The The New Knew team gets asked all the time about our standards for products. While we hold a few unshakeable, foundational values that we measure all brands against, we’re also acutely aware that better beauty is a living concept that evolves as technology and knowledge progress. We also acknowledge that because the beauty industry as a whole is loosely regulated, defining “clean beauty” or “better beauty” therefore comes with an X factor of personal standards, values and interpretation.
Simply put, defining clean, green or better beauty isn’t an equation to solve. It’s not black and white, right and wrong, bad or good. It’s not just about ingredients or practices—or perfection. There are many gray areas that we make calls on based on the knowledge we have at the time.
Brands are not “perfect”; none of this is “perfect.” But we value progress over perfection, and we aim to work with brands that strive to do the best they can, while keeping up with industry advances.
It’s literally impossible for a brand to be maxed out in every category. And we also realize that an established brand can drive a lot more impact than a new brand. This is not a checklist we run through to identify deficits. Determining if a brand meets our standards takes critical thinking, a bigger understanding of the process and the ability to refrain from drawing a line in the sand.
This is the personal opinion of the TNK team, representative of our approach and the methodology that we follow when we analyze ingredients, products and brands. Each of the following points explore the intricacies of clean beauty and define what “clean” means to TNK.
In a nutshell, TNK strives to celebrate where better beauty is making strides to change the industry. We consider ourselves contributors to the clean beauty conversation. Our hope is that these conversations continue to create awareness, continue to get consumers and brands asking questions, and continue to better the industry as a whole.
The New Knew’s Beauty Standards
We evaluate products and brands through the lens of three filters:
- Reasonable pricing
- Ingredient quality
- Ingredient disclosure
- Innovation + mission
We choose to support brands that are open to a dialogue, engaged with their audience and in tune with the impact of their business decisions. Some of our favorite brands offer more than fantastic products—they also have:
- An incredible code of ethics.
- A passion for ingredients.
- A drive to innovate.
- Transparent storytelling.
- A willingness to disclose information.
- Respect for the earth.
- A commitment to philanthropy.
Let’s dive into some specifics for what integrity means to us.
Transparency at its core represents a sense of pride. Pride in the work, the creative process and the brand. Pride will have a brand pulling back the curtain and answering consumers’ questions before they are even asked.
We see this in brands that turn their process inside out or mark up their SKUs with additional asterisks, carrots or double carrots to indicate notable ingredients such as regionally sourced, wildcrafted or house-made.
Most of the time we start our vetting process by looking at ingredients, but the concept of transparency applies across the board. Here are some examples.
Third-party certifications that require brands to go through a process to ensure their claims are legitimate or that their formulas/ingredients meet a predefined set of guidelines are the current gold standard in better beauty.
Certifications like NSF International, COSMOS-ORGANIC or COSMOS-NATURAL have some of the strictest standards and ensure unbiased ingredient due-diligence.
These certifications are not a deal-maker or breaker for us because they cost money to acquire and maintain, which isn’t a feasible first step for smaller brands. However, if a brand has gone the extra mile to go through a process like this, we value this due diligence and commitment to being transparent.
Learn more about how to sort through better beauty certifications here.
RELATED: Clean beauty at Sephora explained.
It’s not our job to price a product for a brand or tell a brand what to charge. But it is our job to make recommendations to readers on what to try and buy. And one of the things we take into consideration is honest pricing.
Pricing in general contains many x-factors that consumers won’t see on an ingredient label, like ingredient research and formula development. It’s impossible to look at a product and determine if pricing is fair, but it is possible to identify egregious outliers. An egregious profit margin can serve as a clue to a brand’s business intentions and potentially its overall business ethos.
For example, when I pick up a $355 face cream at a beauty counter and the first 3 ingredients are water along with petroleum-based emollients and fillers….I’m like, What am I actually paying for?!
However, a $165 face oil that has next-level sourcing or exclusive ingredient commissioning, or a $29 acid toner with innovative formulation—that’s where we can really appreciate the pricing.
Here are some questions to consider that affect a product’s pricing:
- Does this product have any certifications?
- What “special” or innovative ingredients are part of the formulation?
- Is the packaging utilitarian or qualitative?
- What are the first handful of ingredients in the label? (These ingredients will have the largest volume percentage in the formula. Some of the least expensive ingredients at cost could be water, aloe vera or jojoba oil.)
- Are ingredients sourced organic, wildcrafted or biodynamic?
- What is the shelf life or expiration date?
Brands we choose to work with value storytelling and education as much as we do. They are excited about what makes their brand different and are bursting with pride to share. Here’s why that’s important.
The face of a brand
Truthfully, we often prefer when brand founders are also the product formulators OR are actively involved in the formulation process. It provides a connection to the product from end to end (sourcing to selling) that helps us trust the face serum, toothpaste or mascara.
However, there is a stigma in “clean beauty” that if a brand’s founder is not the formulator, the product isn’t authentic. That’s not necessarily the case—founders or CEOs can easily be in tune with and knowledgeable about their products without being the one who actually creates them.
There are many rising companies that divide and conquer between CEO and formulator because they recognize that creativity in formulation is sometimes best supported by not being overwhelmed by the daily battles of business. Honest Beauty is a great example: We know Jessica Alba isn’t in the lab formulating the mascara we love, but we also know that the company has the funds to hire the best formulators they can to create high-quality products at accessible price points.
Yet when we see no brand founder or brand story shared on a sales page or website, it gives us pause because sharing a brand story is what starts the trust-building process. Again it’s not a deal breaker if we don’t get to “meet the founder” but it does make us wonder, Why is the curtain closed? What’s on the other side? What’s this brand’s motivation? And what are we actually buying?
Claims and Marketing
We also take a look at what types of claims the brand makes: Does the brand rely on third-party studies, clinical trials and research to back up their claims?
Which leads us to marketing claims. We look at the efficacy claims a brand makes as well as the language the brand uses.
- Is the brand using distraction tactics of “no this and no that” instead of pointing arrows towards what’s actually in the product? Yes, there are ingredients we typically avoid, but a void in a formulation shouldn’t be a brand’s unique selling point.
- Is there greenwashing or made-up qualifiers/certifications like “certified free of harsh chemicals and dyes”? Language like this is called “greenwashing,” which is essentially a marketing trick to convince consumers that a product is made of only healthy (or eco or green or better or sustainable or natural—fill in the #buzzwordcity blank) ingredients.
We want to actively work to support inclusivity in the beauty industry. This includes both reflective and proactive work. We are committed to this ongoing conversation—here are some of the questions we’ll continue to ask:
- What’s your plan for adding inclusive shade ranges?
- How is inclusivity reflected in brand marketing?
- How does product pricing impact accessibility and inclusivity?
And to the TNK team…
- How can we support more BIPOC brands?
- Is TNK content reflective of our commitment to inclusivity?
- As we move toward our goal of becoming more of a content-based platform, where can we continue to diversify our team?
We value the quality of ingredients as much as the type of ingredients in a product. Because, YES! There is a difference.
Sourcing ingredients is an integral part of a brand’s supply chain and therefore many brands are extremely protective of their sources—sometimes the sourcing alone can be a brand’s unique selling point. We get excited when we see a brand’s reverence afforded to ingredients in the following ways:
- Ethical ingredient sourcing (including choosing synthetics, which are not toxic by definition) or abstinence when it comes to endangered or indigenious species.
- Choosing fair-trade ingredients especially when it comes to exploited resources.
- Selecting local or regional ingredients when available to forgo a larger carbon footprint.
- Choosing organic or even (swoon) biodynamic options when possible.
- Formulating with deference to renewable and sustainable resources.
One of our most foundational illustrations of integrity is ingredient disclosure. We especially value brands who follow INCI formatting, which specifically identifies ingredients via a truly international nomenclature.
For example, disclosing “almond oil” on a label does not differentiate between bitter almond oil or sweet almond oil. The INCI nomenclature adds clarification via Prunus Amygdalus Amara (Bitter Almond) Kernel Oil or Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil.
We tend to shy away from brands who use non-disclosure tactics such as categorizing ingredients (“surfactants”) on ingredient labels rather than the exact ingredients. (This happens more with cleaning products and detergents in our experience, but it’s still a tactic to be aware of.)
This also applies to brands that don’t include their full ingredient list on their product pages, or choose to only include “key ingredient” lists. Full ingredient lists should be disclosed and easy to find.
Fragrance is one exception. Because fragrance is considered proprietary information (especially if it’s a perfume company), non-disclosure has become the norm. We look for brands that are willing to, at minimum, share the components of their fragrance (e.g. fragrance-free, essential oils, certified organic, natural, naturally derived and/or synthetic), and we celebrate brands that fully disclose their fragrance ingredients (e.g. Abbott NYC).
On the flip side, it’s exciting to see when brands provide additional information about their ingredient quality and/or an ingredient glossary. And it’s especially exciting to see brands that are eager to share and educate by including sourcing information like “regionally sourced single-farm rose hydrosol” or manufacturing information like “BHT-free retinol.”
Learn more about ingredients in skincare and makeup here.
Innovation + Mission
Lastly, when it comes to integrity, it’s especially refreshing to see brands who lead instead of follow. Innovative formulas excite us. Brands that stand out as different or unique draw us in. And the same goes for new ideas, new ingredients, risk taking and respect for the craft.
We love asking: Is this brand pushing the market to be better in a specific way? This can be illustrated via responsible packaging or new ingredients or a synthetic swap for an endangered natural, as well as innovation when it comes to sourcing, supply chain, ingredients, formulation, approach and concept.
Efficacy v. Integrity
We have efficacy listed as our second value but in reality, we hold both efficacy and integrity in equal regard. We chose to list integrity first because it acts as a screen (or as an assessment we use) prior to testing products. There are also more criteria involved in integrity and therefore several potential avenues we consider to help us decide if each product is a right fit product for us.
After this, efficacy is determined as we start trying the product.
Of course there are gray areas too. Sometimes we may bend a little in either direction but we always identify these considerations with readers.
- Nail polish can never be all organic rose water and pressed flowers. Nail polish needs components like solvents and structure-inducing polymers to make it function. You won’t see us recommending any “edible nail polishes” around here, but you will see us recommending these nail polishes that showcase better formulations while still working.
- Some people question ingredients like dimethicone and silicone-based components in products like foundations because they are not biodegradable—however, it’s also really difficult to get the functionality of a creamy, silky smooth foundation without it. We want to push the market to formulate better, but in the meantime, we want our foundation to work.
- Currently there isn’t really a great substitute for hair dyes, so we make the best recommendations with what’s available, like Hairprint and our salon recommended pick, OWAY. And of course we also celebrate the beauty of going au naturale.
- We also love following along with green science in the fragrance/perfume industry. Synthetic fragrance used to be an absolute N.O. for us, but now with innovation in chemistry and formulation, we are seeing high-performing fragrances with safe synthetics come to market. We also recognize there could be a sustainability benefit to using a safe synthetic fragrance over using 42 pounds of rose petals to create 5ml of rose essential oil.
- And the list goes on and on…we still haven’t seen comparable swaps for shaving cream, eye contact solution or teeth whitening strips, for example, so we make integrity/efficacy decisions when it comes to these gaps.
The most important thing to glean from this is that we are taking critical issues into consideration and making a choice (as opposed to just buying what we are used to or blindly selecting something off the shelf).
At TNK, we pride ourselves on taking less of a dogmatic approach and more of an “identifying key issues to consider” approach. We are not shy about sharing our recommendations but ultimately, we want to lay it all on the table and let you decide. We want you to feel educated when buying and we realize “best choices” may vary from person to person.
That’s what being an informed consumer is all about, and that’s why we do what we do.
If a brand checks all our boxes in terms of integrity standards and we enjoy using the product initially, then we will consider studying it for an extended period of time. In addition, sometimes we partner with a brand in a sponsored capacity to allow us to have the resources to take 1, 3 or even 6 months to test and use a product—forgoing all other opportunities in that category.
This also typically opens up more doors, allowing us to create special opportunities for readers including exclusives, giveaways, discounts and more. Sometimes, we will even have two or more people test the same product to compare results before reporting back.
There are several levels of testing we employ here at TNK. Often, the product determines testing methods, and other times we determine testing methods.
For example, some products like perfume, color cosmetics and hair care products can be efficiently tested in a very short period of time. It’s easy to know right away if a hair spray or a blush works. Then there are other products that take time to test for efficacy like face serums, eye creams and hair growth products. However, if a product checks all the boxes in our integrity standards but it’s not enjoyable to use, then we will most likely not continue testing it.
The questions we ask when testing a product:
- Does the product meet our integrity standards?
- Do we have any questions about transparency in terms of ingredients, packaging or other components of the brand?
- Do we like the packaging (the delivery method, the design, the environmental impact)?
- Is there some kind of innovation happening here?
- Do we like the texture, consistency, scent and feel of the product itself?
- Does it do what it claims to? (Sometimes this includes before and after photos; sometimes it includes our subjective feelings.)
- Do we like how the packaging functions? Is it easy to use?
- Do we think our readers would also love this product?
- Do we want to keep using it until the entire bottle is gone?
- Would we repurchase this?
3. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
After we look at integrity and efficacy, we LOVE seeing a brand that shows up in a responsible way when it comes to sustainability and environmental impact. Sustainability can look different from brand to brand and product to product, so let’s take a look at some ways this plays out.
I wish it was as easy as saying: Choose glass over plastic. But it ain’t.
Function, brand resources, accessibility and available recycling options all play a part when it comes to determining what type of packaging a brand uses.
Function plays a huge role in choosing materials. For example, brands have the option of packaging shower products in glass. This ticks off boxes on the sustainability scale, but it simultaneously unticks boxes on the accessibility and safety scale.
Brands can package a lip balm or a deodorant in a biodegradable tube, but the fact of the matter is, oil bleeds through paper and left in a bag on a hot day, it can create a huge mess. Also paper push-up dispensers malfunction and if the product is pushed up too much, it’s a mess to push it back in. And if you throw away the lip balm before using the entire tube how sustainable of a packaging choice is it really?
So much of packaging availability also depends on a brand’s size. Holding small brands accountable for better packaging is less effective than demanding that mid- to large-size brands explore more sustainable options. Not only do small brands often have financial constraints, limited storage space and fewer packaging options, they also produce more limited quantities of product, which can be nearly negligible in comparison to the global brands that churn out hundreds of thousands of products.
And, big picture…technology and innovation are also important factors to consider. For example, if the right recycling facilities are not widely available, then offering a certain type of “recyclable” packaging is not necessarily helpful as it will still end up in a landfill.
In addition, when the industry talks about sustainable packaging, it tends to zone in on the packaging a brand chose BUT brands shouldn’t solely be held accountable as the waste and recycling industries (as well as packaging innovation) play a large role in creating the necessary loop system.
For example, glass is much more energy consuming to produce than plastic and the majority of glass (in the U.S.) doesn’t get recycled, due to lack of recycling management available locally (especially in comparison to most plastics) and/or it being contaminated.
Which leads to yet another factor: Consumer responsibility. That includes making sure only recyclable items go into the recycling bin (“recyclable” materials differ, depending on your location) and that the containers are cleaned prior to disposal.
All of this to say, it’s complicated. But in a nutshell, we love to see our serums packaged in glass, options to purchase refills and the use of reusable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging. We love seeing brands that package in recyclable plastic, use post consumer plastic or contribute to programs that are actively working to clean up our oceans.
We strive to continue the packaging conversation and celebrate these efforts, whatever that might look like for each brand.
Sustainability doesn’t stop with packaging—the ingredients a brand chooses to use can drive environmental impact as well.
The following list is not a list of hard requirements we look for—but it is a list of things we think about and appreciate when we see the efforts a brand makes to lessen its overall footprint. We love to see brands choose ingredients that:
- Have undergone a certification process (it’s another whopper of a topic—read more about certifications here).
- Have a lower carbon footprint.
- Are reef-safe.
- Are not endangered.
- Do not accumulate in our water systems or other ecosystems.
- Are organic, biodynamic or grown with regard to those practices.
- Are regionally sourced.
We also consider ways that brands demonstrate long-term thinking and contribute to the bigger picture. We love seeing brands connect with other mission-based organizations as a way to give back beyond the boundaries of their own beauty business.
Some ways we have seen this done well is by partnering with organizations like 1% for The Planet, One Tree Planted or The Ocean Cleanup. We’ve also seen brands make strides to be carbon neutral or working toward any or all of the above.
Here are some questions we ask when we evaluate brands for sustainability:
- Has this brand made any steps towards sustainability?
- Does the brand partner with recycling programs like TerraCycle?
- Are they 1% for the Planet?
- Are they B Corp Certified?
- Do they give back to the environment via programs like One Tree Planted or “The Ocean Cleanup”? And do they actually do this (not just purport to for marketing purposes)?
- Do they offer refills?
- Are they concerned about their carbon footprint?
- Are their UV blocking ingredients reef safe?
- What shipping materials do they use?
As you can tell, we consider a lot when we’re taking on a partnership or considering accepting samples for possible editorial inclusion. What we want you to take away from this is that we’re working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the recommendations we make to you as a reader are not only better for you, but they’re also better for the planet—and they work.
We wish things were less complicated and that the beauty industry was more regulated. Until then, we’ll be continuing to refine our evaluation methods to bring you the best in better beauty (and beyond).
All information and advice on The New Knew is based on the opinions of the author, unless otherwise noted. It should not be taken for medical advice, and any statements about the potential benefits of products have not been evaluated by the FDA.