Clean beauty: Here to stay or be washed away?

17 August 2022. Published by Lauren Butler, Associate

Beauty trends come and go, but with the sector now worth approximately £28bn in the UK alone, such trends have the opportunity to generate significant income for businesses. A recent movement around "clean" beauty has had a significant impact on the industry globally. It is estimated that nearly a third of the US market is "clean" beauty, and an increase of 12% is expected from 2020 to 2027. But what is "clean" beauty, why is it gathering pace and what does its future look like?

What is "clean" beauty?

"Clean" beauty typically refers to products made with natural ingredients, free of "toxins", and is often cruelty-free or vegan. Essentially, the term is used as a marketing ploy, but it is generally applied to products not containing synthetic ingredients such as parabens, silicones and other artificial preservatives. However, there is no legal definition in the UK as to what a "clean" beauty product is, or what criteria needs to be met in order to market a product as "clean".

"Clean" beauty was once a niche in the industry, but an increasing number of consumer brands and retailers are using the term "clean" to market products. This has great appeal to younger consumers concerned with health and the environmental impact of their products, however what is "clean" to one brand will be "dirty" to another. For instance, there are mixed views across the market as to whether the inclusion of essential oils makes a product "toxic", as some studies link essential oils with disruption of the endocrine system (a network of glands and organs). Some consumer brands that describe themselves as "clean" are not considered to be a "clean" brand by the US-based Environmental Working Group (which publishes a database of products with their rankings regarding a product's safety).

Are "unclean" products unsafe?

There are some studies that suggest that certain ingredients are "toxic", carcinogenic or otherwise harmful, and it is these studies on which advocates for "clean" beauty rely. However, in the UK there are strict rules that cosmetic companies must adhere to when manufacturing products. There is a huge number of statutory instruments and legislation originating from the EU outlining approximately 1,400 ingredients that are banned, ingredients which may only be used in particular concentrations, and labelling requirements. Products should have a safety assessment performed by someone qualified to do so and the manufacturer must have a "responsible person", who must ensure compliance with the legal requirements.

Nevertheless, not all products that are safe for sale to consumers are suitable for everyone. Figures show that has been an increase in awareness of skin sensitivity among the population2 and some ingredients, such as sodium lauryl sulphate, are well known for aggravating sensitive skin.

Impact on the industry

As noted above, the "clean" beauty movement has acquired significant market share and is growing rapidly. In response to consumer demand, many major retailers have created dedicated spaces in stores and sections on their website dedicated to "clean" beauty brands. 

Many of these self-proclaiming "clean" haircare, makeup, skincare and fragrance brands have developed cult followings in recent years. For instance, as of November 2021, the third most followed beauty brand on Instagram in the UK was Fenty Beauty. This brand was founded in September 2017 and is now stocked in major beauty retailers across the globe. A skincare range was recently launched, with the line being described as "clean".

As more and more consumer brands hail the virtues of "clean" beauty, the other side of the coin is that there is increasing scaremongering around "unclean" cosmetics. Use of language such as "clean" and "toxic" insinuates that products that are not "clean" are harmful, which scientific studies have disproven. Several prominent dermatologists have commented that certain plant-based ingredients commonly cause skin irritation3  and if products are made with a high water content and no synthetic preservatives, bacteria and mould can grow quickly. 

Future of "clean" beauty

Whether the trend will be long-lasting remains to be seen. Like diets, trends revolving about health ebb and flow. It is possible that as more information about the long-term effects of potentially "toxic" ingredients become known, "clean" beauty will dominate the cosmetics industry. Or perhaps it will shrink, and synthetic ingredients will be all the rage again. 

As there is a perpetual desire to use cosmetic products to retain a youthful appearance, there will also continue to be demand for products which will be unlikely to be deemed "clean". For example, retinol is one of the few ingredients proven to be anti-ageing. Retinol is an active ingredient and regularly needs to be stabilised with synthetic chemicals, often deemed to be "toxic". Whilst there are some "clean" retinol products, and the natural "alternative" bakuchiol is proving an increasingly popular ingredient, the vast majority of retinol products would not be considered "clean" but are relied on by many consumers for its anti-ageing properties. As such, it is likely that science will dictate the popularity of "clean" beauty in the coming decades.

However, with a further increase in revenue expected in the next 5 years, it is unlikely that "clean" beauty will be going anywhere anytime soon.



  1. "...increase of 12%..." - Brand Essence Research, 'Clean Beauty Market Size Share Companies & Trends Analysis Report By Product Type (Hair Care, Face Products, Skin Care, Hair Care, Oral Care, Makeup, Wrinkle Care Products), By Distribution Channel (Online Sale, Retail Sale), Based On Region And Segment Forecasts 2022 – 2028', February 2022
  2. Miranda A Farage, 'The Prevalence of Sensitive Skin', Front Med (Lausanne) 2019
  3. Linda Carroll, 'Can 'all-natural' products irritate your skin? Yes, and here's how to avoid it', TODAY 4 May 2016



Stay connected and subscribe to our latest insights and views 

Subscribe Here