I’ve been a beauty editor for 13 years, long enough to remember when clean beauty was a vaguely crunchy, mostly unglamorous niche category. Even a decade ago, using clean beauty products often involved sacrificing performance and aesthetics. (I shudder to remember one night cream whose gloppy texture was reminiscent of rice pudding.)
Now, however, using clean beauty products no longer means having to settle. Formulas are more elegant, ingredients are more potent, and high-quality options are easy to find, no matter your budget. And though there’s no universal definition of what “clean” beauty means, my own is simple: I avoid parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, talc, triclosan, and suspected endocrine disruptors such as DBP. (Also, “clean” doesn’t necessarily mean natural to me, since there are plenty of safe synthetics, and some natural ingredients can irritate skin.) I also consider the environmental effects of a product; for instance, if palm oil in a hair mask requires deforestation, or a product’s packaging will likely end up in a landfill, I pass. A product needs to be clean on my body and on my conscience.
Over the years, I’ve tried literally thousands of beauty products. These are a few of the clean beauty products that really, truly work just as well as their traditional counterparts—and maybe even better.
When I used to try all of the new skin products for work, my skin was usually inflamed and angry. Now, it’s happier with a simpler, more streamlined routine.
If you like Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, the legendary exfoliating liquid, you’ll be into Moon Juice Acid Potion Resurfacing Exfoliator. Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon—who, it must be said, has radiant and seemingly poreless skin—sought to create a clean version of P50. After using her formula for only two weeks, I became convinced that she succeeded. The multi-acid blend, applied nightly, lifts up dead skin cells to leave skin softer and smoother. (I’ve noticed my skin sloughing off during showers, which is gross yet satisfying.)
Expensive isn’t always better, but after trying the Victoria Beckham by Augustinus Bader Cell Rejuvenating Power serum, I now want a winning lottery ticket so I can stock up on this luxurious—and quietly excellent—elixir. Though it’s highly concentrated with ingredients that hydrate, repair, renew, and strengthen the skin barrier, the lightweight serum feels like… nothing. It’s not one of those that tingles or stings to suggest that it’s “working.” But since incorporating it into my routine a few months ago, my skin has a more even tone and has had a freshness that wasn’t there before. (My husband, who’s been battling irritated and flaky skin for at least three years, also started using this serum. His skin is now calm and smooth. Just saying.)
But I don’t even play the lottery, so, I’ll probably eventually return to my trusty Maelove The Glow Maker ($28), which reminds me of SkinCeuticals’ fantastic CE Ferulic serum. It’s loaded with vitamins C and E, ferulic acid, and hyaluronic acid—all of which gently bring out your natural glow. Maelove isn’t a strictly clean brand, by the way, but this fragrance-free formula is. (And that’s why you read labels!)
For moisturizer, I’ve been recommending Naturium Marine Hyaluronic Water Cream ($20), which has a light gel texture that’s perfect for hot, sticky summer days. It’s deeply hydrating without feeling heavy; whether your skin is dry or oily or some combination thereof, this is a solid (and reasonably priced!) option for summer. If you prefer a cream-cream, Tata Harper Water-Lock Moisturizer ($68) is excellent for dry skin, and it’s available in refill pods to reduce packaging waste, too. Right now, Weleda Skin Food ($12) feels too emollient for my summer preferences, but during the winter, it protects against dryness like nothing else.
If you like oils and want to get into CBD, Lord Jones Royal Oil Hemp-Derived CBD ($100) is potent and pleasurable. The blend of grapeseed oil and hemp-derived CBD has a host of uses. You can massage your face with it, put a few drops in an evening bath, or take it orally when you’re feeling stressed. Not that anyone is feeling stressed in 2020! Not at all!
This category is tricky. I have yet to try a straightforward mineral sunscreen that feels as watery and weightless as its chemical counterparts. Plus, the typical common white cast looks good on nobody. Still, there are a few solid products that provide physical sun protection. My favorite is Kypris Pot of Shade Heliotropic SPF 30 ($75), which melts into skin beautifully and imparts a dewy radiance. Iris & Romeo Best Skin Days ($64)—a sort of skin-care/foundation hybrid with SPF 25—is also a pleasure to use. It’s akin to a very hydrating tinted moisturizer, and it evens out my skin tone nicely. And as if it weren’t enough to be one of the best tennis players in history, Venus Williams has created a transparent mineral-based SPF 35 sunscreen, EleVen Unrivaled Sun Serum ($50), that disappears into dark and light skin tones alike.
For outdoors and beach days, the sporty Raw Elements Face + Body SPF 30 ($19) is a winner; it feels a bit greasy going on, but then it settles in nicely and is highly water-resistant. I also stash multiple sticks of BabyBum Mineral SPF 50 Sunscreen Face Stick ($10) on hand because it glides on smoothly and is fragrance-free. It leaves a white cast, but since I use this on my son, I want to see any spots I may have missed.
Again, there’s an abundance of options that simply didn’t exist five years ago. For complexion, my old standby—Giorgio Armani Maestro Glow foundation—was discontinued last year, but I found its clean “twin” in the form of Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint ($46). It provides a similarly weightless feel and SPF 40, comes in 18 shades, and has a remarkably dewy finish. To further boost my complexion, Tata Harper Anti-Aging Neuropeptide Blush ($39) has replaced my old cream blush, while Noto Botanics Hydra Highlighter ($26) is a gorgeous creamy highlighter developed by a makeup artist.
Speaking of artistry, Aether Beauty‘s clean, vegan eyeshadow palettes ($58) have an excellent color payoff—enough to show up for an Instagram flex if that’s your thing. Westman Atelier Eye Love You Mascara ($62), developed by makeup artist Gucci Westman, is just a flat-out excellent lash enhancer. It volumizes and lengthens, doesn’t flake or smudge, and builds beautifully. Another solidly clean choice is Saie 101 Mascara ($24), which creates a softer, more fluttery look.
You want lip color? Okay. Kosas Lipstick in Rosewater ($28) is just as creamy and gives you that your-lips-but-better look of NARS lipstick in Dolce Vita (a shade I’m convinced looks gorgeous on everyone). If you like the Kylie Jenner matte lip look, Honest Beauty Liquid Lipstick ($15) provides the same kind of finish in a vegan formula. And for chapped lips, Vertly CBD Lip Balm ($22) is a bit of a splurge, but worth it; my eternally dry kisser typically resembles peeling paint on a decades-old barn, but this stuff makes them look like a newborn’s lips.
Hair and body
Look, I’m not going to pretend that the hair category doesn’t have a lot of room for improvement. A lot. The majority of cleanly formulated stylers and cleansers I’ve tried are pretty blah, mostly because hair products are uniquely challenging to formulate with clean technology. (For now, anyway.)
But I will say this: Ethique’s practically-zero-waste solid shampoos and conditioners last forever, clean and moisturize well, and even keep my highlights from turning brassy. They’re super-economical, too (did you know that about 80 percent of liquid shampoo is… water?). And although I wish Odele Air Dry Styler ($12) came in non-plastic packaging, a quarter-sized dollop of the stuff is enough to reduce frizz and serve as my only styling product. Better to have one thing than multiple.
Bodywise, why not swap body wash for bar soap? Again, so much less packaging waste, and when we’re talking about suds that literally go down the drain, why not be frugal here? Schmidt’s Naturals makes a gorgeous exfoliating Rose + Vanilla bar soap ($5) that smells more expensive than it is. Nobody is going to mistake it for a Tom Ford fragrance, but they may be surprised that your good-smelling body is due to just… soap.
On the smell tip, aluminum-free deodorant is now much more effective than it used to be. Corpus is chic in appearance and sophisticated in scent; its founder promises that he’s searching for an eco-friendly packaging alternative to plastic. Native, for its part, just started offering its deodorant ($13) in paperboard tubes. Both options minimize underarm funk well, don’t leave weird marks on your shirts, and smell great. That counts as a huge win in my book, because—as with all of these categories—going clean shouldn’t mean giving up the good stuff.