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Behind The Seal: What It Means To Be Clean At Sephora

August 12, 2019

You don't need us to tell you that the clean beauty space has skyrocketed over the past couple of years. Thanks to a major surge in demand for ingredient and sourcing transparency, we've got more cleaner skin care and beauty options than ever. 

That's all good, but it definitely makes things a bit trickier: How do we really know if a product actually lines up with what's imprinted on its package? Even peeking over at the ingredients involves some guesswork for most of us. It's why Sephora introduced a "Clean at Sephora" category last year—to clearly establish what they, as a retailer, consider "clean," and help shoppers make more informed decisions about the products they buy. 

The green Clean at Sephora seal is a quick heads-up to shoppers that a product is formulated without certain ingredients, and the products that have since earned it are legit. mbg spoke with Cindy Deily, a VP of skin care merchandising at Sephora, to get the scoop on the retailer's fastest growing category and their newly updated "formulated without" list. 

Image by Ryan Jenq / mbg Contributor

When did Sephora start noticing a shift toward cleaner shopping habits? 

Clean beauty is one of the biggest macro trends in the market right now, and we expanded into the clean beauty category in June 2018. In our research, we saw that more than 60% of women read beauty product labels prior to purchase, and that 54% say it's important for their skin care products to have a POV on clean. We've also seen the market respond with brands that have such positioning growing at almost three times the rate of others. 

How does Sephora define what's "clean"?

Clean at Sephora means all of our clean brands comply with certain criteria, which is focused on brand positioning, transparency in formulation and sourcing, and the avoidance of certain ingredients. Our clean criteria goes beyond common marketplace terms such as natural, organic, green and offers a range of innovative products and brands. Clean at Sephora is our way of offering the client one clear and robust definition of "clean" that is compliant across skin care, makeup, fragrance, and hair. 

More than 60% of women read beauty product labels prior to purchase.

Our initial Clean at Sephora "formulated without" list included many high-profile synthetic ingredients that many clients told us they wanted to avoid, like phthalates, parabens, and sulfates. 

This July, we're launching a new evolution of Clean Beauty as a result of extensive research to evolve our "formulated without" list. It will now include over 50 ingredients from 13 last year with some notables like BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), ethanolamines DEA/TEA/MEA/ETA, toluene, carbon black, mercury and mercury compounds, aluminum salts, lead, and lead acetate, to name a few.

We're also requiring brands to test for contaminants like 1,4 dioxane and have ingredient thresholds in place to monitor the levels of certain ingredients.  

Image by Ryan Jenq / mbg Contributor

What are some ingredients that clean-minded shoppers ARE looking for?

Our clients are at the heart of every decision we make—they inspire and inform everything from the products we choose to sell to the services and classes we offer. In terms of what our clean enthusiasts are looking for, we see a huge demand for products that contain well-researched skin care ingredients like vitamin C, retinol, AHAs and BHAs, hyaluronic acid, and more. CBD has also become a very buzzworthy ingredient.

Image by Ryan Jenq / mbg Contributor

What's the process like for a product to earn a Clean at Sephora seal?

Brands that want to qualify for the Clean at Sephora seal have to conduct a thorough audit of each and every one of their formulas to ensure none of the ingredients on our "formulated without" list are being used. Additionally, they have to agree that none of their future formulas will contain any of these ingredients and have to demonstrate transparency in the form of a public-facing standard and point of view around formulation. 

Brands have to agree that none of their future formulas will contain any of these ingredients.

Image by Ryan Jenq / mbg Contributor

How does Sephora ensure that the Clean at Sephora seal standard is industry-leading?

Currently, the landscape is challenging, for a variety of reasons that include regulation, terms, or claims that are widely used by mass and prestige. Clean at Sephora allows us to define what clean means to us—in turn, creating a point of view that our clients can navigate, learn from, and shop with a sense of comfort that the work has been done for them. 

We continually educate ourselves through our relationships with industry leaders. Technology and innovation are increasing so rapidly, which is making clean beauty reformulations occur faster and creating more accessible new clean formula innovations. We're learning every day, and we expect our program and criteria to continue to evolve to meet or exceed the wants and needs of our clients, as well as keeping pace with what science and innovation make possible 

This interview has been edited and condensed.