Clean Beauty at Sephora Explained (+3 Fave Products!)

July 28, 2018 (updated July 12, 2022)

Learn all about the Clean at Sephora program in this detailed guide. We share the 3 clean beauty products we buy at Sephora, and the ingredients we avoid.

sephora exterior atlanta 2

The world of “clean beauty” can be confusing (which we’ve talked about at length). Certification symbols, confusing marketing language and big box brands jumping on the bandwagon haven’t done much to illuminate the industry. In fact, sometimes those labels make things even more murky.

Still, when traditional retailers or conventional beauty brands try to make changes that help consumers, we evaluate them against the backdrop of the benefits of forward momentum. We’ve been working in the better, ethical beauty space for more than 15 years, collectively, and we applaud brands for making moves to be more transparent.

That said, sometimes those moves aren’t enough. Let’s take a look at this popular conventional retailer’s “clean” beauty standards, and break down the details.


What does Clean at Sephora mean?

Sephora currently promotes two better beauty programs. Their Clean at Sephora™ program features “brands formulated without phthalates, formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers, oxybenzone, octinoxate and more.”

And their newly released Clean + Planet Positive program, which Sephora is calling “beyond clean.” This program takes into consideration not only ingredients, but also the environmental impact of products through the lens of climate commitment, sustainable sourcing, responsible packaging and environmental giving.

Through both of these programs, Sephora currently restricts roughly 41 ingredient categories with multiple ingredients in each category.

Sephora has ALSO committed to taking further steps towards ingredient regulation, especially as it relates to their environmental standards. For example, by 2022, they’ve eliminated all microplastics from products they sell. They’ve also placed enhanced regulations around red-flag ingredients like PFAS and fragrance.

The point? They’re consistently evolving, and evaluating, which we see as progress.


Our take on Clean at Sephora: what they’re not telling you

clean at sephora big display
Clean At Sephora display tower on the right

However, this is Sephora’s program—but it differs from the Clean at Target program, which differs from Clean at Ulta Beauty, which differs from the Whole Foods standards (for a deep dive on these similarities and differences, read our whole post about beauty certifications). This results in programs that primarily serves THEM as retailers, not you as a consumer.

The pessimistic view: they’re going to continue to broaden these programs so more brands fit into their guidelines, and they ultimately can sell more products while “clean” beauty is trending.

So that’s the theory. To illustrate, let’s pick one ingredient and break down all the different positions taken around its safety, and whether it’s considered “clean” or not.

RELATED: What do beauty certifications mean?


Breaking down phenoxyethanol: is it “clean”?

sephora clean beauty

Sephora allows phenoxyethanol in both their Clean at Sephora™ and Clean + Planet Positive programs. There are several conflicting views on the safety of this preservative. Here are a few we dug up so you can see what we mean.

EWG rates phenoxyethanol as a 4 out of 10 on their toxicity scale.

MADE SAFE® includes phenoxyethanol on their Hazard List, a list of chemicals that are to be avoided.

The European Union has a list of allowable preservatives known as Annex V. This annex governs the use of preservatives in 28 nations. It’s basically a list of preservatives allowed along with their maximum concentrations. Here you will find 2-phenoxyehtanol (chemical name) or phenoxyethanol (common name) allowed to be used at 1%.

The European Scientific Committee Consumer Safety considers 2-phenoxyehtanol safe for use as a preservative with a maximum concentration of 1%.

On the flip, it’s banned by COSMOS (the gold standard when it comes to clean beauty certifications) who ensures the absence of petrochemical ingredients including parabens, phenoxyethanol, perfumes and synthetic colorants.

Then there are some green beauty stores in the U.S. that follow suit and won’t stock products with phenoxyethanol, like Integrity Botanicals and Beauty Heroes, for example.

In addition, phenoxyethanol is on TNK’s NO THANKS list and here’s why. Phenoxyethanol goes though a process called ethoxylation using ethylene oxide, which is a chemical that consistently acts as a mutagen and is associated with multiple forms of cancer.

In addition, ethoxylated ingredients can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and a by-product of ethoxylation called 1, 4 dioxane. 1, 4-dioxane is classified as a carcinogen here, here and here. But you will never see 1,4-dioxane on an ingredient label if it was never intentionally added.

NIH lists phenoxyethanol as a potential neurotoxin.

RELATED: TNK’s clean beauty standards and criteria.

This begs the question: what IS clean beauty?

Phenoxyethanol is not our thing, BUT as you can see it’s one of those “on the fence” ingredients. Some green beauty brands choose to use it, some don’t. There are a couple other “on the fence” ingredients in green beauty for example, like silicone-based ingredients, silver, isolates and other ethoxylated ingredients (learn more about some of these here). But the point is, we all need to choose for ourselves what our own personal brand of ethical beauty is and follow that.

Don’t you wish it was more cut and dry tho? Me too.

We took a look through their new Clean At Sephora program and found products that were approved Clean at Sephora but included ingredients we wouldn’t use.

And that’s actually fine! (Bet you didn’t expect us to say that—haha!) Take a look at Sephora’s description of their Clean At Sephora program and you will see they follow it to a T. 👇

Screenshot from Sephora taken July 2022.

Clicking through to the full list of excluded ingredients, we don’t see “prohibits phenoxyethanol, undisclosed fragrance, petrochemicals, 1,4 dioxide or PEGs.” That’s our standard, not Sephora’s.

And that’s the true definition of “clean beauty”: there isn’t one. It’s up to you to determine what works for you—we can’t rely on retailers to define it for us, because it’s NOT a regulated term (learn more here).

If you are reading this like YES GIRL, I’m totally with you! Then we’re about to hook you up.


Our top three faves at Sephora


Other reasons to shop Sephora

And P.S. Sephora is a great place to shop online because they offer free shipping for returns and will take back new or gently used product. This means you can order a foundation or a lipstick in a couple colors, test them out and keep only what works for you!

Do you shop Clean at Sephora?


xo, TNK Team in cursive
 
 

 

FAQs about Clean at Sephora

What is clean beauty?

“Clean beauty” is an unregulated term, but when people talk about it, they’re referring to beauty products that have tried to take into consideration the health of people and the planet in formulation. Learn more here.

What does Clean at Sephora mean?

The Clean at Sephora program features “brands formulated without phthalates, formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers, oxybenzone, octinoxate and more.” More on how that breaks down here.

Is Clean at Sephora really clean?

The products sold under the Clean at Sephora label adhere to Sephora’s published standards. But since “clean” beauty isn’t regulated, you have to determine for yourself if those standards are right for you. More here.

By Lisa Fennessy

Lisa is the founder of The New Knew. Passionate about clean beauty, organic eats and nontoxic lifestyle, Lisa writes to create awareness. Conscious consumerism and informed decisions will impact the marketplace, our health and THE WORLD!

26 Comments

  1. Reply

    Sara

    What about Josie Maran? I know some products are cleaner than others, but they are noting them as “clean” overall.

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Hi Sara! I just checked them out. If you need a blanket answer, I would go with no. I see phenoxyethanol, some ethoxylated ingredients, Retinal Palmate, “flavors”…but seems you can find some clean products within that line if you are willing to search for them. Like the 100% organic argan oil made with one ingredient looks like a safe bet. xo

  2. Reply

    Darla

    Hi there.
    Where is the link for this Sephora’s guide?
    I also signed your list and didn’t receive a link for it?
    Thanks….

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Sorry about that! If you signed up for my newsletter in the Sephora form in this post then you should have gotten it. If you signed up for the newsletter on my homepage you wouldn’t have gotten it. I will email it to you!

  3. Reply

    Marla Harmon

    Hello, I signed up with the links here and didn’t get the guide after confirming my email.

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Sorry about that, just sent it to you! xo

  4. Reply

    Miriam

    Hey! I signed up a few times and still haven’t received the shopping guide. Is there a link I’m overlooking? Thanks!!!

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Hi Miriam! Sorry about that! I will email it to you! xo

  5. Reply

    Maria

    I didn’t receive the guide either 🙁

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Just sent it to ya! Thanks!

  6. Reply

    Jill

    Can you send me the guide too? I didn’t get it.

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Sent! Sorry about that!

  7. Reply

    Keah

    I signed up as well but didn’t get it. Would you mind emailing me too? Thanks so much!

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Sent! Sorry about that!

  8. Reply

    Aimee

    Hi Lisa! I also signed up for the newsletter in this post, but never received the guide. Thanks in advance! I’m so looking forward to seeing your picks!

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Sent! Sorry about that!

  9. Reply

    Elvia

    Lisa,

    May I get your list too please?

    Thank you love!

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      You got it girl!

  10. Reply

    Ashley

    Hi! What about Rahua. It looks okay, but I’m not sure about some of the crazy sounding ingredients. Thanks!!

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Hi Ashely! Yes, Rahua has some crazy sounding ingredients but their formula looks good to me. I’ve tried their Classic which works for me and I just tried their new Hydration which is really beautiful too!

  11. Reply

    abigail

    I signed up, but didn’t receive the list. Can I please get it as well?

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      We just sent it your way, let us know if you didn’t get it!

  12. Reply

    Kathy Klecker

    I’ve been researching finding Phenyoxyethalene was causing redness and stinging in my eyelids, not to mention little bags in the corner above the lids. Urban Decay primer and Two faced Insurance I believe were the culprits with Phenyoxyethalene. My Dermatologist switched me to Vanicream for awhile to see if that clears it up. It has somewhat so far. It’s itchy too and my Eye Doctor said I have allergies. He gave me Ocusoft wipes to clean my eyelids. My Dermatologist advised me to use EltaMD with SPF, tinted, Laposy Roche Tinted with SPF or Cerva tinted with SPF. She said to use mineral makeup concealer. All three sunscreens have Phenyoxyethalene in them. I don’t think she listened clearly. My face never felt good wearing Super Goop sunscreen from Sephora having Phenyoxyethalene in it too. My face starts to itch. I have a facial cleaner by CeraVe Facial Foaming cleanser with Pentaerythrityl in it. Is this related to Phenyoxyethalene?

    1. Reply

      Lisa Fennessy

      Hi Kathy! Good question. I’m not sure about the relationship there but I can tell you we are publishing a CeraVe Cleanser swap post later this month! We’ve been testing and trying to figure out which natural option is the best comp when it comes to moisture, pH, cleaning power, price, size – all of it! Stay tuned! xo, Lisa

  13. Reply

    Natalie

    Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for sharing the Sephora finds!
    By the way, I’ve switched all my products from makeup to skincare based on your recommendations from beauty heroes and Sephora. Even my aesthetician asked what I’m using because my skin looks amazing. Believe it or not a lot of aestheticians don’t know about beauty heroes! Anyway, thanks for keeping your blog up to date. I’m a regular!

    1. Reply

      Lisa Fennessy

      Hi Natalie! So happy your are experiencing success! I know, I love telling people about Beauty Heroes – it also makes the best gift! Keep glowing! xo, Lisa

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