Unpacking the ‘Clean’ Claims Made by 3 Beauty Boxes

I try to stay up to date on the latest beauty trends, especially when they involve products advertised as “clean” or “nontoxic.” Even before my internship with EWG’s Healthy Living Science team, I knew that claims like “natural,” “nontoxic,” “plant based” and “clean” have no legal basis or standardized definition in the personal care industry.

Yet demand for them has increased sharply in recent years because of heightened consumer awareness of ingredient toxicity, ethical sourcing and sustainability. This made me wonder whether products with these descriptions actually contain fewer ingredients than those that don't make such claims.

I have long subscribed to Ipsy’s Glam Bag, a popular service that delivers five randomly selected skin care or makeup samples each month. Recently, Birchbox, another popular subscription beauty service, offered an “ingredient conscious” box that contained products described as “free of parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and petrochemicals.”

To find out how Birchbox’s “ingredient conscious” box compared to my July Ipsy Glam bag, I turned to EWG’s Skin Deep® cosmetics database, which rates more than 75,000 personal care products based on the hazards associated with their ingredients. It scores products on a one-to-10 scale, with one being the best score, for the products with the fewest hazards, and 10 being the worst score.

I collected product and ingredient information for the more than 20 products featured in the Ipsy Glam Bag, Birchbox’s “ingredient conscious” box. I included a third one too, Birchbox’s Easy-Effort box. These are some of the more popular and lower-cost so-called clean, natural and nontoxic subscription boxes. Here’s how they stacked up.

Ipsy’s July Glam Bag

Feel Mindful Palo Santo Soothing Mask ­– 2

Pacifica Beauty Bronzer Blush Duo – 2 (both blush and bronzer score a 2 in Skin Deep)

TheBalm Cosmetics Eyeshadow, The Rundown – 3

Ciate London Watermelon Burst Hydrating Primer – 6

Red Earth Brighten Concentrate Oil with Kakadu Plum – 3

Average score: 3.2

Birchbox’s July Ingredient Conscious Box

Beautycounter CounterSun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 – 1

Davines SU Hair & Body Wash – 4

W3LL PEOPLE Bio Bronzer Loose Powder – EWG VERIFIED™*

Beautaniq Beauty Blush Serum, Sunset – 1

Derma E Essentials Overnight Peel – 2

Lavanila The Healthy Fragrance, Pure Vanilla – 4 

*EWG VERIFIED products must score either a 1 or a 2 to be eligible for the EWG VERIFIED program; we gave a score of 2 to this product for the sake of this analysis.

Average score: 2.3

Birchbox’s July Easy-Effort Box

Coola Classic Primer, Dawn Patrol SPF 30 – 3

Clarins Wonder Perfect Mascara 4D, 01 Perfect Black – 2

Arrow Boost Color Enhancing Lip Balm, Blush Hour – 5

Bumble and bumble. Don't Blow It (H)air Styler, Fine – 4

Number 4 Lumiere d'hiver Super Comb Prep and Protect – 6

Average score: 4

The winner, with the lowest average score, was Birchbox’s “ingredient conscious” box, which included an EWG VERIFIED™ product meeting EWG’s strict health standards. But despite claims of being “ingredient conscious,” the box contained products in the yellow range, “moderate hazard,” in Skin Deep. Two contain fragrance, a term that could describe any combination of up to 4,000 ingredients. The uncertainty about “fragrance” ingredients raises a product’s score.

The other boxes also contained products that scored green in Skin Deep, including those that aren’t advertised as “clean.” Bottom line: Make sure to check labels and review scores in Skin Deep before buying a product rather than relying on claims that may not mean much.

Want to see scores for a different beauty box? Let us know which one!

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