a myth.

Our skin is a barrier to the external world - it is designed to ensure that most stuff can’t penetrate it. If most chemicals could penetrate our skin, we would probably have to walk round in a hazmat suit...not joking.  

Some chemicalscan penetrate into your bloodstream - such as nicotine patches or transdermal medications, for example, that are designed to work this way. However, just becausesome chemicals are capable of entering your bloodstream via your skin, that does not meanall or even 60% of chemicals can.  

Most skincare is designed to function on the topmost layer of our skin - thestratum corneum to be precise. For example, cleansers, sunscreens or moisturisers are designed to work at this topmost layer of our skin. For products that contain ‘active’ ingredients - like Vitamin C or retinol - these may be designed to work in the middle layer of the skin, the epidermis. Some actives have a small enough molecular weight to get to the part of the skin they are designed to work in. They are also a very small percentage (normally less than 1%) of the total amount of product you’re putting on your skin - nowhere near 60%.


What should you look out for?

Complete ingredient transparency instead of scaremongering and buzzwords.

Clear explanations about manufacturing and safety testing.

The bigger picture.


Right now, "clean" is, generally (and there are some notable exceptions), associated with the ingredients used.The way we see it, we need to view ‘clean’ as part of the bigger picture:

  • Beauty products should be formulated with raw materials sourced from supply chains that respect human rights, avoid child or forced labour, and pay a fair price.
  • We need to end excessive packaging, reduce reliance on packaging made with materials that are difficult or expensive to recycle, and look towards biodegradable, compostable or “circular” packaging solutions.
  • We need to respect our planet, its resources and fragility. We need to ensure the sustainable extraction and supply of raw materials, and conduct operations in a manner that are at least carbon neutral.
What is clean beauty?

To be clear, at Bolt Beauty we actually love natural and clean beauty brands. There are many that are labelled as natural or clean that aregenuinely wonderful. What we don’t love is scaremongering and misinformation, that’s just not cool.

Takeaway: "clean" beauty is confusing and complex. Let’s strive to know our stuff, celebrate incredible products, and avoid vague terms that don’t actually mean anything.


Kelly Washington

Kelly is a London-based freelance Fashion, Arts and Social Media journalist. She has an MA in Fashion Communication from Central Saint Martins and a BA in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Manchester. She has written for Hunger Magazine, TANK, Miuse and Fashion Unfiltered covering a range of topics including fashion, music, youth culture and art. For copywriting and commissions email kelly.washington1@outlook.com.

Kelly Washington - Bolt Beauty

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Also in Bolt Blog

Sustainability and plastic
Sustainability and plastic

6 min read

Michelle Wan takes a deep dive in to the relationship between sustainability and plastic and explains why being sustainable does not mean being "anti-plastic".
Is seaweed farming ethical?
Is seaweed farming ethical?

3 min read

We take a look at the seaweed supply chain and whether it's an ethical crop.
carbon neutral skincare
carbon neutral skincare

4 min read

We take a look at the sustainable seaweed we use for our skincare capsules. As well as being natural and biodegradable, it's also a carbon sink. Pretty incredible stuff.