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The Clean Beauty Movement: A Tender History

Uncover the roots of "clean beauty" and its transformative milestones to understand how it relates to our own choices.
The Clean Beauty Movement: A Tender History
Uncover the roots of "clean beauty" and its transformative milestones to understand how it relates to our own choices.

Hello there, Preview girls! Welcome to Clean Beauty Conversations, a series of informative pieces about everything we love—and those which need rethinking—about the world of beauty.

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clean beauty history
Clean beauty’s historical timeline.
ILLUSTRATOR Art by Rina dela Calzada


Clean and Beauty are two great words. I mean, both are attributes most humans aspire towards on a daily basis. Separately, they are fairly straightforward, with the top definitions as follows:




1. free from dirt or pollution

2. unadulterated, pure




1. the quality or group of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or the mind

2. the business of making people look attractive, using makeup, treatments, etc

When these two words were put together and became a concept, it quickly turned into a movement that resonated with both skincare enthusiasts and regular personal care consumers, myself included (coming from the latter). And because I personally love embarking on an inquiry and am quite a geek when it comes to “learning from the past to better navigate the future,” I think that the best way to start this series is to trace the history of Clean Beauty. That’s the only real way to ground ourselves in our aim to understand how any of this relates to our lives and our search for that which “gives pleasure to our senses and our mind.”


How Everything Started Clean

clean beauty history
Oils and herbs were used for beauty rituals in ancient civilizations.

The concept of beauty can be traced back to ancient times, so it makes sense to start our exploration there. Not surprisingly, we as a species began our quest for beauty at the right place—ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, utilized natural ingredients like plant extracts, minerals, and other organic substances for skincare and beauty rituals. They created various concoctions using items like honey, olive oil, herbs, and minerals to treat and nourish their skin.

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At the time, beauty practices often served multiple purposes beyond our current goal of “looking good”—they were deeply intertwined with cultural, religious, and social significance. This is why they are often referred to as ancient beauty rituals instead of beauty routines—these practices are more holistic in nature than simply putting on lip tint.

Several ancient beauty rituals have withstood the test of time and I am sure that most of us still do them today. We use skincare with oils, clays, and herbs, or we use natural stone beauty tools like jade. All those were passed down from generation to generation because of their effectiveness. 

A Revolution for the Senses

clean beauty history
The Victorian Age: Industrialization and the Pursuit of Pale Skin (Art: Rina dela Calzada)
ILLUSTRATOR Art by Rina dela Calzada

Beauty became an industry in the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Everything was handmade and produced in small batches up until then, but the advancement in manufacturing processes opened up the doors to effective mass production. This, for sure, was an exciting time, filled with wonderful discoveries. The first Eau de Cologne was formulated by an Italian (not German) perfumer; the cold cream hit the market and became widely popular; lipstick, as we know it (so perfectly shaped in a tube), was commercialized. 

This led to the rise of iconic brands such as Estée Lauder and Max Factor in the following century; brands that are still well-known and well-loved today. Then, something else took the world by storm — mass marketing! Advertisements propelled the beauty industry as one of the top and most influential sectors in the world. Imagine, before all that, everyone’s beauty rituals and their concept of what is beautiful were either passed down from their mothers or learned from their community. Then all of a sudden, they see brands promoting a different kind of beauty in newspapers and television. The people portrayed as attractive looked different from them, in skin color, height, shape, or hair. All of a sudden, there was something else heavily influencing what they thought was beautiful, what they wanted to have, and even who they wanted to be.


The Crux of Progress

clean beauty history
Petrochemicals from fossil fuels become king, even in beauty.
PHOTO BY Kirill Gorshkov, Shutterstock

The era post-World War II is crucial to the beauty industry because this marks a significant shift in the way companies sourced ingredients and the way they formulated. This was when petrochemicals, derived from petroleum, made their way into everyone’s skincare and makeup products. These petrochemicals provided an alternative to natural ingredients, offering cost-effective, stable, and versatile raw materials that could be used in almost anything, including food and personal care. 


Petrochemicals permeated beauty, from preservatives, emulsifiers, occlusives, fragrances, and colorants. Manufacturing became cheaper, faster, and more standardized—it was a type of progress indeed. Having tons of chemicals in the food that we eat and the products we put on our bodies became the norm.  

I grew up in the ‘80s and I remember watching my aunts get ready for a party, spraying their heads with Aqua Net while singing to a Grease 2 soundtrack. I remember watching them through the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) haze, coughing as I laughed, oblivious to the harm the hairspray was causing my lungs and the atmosphere. 

A Mindful Awakening

So while we started humankind’s skincare journey with locally available natural ingredients, we have come a long way from it. Yes, there were some early conscientious brands like Aveda (1978) with founder Horst Rechelbacher’s emphasis on natural, plant-based ingredients; and The Body Shop (1976) with their massive cruelty-free campaigns, but the fact is the modern concept of Clean Beauty only really began to gain traction around the late 2000s and early 2010s.


Finally, after decades, concerns regarding the safety and environmental impact of some of these synthetic ingredients that we have been willingly putting on our bodies prompted a push toward cleaner, more natural, and more sustainable beauty formulations. The Clean Beauty Movement was born! It was a grassroots movement, with a number of clean beauty brands started by consumers themselves who could not find alternatives to the mainstream products in the market. Beautycounter, founded in 2013 by Gregg Renfrew is considered a pioneer in the movement. She placed a strong emphasis on the removal of harmful chemicals from beauty products and advocated for change at the legislative level. While it didn’t start out as a brand per se, Goop by Gwyneth Paltrow was influential in promoting clean and natural beauty through her recommendations. She has since started her own beauty, wellness, and fashion lines: Goop Beauty, Goop Wellness, and G. Label; and very recently, an affordable skincare brand at Target called Good.clean.goop.


Are we, Filipino consumers, catching up and realizing that the ingredients in our products matter – and not just in efficacy, but also in how they affect our overall well-being and that of our planet? Are we willing to pay a little bit more for sustainable alternatives? Are we ready to educate ourselves and make more informed choices instead of just blindly following trends? Are we ready to prop up our own brands instead of always choosing imported ones? Are we ready to say no to plastic? Are we ready to think beyond “me” and “now” and choose for the greater good? Ultimately, are we ready to redefine what gives pleasure to our senses and our mind? 

I think we are. 

About the author

Alex Gentry is Cofounder and Chief Innovator at Pure Culture, the Philippines’ first certified toxin-free high-performance skincare line. Learn more here.

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