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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 👇
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
Our personal top pick for tinted SPF is Saie’s Slip Tint Broad Spectrum SPF 35. This is a tinted moisturizer that provides light coverage (think CC cream, not foundation). It has a moussy, creamy texture that goes on super smooth and it looks v natural. Like you can’t even tell you have anything on but your skin is just…better, softer, more moisturized, protected.
Love the addition of hyaluronic acid to hydrate, licorice root extract to brighten and pansy flower to fight free radicals. Lisa tried this in the shade FOUR and it was a good match. Honestly? SPF has never been so easy to use. File this one under can’t-get-enough.
When we first tried ILIA’s Fullest Volumizing Mascara, we were a little distracted by the violin shaped chubby wand. It seemed to be a little too chunky and cumbersome to get the controlled application and separation we prefer. BUT, the more we used it, the more we fell in love with how thick, big and voluminous my lashes looked and now nothing can compare. We’re 100% hooked.
And! ILIA’s Fullest Volumizing Mascara is not just another pretty face. We also see lash supporting ingredients like pro-vitamin B5 and arginine to strengthen and improve the condition of lashes.
Super buildable and flake-free. Lisa has been known to go up to four coats to sport that mega lash look.
Born in 1978, Lisa is a Gen X with a Millennial rising. And we say that because what she loves most in life is instant gratification. Cut to Tata Harper’s 5 minute Resurfacing Mask and she’s sold, fully. Hook, line and sinker. This mask is specifically designed to brighten dull skin, refine pores and smooth + soften skin texture. But like we said, the best part is it only takes minutes!
Second best? This mask is 82% organic and certified COSMOS Natural.
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?
FAQs about Clean at Sephora
“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.
The Clean at Sephora program features “brands formulated without phthalates, formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers, oxybenzone, octinoxate and more.” More on how that breaks down here.
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.