The cosmetics sector has always been closely connected to consumer trends, whether driving them, or subject to them. One such recent trend is “clean cosmetics” which is being driven by customers, regulators and cosmetics companies.

Set your goals

To engage effectively with this trend, businesses must define their “clean beauty” goal. Depending on who you ask, clean beauty can mean synthetic, natural, without toxic ingredients, without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), ethically sourced, locally sourced, carbon neutral, biocompatible, made with a limited number of components, or even made only with components considered pronounceable. Generally, clean goals will center around such concepts as sustainability and being “free from” certain ingredients.

The legitimacy of a business’s approach to these concepts, and whether its claims are truly meaningful, will need the attention of the development team. Things to consider include whether the preferred product innovation stems from a desire to:

•    make a product claim; 

•    meet a certification; 

•    address consumer or non-governmental organization (NGO) pressures such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics; or 

•    meet some other motivation. 

The business’s intent will guide how it considers both the product it is creating and its components. For example, what are the advantages or disadvantages of natural versus synthetic inputs?  Where do feedstocks originate?  Can an ingredient be made in a more environmentally-friendly manner than it can be extracted?  Is one ingredient more efficacious than another?  What type or degree of processing will deem an ingredient to no longer be natural under governing regulations?  Are there any contaminants? Will ingredients be safe for the business’s intended, potentially vulnerable, customers – the elderly, children, pregnant women?

Consider whether the business’s goal represents a substantive change or real benefit. One might, for example, believe that switching from a non-biodegradable input to a biodegradable one would be both substantive and real. However, a study by Anglia Ruskin University published in 2020 exploring whether biodegradable glitter is better for the environment than traditional glitter, found it is not. The author, Dr. Dannielle Green, is quoted in the UK’s Guardian newspaper as saying that “both conventional and alternative glitters can have a serious ecological impact on aquatic ecosystems within a short period of time.”

From the ground up

Clean beauty should be designed into product offerings from the outset. If, for example, a minimal number of multi-functional ingredients are desired, these will need to be identified early in the innovation process. 

It is getting more complicated every day to select appropriate components for intended products. By way of illustrating this fact, the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) Registry now has over 172 million chemical substances. The registry alone is not a sufficient tool to assist in the selection of optimal ingredients. Some method of assessment of performance and efficacy will be needed. Businesses should create or use a tool that allows them to compare ingredients against the metrics important to them, compare ingredients to desired claims - and compare ingredients with one another. These should include whether an ingredient: 

•    is on a positive or negative regulatory list, industry list, or retailer restricted substances list (RSL);

•    meets the criteria of any desired certification(s);

•    contains any undisclosed substances of concern; and

•    satisfactorily addresses the business’s environmental, human health, and sustainability benchmarks.

It is important not to leap into formulation without understanding existing or potential issues with proposed components. In addition, businesses should consider not only the product, but also its packaging. There are often ways to significantly reduce the environmental impact of a product with alteration in how it is packed. Recent examples by companies moving in this direction include a shampoo bar packaged in cardboard saving on water, shipping weight, and plastic - and the introduction of refillable and/or 100% recyclable color palettes.

Involve the supply chain

As supply chains grow ever more complex and it becomes ever harder to ensure an understanding of the entire chain, the purchase of tools and procedures to assist you in gathering information about the business, product(s), and processes of your supply chain members will be of enormous value. 

Identify red flags during onboarding if possible, and consider any weaknesses in the supply chain such as those originating from a single source of supply, processing plants located in areas prone to natural disaster, or other potential  bottlenecks. Anticipate circumstances that might stress the supply chain – a surge in demand, a transportation strike, fire, etc. - and plan ways to address these. Knowing your supply chain is not a one-time effort. Regular monitoring and/or auditing is also crucial.

Understand the regulations

While the GHS has led to increasing alignment in global regulation of chemicals, there are still significant differences in how cosmetics are regulated and defined in different nations. Items that a consumer may consider to be a cosmetic may fall under another area of law. For example, some items that are considered cosmetics in the EU are considered over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in the United States. Similarly, a cosmetic in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations may be a therapeutic good in Australia. Products such as toothpaste, sunscreens, or skin whiteners most often cross these cosmetic/OTC thresholds. Australia has useful guidance to assist businesses  in determining whether their product is considered a cosmetic. Note that member nations or states may have different regulations than those of an overarching country or body.

More robust personal care and cosmetics legislation has been introduced in the US several times in recent years, but has yet to be enacted. California, meanwhile, recently passed legislation affecting these products.

Ingredients may also be regulated differently based upon the extraction and processing methods used. The Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme, better known by its acronym, AICIS, does not, for example, require companies selling naturally occurring ingredients to register. A company using the same ingredient, steam distilled or extracted with solvent, will no longer meet the definition of naturally occurring and registration will be required.

Promote with integrity

Understanding regulations should extend into marketing efforts as well. Marketing claims may have a direct effect on which regulations apply to a good. Businesses need to know these potential impacts when choosing messaging.

Greenwashing, misleading the market with claims that are either inaccurate or meaningless (eg, gluten-free sugar), is a legitimate concern of both consumers and governments. According to a Euromonitor International study, consumer trust in natural labels has declined in recent years, The US Federal Trade Commission has been issuing guides since 1992 to assist in making appropriate statements designed to help avoid misleading consumers, and the UK published green claim guidance four years ago stating that claims should:

•    not be greater than the actual benefit;

•    not claim the absence of something commonly absent;

•    not claim the presence of something commonly present;

•    be for action beyond legal requirements; and

•    have supporting data.

The European Commission is also committed to curtailing greenwashing in their future policy making and will “propose that companies substantiate their environmental claims using Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint methods.”  The Commission closed a consultation comment period on this topic earlier this month; a process that will bear watching.  According to their data gathering, there are more than 450 environmental labels globally, and, as might be expected, some are less than reliable.

A third-party certification or other clearly defined environmental label can lend impartial recognition of corporate efforts in clean beauty products, ingredients, and production processes. Select the appropriate one with care so that its veracity supports your own.

Exhibit transparency about your efforts and your process. This can alleviate concerns about greenwashing, provide education for consumers who might be selecting products based upon the latest buzzword rather than the latest science, and demonstrate your good intentions.

The WERCSmart program provides a secure, permission-based platform that facilitates the safe exchange of product information between manufacturers, intermediaries, and retailers with the highest standards of confidentiality and service.