Is Ingredient Traceability the Next Step for Clean Beauty? We Investigate

It's important to know how ingredients are sourced, harvested, and produced.

skincare product

Lisa DeSousa for Byrdie

Do you know where your favorite cleanser comes from? What if your moisturizer was packed with an ingredient produced in horrendous labor conditions? Is your conditioner negatively impacting a deteriorating natural habitat? Think about it. How would you even find that out?

Deemed to be the more sustainable and environmentally friendly option, the clean beauty movement prides itself on listing all the items that are not in their products. But have you ever stopped to investigate what is in your skincare products? Tracing where beauty ingredients are sourced, harvested, and produced is the next phase of the clean beauty revolution and one of the answers to a greener planet. 

What is Ingredient Traceability? 

"Clean" beauty products are those made without ingredients known or suspected to harm human health. Think silicone, parabens, and sodium chloride. However, clean beauty products become problematic through ingredient sourcing linked to ecological harm or unethical practices. Not knowing how ingredients are grown, harvested, processed, treated, or exported could potentially be the difference between owning a sustainable product and owning a beauty product that causes harm.

"[Ingredient traceability is a] basic tool companies can use to make sure they know who they’re buying from, what policies and procedures they have in place, and a way to share that information transparently with consumers," founder and CEO of Sourcemap Inc Dr. Leonardo Bonanni tells us, "Without traceability, it’s impossible to know how ingredients impact people or the environment." In other words, ingredient traceability is about full disclosure. 

Without traceability, it’s impossible to know how ingredients impact people or the environment.

It’s important to note traceability does not make sourcing 100% sustainable. "Transparency is so important for accountability," founder and CEO of Apottera Dominique Caron states, "It makes sure you have as much information as possible to make sure you are sourcing sustainably. It also allows others to hold you accountable when you make mistakes."

What Factors Go Into Ingredient Traceability? 

Not only should brands be sharing the names and addresses of their direct and indirect suppliers, but they should also be crafting stories to give consumers accurate insights. According to Dr. Bonanni, brands can share "how the supply chain reflects their unique priorities and projects they’ve undertaken to positively impact the communities that help manufacture the products they buy."

Brands like Apoterra—which has integrated total transparency since its 2012 inception—are making it even easier for customers to access their sourcing data. Apoterra has a batch number system in which every batch of skincare products is labeled with a unique batch number that you can find on their website to show product ingredients. "We provide the date of production, body of certification, the Latin name of botanicals, country of origin, and other information when possible such as how an oil was processed if it is certified GMO-free, etc.," Caron shares.

In addition to sharing each step of the supply chain, brands who are transparent about their traceability will also tell you what they need to improve on. For Nia Baucke, founder of Flora Lee Naturals, this is exactly how she conducts her business. "Brand transparency is an ongoing learning process filled with people like me, who are researching and learning how to do better in terms of traceability and sustainability," she says. "Sharing what the brand is doing well (for us, it’s our oil certifications, recyclable glass bottles, and limited secondary packaging) and what needs to be improved (like the packaging materials we use to ship wholesale orders) is part of being transparent."

Sharing what the brand is doing well and what needs to be improved is part of being transparent.

Is Traceability The Next Step For Clean Beauty?

Our experts all agree: Trust is a brand’s most valuable asset. "When it comes to sustainability, the best way to build trust is to be transparent," Dr. Bonanni says. "That’s how consumers can be sure that your standards are reflected throughout your supply chain and in every product you sell."

Caron says that for brands to achieve full transparency, distributors and manufacturers have to pitch in. "Distributors and manufacturers will have to share more information about each ingredient and help make that information more readily accessible so that brands can more easily integrate this information into their product listings and packaging," she says.

What Can You Do As a Consumer? 

While brands can strive for total transparency and traceability, we must train ourselves to ask the hard questions as consumers. When researching products, think about the following: Where do they manufacture? Do they share exactly what’s in every product? Is it hard to access information?

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