The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

Can You Trust the Sephora Clean Seal?

Sephora must be feeling the heat from the success of Credo, Follain, and Detox Market, because last summer the beauty store launched a Clean at Sephora seal to help you find non-toxic skincare, haircare, and makeup.

At the time, the brands it chose to highlight under the seal were free of sulfates (SLS and SLES), parabens, formaldehydes, formaldehyde-releasing agents, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, and triclocarban. Plus, the designated products had less than 1% synthetic fragrances.

That’s a pretty short list. And it was criticized by several scientists for being way too lax. For example, most brands have synthetic fragrance under 1%, so that standard was somewhat meaningless, and experts questioned why Sephora let something like polyethylene glycol through. After all, the EU has banned a long, long list of ingredients and when it comes to beauty. Hundreds of things, not a dozen. Wouldn’t it would be nice if what we bought in the U.S. were at least as clean as what is legally allowed in Europe?

So two weeks ago, Sephora updated the list to 50 banned ingredients: acrylates, aluminum salts, animal oils/musks/fats, benzophenone + related compounds, butoxyethanol, carbon black, lead/lead acetate, methyl cellosolve + methoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone + Methylisothiazolinone,  mercury + mercury compounds (thimerisol), insoluble plastic microbeads (applies to rinse-off products only), resorcinol, talc (asbestos-free talc is ok. Brands need to conduct testing to ensure no contamination. Read more about asbestos and talc), ethanolamines DEA/TEA/MEA/ETA, nanoparticles as defined by EU, polyacrylamide & acrylamide, styrene, and toluene. Brands have to test and prove certain ingredients like BHA/BHT, petrolatum + parrafin, phenoxyethanol,  and 1, 4 Dioxane are at safe levels and meet quality requirements.

I know. So perfectly clear and easy to understand.

Sephora also has a special category of banned ingredients related to synthetic fragrances. The makeup of the fragrances must be completely disclosed (because some companies just list it as “parfum”), meet all of the above criteria, be at concentrations below 1% of total formula, be cruelty-free, and be without the following additional ingredients: PTFE/PFOA, acetaldehyde, acetonitrile, methylene chloride, benzalkonium chloride, acetone, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, and bisphenol A (BPA).”

Is Sephora’s Clean seal now truly trustworthy?

It’s hard to say. I’m not a chemist, and the safety of common ingredients in consumer products is hotly debated by even the professionals. We could try comparing it to the Dirty List at Credo, “The largest clean beauty store on the planet,” which also bans aluminum, chemical sunscreens (which I disagree with), silicones, EDTA (“not linked to consumer health issues, but they might be a problem for aquatic life since they don’t break down in the environment and have been found in waterways,” Credo says), or hydroquinone. Then again, Credo doesn’t ban several ingredients that Sephora does. And neither bans polyethylene glycol, that ingredient that was questioned by experts a year ago.

This points to the issue that not many experts or scientists truly agree one what is safe, what is not, and what is safe at low enough levels. Credo gives a full explanation for why it does and doesn’t ban certain ingredients. Sephora does not, but it’s a safe assumption this huge company had access to world-class experts… though it says that it also took feedback from the brands it carries, raising the question of whether it let some things slide for its best-selling, sort-of-clean brands.

To get a second opinion, I installed the Clearya browser extension, which scans for unsafe ingredients on Amazon, iHerb, Walmart, and Sephora and provides you with an alert ranging from red (toxic ingredients) to orange and yellow (restricted and/or allergens), blue (almost clear) and no alerts. Clearya does not have a list of banned ingredients. Instead, it compares ingredients to those listed as carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, contaminants, prohibited, restricted, etc from the U.S., California, the European Union, and Japan.

I installed Clearya and look at the product page of some (but not all) of the Clean Label products at Sephora. For products from Drunk Elephant, Olehenriksen , Bioassance, and Tatcha it brought up several ingredients that are restricted in Japan, Canada or the EU, plus pointed out that they have ingredients that could result in 1,4 dioxane. (Though Sephora’s policy on that is that its brands have to test to ensure 1,4 dioxane is below a threshold. So it might be OK.) Farmacy and Olehenriksen also had several allergens, Supergoop! sunscreen had a toxic ingredient, while Herbivore and Saint Jane had no alerts. When I looked at products that didn’t have the Clean Seal, some were more toxic, others were free of alerts — sometimes from the same brand! Unfortunately, I couldn’t try it at a store dedicated to clean beauty. I am curious to see how Clearya would react to products in Follain or Credo.

We shouldn’t be having this conversation.

Here’s what it comes down to: the Clean seal at Sephora could be helpful for consumers at the individual level. But it’s not ideal for corporations to be self-regulating and deciding what constitutes a safe product. And you can still go to Sephora and buy products with unsafe ingredients, so don’t look at this as an act of altruism. Sephora probably saw that concerned consumers were taking a long time to read ingredients and dropping out of the purchasing process, so they created the seal as a way to make them shop more and faster at their store, instead of losing them to their clean-beauty competitors. It’s a win-win for them. So I’m not inclined to start recommending you shop at Sephora.

What would be ideal is if the federal government got its act together and banned unsafe ingredients from being sold in any product, to anyone. If you want to help that process along, you can donate to the advocacy group Safer Chemicals or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

In the meantime, keep shopping at these online stores that are dedicated to selling only clean beauty. You can find pretty much anything you need or want there, and they deserve your support.

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