18 Dirty Little Secrets About Clean Beauty – terra20

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OCT 28, 2021

18 Dirty Little Secrets About Clean Beauty

Marketing tricks you shouldn’t fall for, plus beauty gift sets that are actually “clean”

18 Dirty Little Secrets About Clean Beauty

Do we have a toxic relationship with the beauty industry?

The short answer is, yes. But, in the words of ABBA, breaking up with our favourite beauty products is never easy, no matter how toxic they might be. It’s even worse when you’ve already spent your hard-earned money on them.

So, perhaps the better question is: why do we keep buying harmful products?

Looks can be deceiving

Today’s beauty industry is valued at US $511 billion. Part of its growth comes from consumers willing to pay more for higher-quality products, and since clean beauty is one of the industry’s biggest trends, it’s safe to say that consumers associate “clean” with “higher-quality.”

The problem with this association is “clean-washing”—the industry-wide practice of stamping clean-beauty buzzwords on cosmetics that aren’t necessarily clean or safe to use. How do companies get away with this? Turns out the industry is pretty poorly regulated—even here in Canada—and there’s no legal framework for defining (and marketing) a “clean” product.

The same goes for terms like “natural” and “green.” In a world becoming increasingly eco-conscious, companies know that consumers’ eyes have been trained to look out for these types of buzzwords. Unfortunately, when it comes to beauty labels, they’re indicative of smart marketing and not much else.

As for the products themselves, Canada approves cosmetics for sale based on a post-market system, which more or less means that a product’s safety is verified after it’s already hit shelves. Basically, a manufacturer or importer can put any cosmetic on the market as long as they provide full product details (including ingredients lists and percentages) to Health Canada within 10 days of the first sale.

In other words, it might be on the shelf, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.

18 ingredients you absolutely must avoid

It’s bad enough that labels like “clean” or “natural” are essentially meaningless in the beauty industry. There’s also very little agreement about which ingredients are harmful and which are safe enough to be used in cosmetics. To really put it in perspective, there are only 11 cosmetics ingredients that are banned in the U.S., but there are 500 banned in Canada and a whopping 1,300 banned by the European Union.

We don’t know about you, but if an ingredient is banned anywhere, we’d rather not be using it.

The scary truth is that many of us don’t realize what we’re putting on our skin when applying makeup. Try as we might to stick to natural, plant-based, or gentle ingredients, if the product is mislabelled—or its true ingredients are hidden behind umbrella terms, like “fragrance” (more on that below)—we’re likely coating ourselves in chemicals.

If that thought makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Our skin absorbs 60% of the ingredients in our personal care products, so the fact that many contain harmful chemicals should raise a red flag.

We here at terra20 have your health at heart, which is why we’ve created our own Baseline Banned list of harmful ingredients that you’ll never find in our products.


This is an oil soluble ingredient that has the ability to absorb the full spectrum of UVA rays, and has been linked to allergic reactions and cancer. Ironically, it’s found in many commercially available sunscreens. (But not ours!)


These are two different, but closely related, antioxidants used as preservatives in cosmetics and some food products. They’re also suspected endocrine (hormone) disrupters.


You’ll recognize this, since many plastics now come labelled as being “BPA-free.” That’s because this industrial chemical is an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to reproductive disorders.


A silicone regularly found in cosmetics, despite being linked to organ system toxicity and endocrine disruption.

Coal tar dyes

Trust us: these artificial colouring agents are as bad as they sound, and are a recognized human carcinogen.

DEA-related ingredients

DEA (which stands for diethanolamine) and its related ingredients (which will usually have DEA in the name) act as emulsifiers to create foam or bubbles in self-care products, and are also found in moisturizers and sunscreens. They can cause skin irritation and cancer in high doses.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

DBP is an organic compound commonly used to promote plasticity or flexibility in a product due to its supposedly low toxicity and wide liquid range. It’s also a perfect example of how certain terms, like “organic,” can be misleading, because DBP has been shown to possibly cause developmental defects and bioaccumulation (meaning it never leaves your system).

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

In cosmetics, formaldehyde is usually added via other preservatives that release it in lower levels. As we know, formaldehyde can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and cancer. When scanning the label, avoid anything that contains formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), and glyoxal.


Luckily, the vast majority of us are aware of lead’s harmful effects, but it’s still used in many eyeliners and lipsticks today despite being able to accumulate in tissues and organs, causing lead poisoning.

Non-biodegradable glitters/lusters

These microplastics aren’t just bad for us (they can cause skin irritation, among other problems), but they also directly contribute to environmental harm and marine life devastation.


Octinoxate is a UV filter commonly used in sunscreens and lip balms. Unfortunately, it can be rapidly absorbed through our skin, and is a known endocrine disruptor linked to reproductive disorders.


This is an aromatic ketone often used as a sunscreen agent thanks to its ability to absorb UVA. It’s also an endocrine disruptor with the potential to bioaccumulate.


These are a family of related chemicals used in cosmetics as preservatives, and may interfere with hormone function.


Otherwise known as petroleum-based compounds often used as cosmetic cream bases, they have the potential to be contaminated with the carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane.

Petroleum-derived products

Probably the most well-known example of this is gasoline, which we certainly don’t want on our skin, but another example is petroleum jelly, which is commonly used in moisturizers. Any of these products have the potential to contain cancer-causing agents.

Phthalate-based fragrance

This will likely show up in an ingredients list as DEP, or diethyl phthalate, and contains reproductive toxins that can interfere with hormone function.

Sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate

Sodium laureth sulfate (sometimes known as SLES) is used in cosmetics as a detergent and to make bubbles or foam. It can irritate the eyes and skin and cause liver damage.


This is a very common antibacterial and antifungal agent found in many health and beauty products, including toothpaste, soap, and cosmetics. It’s sometimes abbreviated as TCS, and can interfere with hormone function in addition to irritating the skin.

What we mean by "clean"

With the beauty industry so shrouded in mystery, we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for you to identify products that align with your values, and shop with confidence knowing that our products are safe for use. We use nine different “Ethics Icons,” each representing the values we stand for in creating a healthier and more sustainable future.


We seek out clothing, cosmetics, food and other products that do not harm animals or their habitats. Our purple bunny icon indicates products that do not contribute to animal suffering and contain no animal by-products.

Looking to give a vegan-friendly gift this holiday season? This Canadian-made bath bomb set is free of harmful chemicals and totally vegan, making this one tasty treat to soak in!


We use the “organic” icon to identify products that have ingredients produced using natural fertilizers, no GMOs, and non-chemical means of pest control. We only apply this green leaf icon to products that meet rigorous Canadian, U.S., and European certification standards.

Beauty buffs will love this two-in-one gift that lets them create their perfect products. It comes with a selection of customizable recipes so you can make the toner to meet your needs. Also included is organic plant-based glycerin, non-GMO vitamin E, organic rose petals, organic lavender buds, and an eco-friendly, reusable glass spray bottle.

Free of Harmful Chemicals

Chemicals that belong in a lab beaker probably shouldn’t be on your skin, which is why we’ve chosen the pink beaker with an X through it to represent products that are free of harmful chemicals, including our Baseline Banned list as well as other phthalates, talc, and much more. Visit our website for the complete list.

Keep skin soft and nourished this cold-weather season without the use of synthetics or other added chemicals with Nova Scotia Fisherman’s Holiday Gift Box. This four-piece set includes one moisturizer, one lip balm, one bar soap, and one rescue balm stick.


At terra20, we believe in using products that are made to help us live better lives today while preserving tomorrow. This label is applied to products that impact our planet in a positive way, either through the manufacturing process, the product itself or the end result of using the product.

Did you know that oranges used to be gifted at Christmas because the fruit represented good fortune? Continue the age-old tradition in the form of this decadent hand soap by Attitude! Orange leaves are known to naturally restore skin’s luminous glow, leaving it looking refreshed and healthy.

Waste Reducing

At terra20, we abide by the four—not three—Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and refill. We’re the home of the ecobar, Canada’s largest product refill station. That’s the first place to shop if you’re looking to help clean the planet by using clean beauty products, but you can identify waste-reducing products throughout our store with the blue circular icon. These products (and their packaging) are either made of recycled, reclaimed, or biodegradable material, or are reusable and contribute to the reduction of landfill waste.

Cranberry and mint truly are the scents of the season! This soap bar contains only natural fragrances and its oils, butters, and coconut milk are great for normal, dry, and mature skin types.

Green Certification

You don’t need to worry about greenwashing with us. Our green certification icon is only applied to products that have been independently certified as organic, cruelty-free, or sustainably sourced. We do our best to ensure the validity of each product’s certification through a thorough investigation process. Some of the most prominent certifications we screen for include USDA Organic Certification, Leaping Bunny Label, Non-GMO Verified, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification.

This is the perfect stocking stuffer for the athlete in your life (or someone who wants to smell like one). In addition to being certified green, it’s also vegan and free of harmful chemicals.

Fair Trade

This icon indicates products made in safe and healthy working environments that offer fair compensation and prohibit child labour.

Achieve the perfect line with this eyeliner that goes on silky smooth and light as a feather.

Decoding the facts

We know this is a lot of information at once, so let’s summarize. If we had to narrow it down to just one takeaway, it would be this: You can make the switch to clean beauty products as long as you’re mindful about ingredients, packaging, and misinformation. Thankfully, we’ve done that work for you.

Pay attention to the ingredients lists and remember that “clean” isn’t always what it seems.


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