The complexity of clean-label cosmetics

By Rebecca Guenard

In This Section

February 2019

  • It started with food. Now the clean label movement is influencing the development of personal care formulations.
  • Providing a clean label for personal care items requires formulators to consider new ways of making safer, sustainable ingredients.
  • Cosmetics companies adhere to an international set of guidelines on ingredient names, but they are less confident about the definition of the term “natural.”

Market research shows consumers now rank natural ingredients and environmental impact ahead of brand recognition and product descriptions. They expect personalized products from a company whose values align with their own. Food containing nothing artificial once qualified as acceptable, but according to a 2017 survey, shoppers now look for labels with less sugar, more protein, and fewer ingredients with recognizable names (

A survey of social media outlets reveals a spike in the use of the term “clean label” over the past two years ( This consumer-driven movement has now crept into the personal care industry, where it has the potential to have a major impact. The skin care market is predicted to grow annually by 6% globally until 2022, and according to a recent analysis, much of this growth will be driven by increased consumer interest in natural, plant-based ingredients (

“Clean beauty from our perspective is the next frontier for people who are looking to create a healthy home,” says Lindsay Dahl, vice president of social and environmental responsibility at Beautycounter, a clean label personal care company headquartered in Santa Monica, California, USA, that launched in Spring of 2013.

Founder and CEO Gregg Renfrew conceived of creating a personal care line that was all natural and free from ingredients that advocacy groups or regulatory agencies outside the United States deemed unsafe. In a recent New York Times article, Renfrew explained that achieving a clean-label personal care line was more complicated than she imagined—a truth many personal care companies face as natural sources for essential ingredients do not exist yet, and consumers require routine education on a label’s nomenclature. However, the industry is finding ways to satisfy the growing demand for cleaner products. Ingredient manufacturers are developing greener ways to create their products, and cosmetics companies are signaling that the term “natural” needs a clearer definition in a mutual effort to achieve clean label cosmetics.

Innovating ingredients

Damien Perriman is senior vice president of specialty chemicals at Genomatica, a bioengineering company in San Diego, California, USA, that develops bio-based technologies. In 2018, his company introduced its first personal care product, a natural butylene glycol (Brontide™) used by formulators as a moisturizing ingredient. Since the 1960s, the ingredient has only been made by starting with crude oil and producing the intermediate acetaldehyde, a known Group 1 carcinogen.

Using biological processes to produce cosmetic ingredients has become increasingly popular over the past five years. Biology is more selective than chemistry and can be tuned to result in a pure compound instead of the racemic mixtures that often result from chemical synthesis. In addition, the technology bypasses petrochemicals. Genomatica harnessed biology to make butylene glycol a new way, through a fermentation process with genetically engineered E-coli that feed on plant sugars.

Perriman says Genomatica’s natural diol product offers equivalent antimicrobial and humectant properties to petrochemical counterparts. More importantly for clean label clients, using microorganisms instead of petrochemicals is sustainable and environmentally friendly. “Our mission, as custodians of technology, is to help people understand why change can be better,” says Perriman. “In this example of butylene glycol, change is better because now we can use sugar instead of acetaldehyde to make an ingredient that is widely used in personal care formulations, satisfying that natural need and moving away from a bad raw material.”

Personal care formulators are also considering natural solutions for low-molecular-weight emulsifiers and surfactants that can cause irritation in topical creams. Researchers are considering natural ingredients like clay, alumina, or starch that are less irritating and not harmful to the environment. The aquatic fate of currently used surfactants is unknown.

To fill this natural ingredient void, an international team of researchers studied emulsifiers made from modified starch granules. The starches were isolated from quinoa, rice, and amaranth, then chemically altered to increase hydrophobicity and enhance their emulsifying properties. The result, according to the researchers, is a tasteless, colorless, odorless, inexpensive, non-allergic cosmetic ingredient that is also an approved food additive ( They plan to continue their research by investigating how protein content in these natural ingredients will affect their performance in formulations.

Of all the formulating challenges the personal care industry faces, a lack of clean-label- friendly preservatives prevails. Consumers store food in refrigerators or dry pantries, but personal care items reside on bathroom shelves where the environment is prime for microbial growth. Preservatives are essential for the safety and durability of these products, but antimicrobial compounds exhibit bioactivity that is often toxic to humans. The toxicological effects of preservatives like paraben and chromated copper arsenate have left consumers fearful of the very ingredients that were designed to protect them from microbes and preserve the quality of their products.

Personal care needs new preservatives. Dahl says, “It is one of the top priorities for the entire industry, but certainly for us at Beautycounter. We have made some progress but, given the nature of preservatives and the function they perform in a product it's not an easy nut to crack.”

A research team at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, is looking at ways to exploit the differences between human and microbial biochemical processes or cell structures to improve antimicrobial potency without adverse effects to human health. The team, led by Heather Buckley, currently an assistant professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, focused on the redox activity of phenolic compounds, homing in on the esters and amides of hydroxyl-substituted benzoic acids like gallic acid (

Using a systematic analysis of several different functionalities, the BCGC team showed how they could explore a phenol’s substituent chain length or location to optimize antimicrobial properties. Their comprehensive approach led to a first-place prize from the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council’s Preservative Challenge for a molecule that functions as a preservative during use but decomposes upon disposal (

Beautycounter has partnered with BCGC to bring new preservatives to market in the next few years. Until such time, her company focuses on educating their customers. “We spend a lot of time letting people know why preserving their personal care product is important, and whether the preservation is taking place through a synthetic preservative or a naturally derived preservative,” says Dahl. “People are starting to understand that preservation is important, but not all preservatives are created equal.”

As these efforts to innovate show, no matter how clean the personal care industry tries to make their labels they will need to be in constant communication with their customers to relay accurate science. Beautycounter maintains a blog to educate its online shoppers about aspects of human and environmental health. “The consumer is often asking for the source of the ingredient, in other words, is it natural or is it synthetic. We want to screen ingredients for safety regardless of their source,” says Dahl. “We know that just because something is an essential oil does not mean that it is automatically safe.”

Presumably, shoppers gravitate to essential oils because they are composed of recognizable substances like orange, lavender, or mint. Recognizable names are harder to come by in the beauty industry than in the food industry. One reason is internationally agreed upon nomenclature, an Achille’s heel for clean label cosmetics.

Setting standards

In 1970, the Personal Care Products Council established the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI) ( Lists of ingredients on cosmetics labels around the world follow the INCI (pronounced inky) system. Standardized labels that use the same name globally are beneficial, but not always to a consumer who cannot recognize them.

“We have an article on our blog about how a hard-to-pronounce or unpronounceable ingredient doesn't automatically mean that an ingredient is unsafe,” says Dahl. She says that through the blog Beautycounter explains that INCI is an internationally standardized ingredient list, and though the INCI name for shea butter may look scary, it is still just shea butter.

When Genomatica found a greener way to make a popular moisturizing ingredient, they had few options for what to name it. “The name is interesting, 1,3 butane diol, which in the INCI classification is called butylene glycol. We can’t really call it anything different,” say Perriman. “People in the industry are familiar with butylene glycol, but a lot of people don't like it because it sounds petrochemical.” Perriman says he respects that, but he counters that a company like his should not be determining the market definition of natural.

“We don't see ourselves as evangelists of natural products. We see ourselves as an innovator that is bringing a natural solution to a market that wants it. From that perspective the word “natural” seems to have different definitions to a lot of different people,” says Perriman.

Which brings up the ultimate issue surrounding clean label beauty, a lack of regulation. “There is the ISO 16128 standard for determining if an ingredient is natural,” says Perriman. “Using this standard, we can say that butylene glycol made by a fermentation process from a renewable resource like sugar is a natural ingredient.” But he acknowledges that there are customers out there who are not familiar with that standard and will define natural in a different way.

The International Organization for Standards (ISO) provides guidelines for how to define natural and organic cosmetics. However, it does not address product claims and labeling or human and environmental safety. Other NGOs, such as the Environmental Working Group, do address safety and many beauty companies include the EWG seal on their label. However, there is no federal oversight for personal care product ingredients and labeling in the United States.

Dahl says her company would like to see more US government involvement. “Beautycounter has been working since we started for a more health protective federal regulatory system,” she says. “If you look at the European Union and Canada they are far ahead of the US.” Beautycounter’s CEO has spent time convincing US law makers to regulate her industry.

Dahl says there are a few things they are looking for in cosmetics regulation. They are asking US Congress to give the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the ability to study and make determinations about ingredient safety. “Right now, there is no system for the FDA to be able to say a paraben is unsafe, safe if used in certain ways, or should be removed from the market. There is no green, yellow, red light system,” she says. Beautycounter is also advocating for the FDA to have the ability to recall harmful products from the market. She laments that recall authority is a basic consumer protection that currently does not exist in the personal care space. Dahl says lawmakers have shown bipartisan support for change to the industry. “There has been indication from leaders from both the US House and Senate that cosmetic reform is something that they want to take on in 2019,” she says.

Were US regulations imposed on the industry, questions about what natural means and how to supply a clean label could be simplified. For now, that responsibility rests with companies within the industry. “We try to use our websites and interactions with our care team to help people understand how we define safety at Beautycounter. Without any federal oversight of safety, it is really up to companies to define safety for themselves.”


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  • Design and testing of safer, more effective preservatives for consumer products, Buckley, H.L., et al., ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 5: 4320–4331, 2017.