Barely 30 years have gone by between the “wall-to-wall chemistry” of the 1980s-1990s and the current demand for natural products. How did we get here? Check out the history of the rise of Green Beauty – now known as Clean Beauty – which originated in grassroots societal movements and the crises that amplified them.
The 20th century saw the beauty product industry embrace mass production. The sciences (physics, chemistry, medicine, molecular biology, etc.) made it possible to research skin better, create ever more effective active molecules and provide proof of their action on the skin all at the same time. Even if it sometimes meant raised eyebrows or planting doubts in the minds of consumers, giving rise to this long swing of the pendulum that now brings us to Clean Beauty.
First of all, it’s worth recalling that since the 1970s-1980s, the EU and France have introduced some of the world’s most stringent regulations following the Talc Morhange tragedy. Some will remember this event, but for those who don’t, here’s what happened: in 1972, a handling error led to an excessive quantity of potent antibacterial agent being put into baby talcum powder (Talc Morhange), causing the deaths of 36 newborns and the poisoning of 168 others.
These events were to give rise to the relevant French Act of 1975 and the EU Directive of 1978, with the EU spearheading beauty product rules and regulations. However, at the time, chemistry reigned supreme as a symbol of progress, while natural preparations were sidelined as something for “hippies”.
It would be another 20 years before natural preparations shed their “local activism and bellbottoms” image, and before the green beauty of the 2000s could begin its revolution. Which would then see clean beauty take over from the 2010s onwards, in a trend amplified by the current public health crisis.
The 1990s: Science, Technicity and High Performance
You’ve got to remember what the zeitgeist and fashions of the 1990s were like to gain a better understanding of what was being reflected in the beauty product industry. It was the era of flamboyant Italian fashion designers like Gianni Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, the glory days of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Tom Ford’s porno-chic phase at Gucci. But also those of Japanese brands and the pared-down approach: Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons.
Science and technicity came to a head
- With technology-driven active ingredients
In the beauty product industry, high-tech Japanese brands based on medical research managed a breakthrough that didn’t go unnoticed: Shiseido (which brought us hyaluronic acid), Shu Uemura and its art of make-up removal, Kanebo, etc.
Their sophistication and their wrapping-up of products as regimens comprising multiple products influenced the French beauty product industry. As did the beginnings of cosmetic medicine. During this time, liposomes made an entrance (in Dior products), as well as ceramides, fruit acids (AHAs) and active ingredients with outlandish names (Boswelox, anyone?). There was also talk of antioxidants. Retinol was a triumph for Roc, which promised “10 years off in less than 10 minutes!”. La Prairie introduced caviar as an active ingredient in beauty products at gravity-defying prices.
- And the start of clinical credentials
In the EU animal testing had been prohibited since 1979. However, laboratory testing (in vitro, in vivo) took off. Clinical studies were conducted with instruments to measure hydration and wrinkle depth, and with reconstituted skin cultures to assess the effectiveness of active ingredients.
Nature came through unchecked
In France, some brands stated that plants were as effective as chemicals and could supply cutting-edge active ingredients. It’s the case with brands like Clarins, Yves Rocher, Klorane, L’Occitane and Le Petit Marseillais. In doing so they met with growing success in countries with a cultural bias towards natural preparations, like Germany and Scandinavian countries. Other English or American brands went for an image based on being close to nature: The Body Shop, Origins…
However, these plants ended up in formulations that were still far from being 100% natural. To some (those taking a more purist stance), this trend looked very much like greenwashing.
The turning point of the 2000s in the EU and the impact of organic preparations
In the 2000s, natural preparations were to manage a more robust breakthrough than expected, thanks to two major events.
The creation of the Cosmébio Charter in 2002
In response to what they condemned as “greenwashing”, ten laboratories that had pioneered the organic movement in France since the 1970s (including Sanoflore, Phyt’s and Melvita) made a splash with their organic charter. This was the first set of specifications that went along with an organic label. In Germany, there had certainly been an association of natural beauty product producers (BDIH) since the 1950s, but nothing so precise. Cosmébio set forth the mandatory minimum percentages of natural and organic ingredients in finished products. It also banned certain substances: chemical preservatives, colourants and fragrances, etc.. These pioneers sprang a surprise on consumers and distributors, and pricked their consciences.
From that point on, organic preparations came out in the open, even though they were still somewhat niche. More and more brands appeared, and found themselves new distribution channels: specialised ones like Mademoiselle Bio or Naturalia, or organic sections in mass retail. To the point that some brands would be bought out by big corporations: Sanoflore by L’Oréal in 2006, Melvita by L’Occitane in 2008, and that’s just the beginning.
The ‘Envoyé Spécial’ programme on parabens in 2005
On 3 March 2005, the French magazine programme ‘Envoyé spécial’ on TV channel France 2 aired an explosive report. It relayed a study by Philipa Darbre of the University of Reading, published in January 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, taking a broad-brush approach. The study’s findings established links between parabens, deodorants and breast cancer (but the study was subsequently discredited and disputed). In the report, some French products were singled out and compared unfavourably to German organic preparations, and even to brands that were no more natural at the time, but without parabens. As the first social networks took off, blogs and forums were whipped up into a frenzy. Some women threw out the entire contents of their bathroom cupboards, while others brought their products back to stores and caused a scene by dumping them onto the counter. Parabens were doomed.
A month later, Greenpeace published its first Cosmetox report, in which it decried a number of chemical substances. It singled out the beauty product industry in particular, which was – already – deemed “non-essential”. Other controversies followed regarding silicon, phthalates, phenoxyethanol, etc.. Bearing in mind that at the time, all of these ingredients were allowed and considered not dangerous to human health by EU regulations. But even so, the rot had set in.
The beginnings of Green and Clean Beauty
These controversies were fuelled by organic players, consumer associations and their publishing wings. They were understood and relayed by the media with varying degrees of accuracy. This phenomenon was to shake up the standard beauty product industry. Some agile, opportunistic brands dived into the fray and rushed to reformulate their products (sometimes with a few duds at first), or rode the “free from” wave. Big corporations took longer to respond, since it’s not easy to drop preservatives that you’ve been using for more than 30 years without any safety issues. The allergic reactions and irritation caused by their being replaced for a time with the infamous MIT (methylisothiazolinone) proved the point.
The wish to formulate products in a different way emerged, under pressure from consumers, but progress was slow. There was a lack of substitute raw materials, because it takes years to create new ingredients. Organic beauty products were still lacking when it came to appealing to the senses. Green beauty products came onto the scene, and seemed to have won through for a time, with the success of brands putting plant extracts front and centre (L’Occitane, Nuxe).
As for Clean Beauty, it was still fairly austere and associated with minimalist formulations. In this respect we could mention sterile beauty products, which make it possible to do without preservatives completely, but are only aimed at those with sensitive skin. Also, although some firms incorporated fairtrade and solidarity-based trade in their values from the outset, most concentrated on “cleaning up” formulations.
2010: The US revolt
Encore une fois, il aura fallu que les Américaines se détournent de leurs marques conventionnelles et de leurs habitudes pour que le mouvement devienne quasi planétaire.
Regulations that are almost non-existent
There is virtually no comprehensive regulatory framework in the USA, as a federal country that does not take kindly to regulations. The FDA (Food & Drug Administration) prohibits only nine 9 cosmetic substances, compared to 1,383 in France and the EU. Six Cosmetic Act bills have been tabled, without any of them having been passed. The organic trend emerged to counter this lack of regulation and challenge the heavyweights of the sector. It was followed by the clean trend that started in the 2000s, and really took off from 2010 onwards.
The healthy-living wave
At the same time, a global movement emerged in the 2010s. After having been fully committed to their working lives, American women became all about detoxing and embracing a healthy lifestyle. This meant eating healthily, living healthily and treating any ailments in a healthy way. Hence demand for healthy skincare. The high priestesses of this super-healthy lifestyle created their own branded of yoga apparel, detox juices, dietary supplements and “beauty products not found in stores”. In the early 2000s, the highly-effective doctor brands (Dr Brandt, Dr Murad, Dr Perricone) met with success. On the back of these, indie brands took off. They did so as independent, creative brands and digital natives, while also being principled, transparent, organic or vegan. These troublemakers then ricocheted over to Europe, which accounts for the appeal of brands like Tata Harper, Glossier and Drunk Elephant.
Paving the way towards Clean Beauty with the impact of CSR
Make no mistake – brands did not become virtuous out of nothing more than a deeply-held conviction. Pressure had to be applied on several levels for clean to become standard.
The CSR obligation
In France in particular, mandatory corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting was introduced by Article 116 of the New Economic Regulations (NRE) Act of 2001. At first applicable only to companies listed on the stock exchange, it was extended in scope significantly by the Grenelle 2 Act of 2011. In their annual reports, companies subject to the Act must include information on stances and action taken on social, societal and environmental issues raised by their business. Obviously, you cannot include such an appendix to your annual financial report without having actual initiatives in place. Hence CSR has an influence on the “employer brand” and the company’s image.
Consumers and candidates are CSR actors
Environmental and societal issues have really been pricking the collective conscience over the past 10 years. There’s no longer a single graduate (in business administration, engineering, etc.) of an elite higher education establishment who, in a job interview, doesn’t ask questions about the company’s commitments and values and who doesn’t make the answers part of the criteria when choosing between potential employers. To attract prime young graduates, companies – in the beauty product industry, among others – must hold on to their appeal, and thus become exemplary.
As for consumers, who are increasingly well-informed, expert and wary, they have become very discerning when it comes to not only the ingredients of a product, but also new criteria: ethics, equity, inclusiveness, eco-friendliness, animal cruelty and therefore comprehensive responsibility throughout the product life cycle. They are prepared to make new choices, to drop or even boycott any big brands not on board with treading this virtuous new path. And the public health crisis surrounding COVID-19 is accelerating and amplifying these imperatives. This is no longer lost on big corporations like L’Oréal, Yves Rocher, Unilever and Shiseido. The Clean Revolution has begun.
The current demand for clean beauty must not be viewed as a dismissal of science, nor even of chemistry, but as the application of greater transparency and of an improved command of nature. Unlike organic brands, clean ones can combine nature with biotechnology. The trend also extends to holistic, integrative beauty products that work from the inside as well as on the outside (topical treatments paired with dietary supplements).
What does the way ahead look like for Clean Beauty? After having explored all that botanicals have to offer, it’s probable that it will look to marine biotechnology to bring forth innovative new active ingredients. Perhaps paving the way towards Blue Beauty?