We all want what’s best for us, but is clean beauty really the answer to harmless cosmetics?
As women, we have been obsessed with improving our looks by using cosmetics for hundreds of years. Therefore, although more sophisticated, modern cosmetic products still give the same old promises, including “radiance, illumination, brightening, perfecting, age-defying,” etc.
In many ways, they are no different from the beauty products that have stepped on the scene before them, except that they all claim to be somehow morally better, environmentally safer, and, of course, cleaner.
Enter the era of “clean beauty” – one that promises a “chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” and “natural” skincare regimen while trying to divide beauty products into good and bad, clean and dirty, toxic and nontoxic.
But do we really need to clean up the products we use on our faces? Do we really need to avoid certain ingredients out of fear they will accumulate in our bodies and lead to deadly diseases such as cancer?
Or is this simply a new way for beauty companies to guilt-trip us into buying their products while simultaneously convincing us it’s the right thing to do?
Let’s find out…
“Clean Beauty” Can Mean Anything, But Most Often it Means Nothing
Clean beauty is one of those concepts that everyone seems to understand, but no one can really agree on an exact definition because there are always some more questions that need to be answered.
This is why the term “clean beauty” can mean anything, but most often, it means nothing.
Within “clean beauty,” there are many different elements that are important for consumers at different scales. For some, it’s about sustainability, whether the product they are buying is vegan, cruelty-free, conscious living, etc.
For others, it can be about “green” or “natural” ingredients that are supposed to be less irritating and safer for the skin and overall health.
And because “clean beauty” doesn’t have a set definition, brands have recognized a way to use it as a marketing phrase to make the consumer believe their products will be better and safer for the environment and their health.
Basically, it gives the consumer peace of mind with a message that says, “as long as you buy our products, you are a good human being.”
And, of course, everyone wants to be a good human being and not some monster that’s going to destroy the environment in order to slow down the visible signs of aging for a couple more years.
However, the ideas presented within this movement are often so detached from reality that it’s pretty easy to spot upon a bit more analysis.
Products Labeled as “Clean” Aren’t Safer For You
The reality is, it’s illegal to sell unsafe products that contain potentially dangerous ingredients. And while regulations around the world tend to differ slightly, in the developed world, this law remains constant.
This is why ingredients must be rigorously tested for safety before being used in cosmetics and sent off to the store shelves.
For potentially problematic ingredients, aggregate exposure at maximal consumer usage is taken into account when regulatory limits are set.
For example, a consumer may use a certain amount of product throughout the day, which means the potential for an accumulation of a said problematic ingredient between different products used is measured, and it is ensured that the limits are set far below the percentage required for a potential toxicological effect.
Besides that, before launching the finished products onto the market, manufacturers must also take steps to substantiate safety through testing for stability, heat resistance, patch testing, etc.
No matter how you label the finished product, this is something that every cosmetic brand has to do in order to create products that are safe for use.
This means products labeled as “clean” are not necessarily safer for you than products that don’t slap this claim on their packaging. The only difference is that these brands have different marketing tactics.
Cosmetic Ingredients Aren’t “Dirty” or “Clean”
When you look at “clean standards” in various cosmetic retailers such as Sephora or Ulta and ingredient-debunking websites/apps such as EWG SkinDeep Database, Think Dirty, etc., – you will notice a trend.
If the chemical sounds scary and hard to pronounce or has already been fear-mongered for whatever reason, instead of looking at the body of evidence, these platforms (and retailers) will seek out obscure, often dated studies to support their claims.
For example, they will say that parabens are endocrine-disruptors or cancer-causing chemicals when in a trial study, the ingredient they demonize was ingested by or injected in rats, which led to this result.
But we neither ingest nor inject our cosmetics into our bodies, which is why it doesn’t make sense to be so scared of things that don’t even have enough data behind them to support this fear or the data presented by various “clean” websites is often cherry-picked to support some sort of agenda.
And lastly, the “clean” trend is not only not supported by data but is fairly inconsistent depending on which brand you are buying from.
Some brands such as Tata Harper and Holland & Barrett put an emphasis on the ingredients all being “natural,” while Drunk Elephant, a US brand, warns consumers of the “suspicious six,” a handful of ingredients it claims are at the root of almost all skin complaints.
The brand even went as far as to sell limited-edition kits with magnifying glasses so customers can identify these “harmful” chemicals in rival products they may already have at home.
But that’s not even what bothers me most but how one of the “suspicious six” ingredients are silicones when silicones are, for a fact, one of the safest ingredients used in cosmetic products and are extremely good at preventing trans-epidermal water loss and skin dehydration.
The Dose Makes The Poison
“Natural” ingredients will also often get a pass no matter the relevant safety data or allergenic potential. To add, “clean beauty” proponents often ignore the basic toxicology principle that the dose makes the poison.
When you think about it, anything can be a toxicant when used at a certain level or in a certain way.
As a most basic example, let’s not forget that we need water to live, but you can also drown in it.
It’s the way the substance is used that will present the risk.
For example, your risk for drowning will be pretty low when you’re drinking a cup of water. The same thing goes and is generally ignored by these standards for cosmetic product formulations.
Let’s take parabens as an example one more time.
Parabens are useful preservatives that are notoriously found on lots of dirty lists and are demonized by almost every “clean beauty” brand or blog out there.
These people don’t seem to understand that there are lots of different parabens, and these all have different hazards and risks.
But most clean beauty lists just lump them all together. Some of them talk about them separately… and then lump them together anyway.
And lastly, don’t forget that most of these websites, apps, and lists were not put together by scientists, professionals, and toxicologists.
More often than not, they don’t even cite any relevant studies to back up what they’re saying.
DIYs Aren’t Much Better Either
DIYs are the epitome of “clean beauty,” with many people believing that using homemade cosmetic products made from fruits, vegetables, and spices is somehow better for the skin because they’ve made it themselves.
However, doing this is not only ineffective and wasteful, but it can also be potentially dangerous too.
Using things like lemons, turmeric, apple cider vinegar, cucumbers, and avocadoes won’t work because these things are intended to go in your stomach, not on your skin.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants that are good for the skin; however, the skin won’t absorb these antioxidants if you apply the fruits directly on it.
The skin is not your stomach, it doesn’t have the same pH as your stomach, and it is an organ that has evolved to keep things out, not let them in, which is why you will be much better off eating the fruit instead of wasting it as a face mask.
Besides that, your stomach has a low pH that can tolerate lemons and apple cider vinegar, while the low pH of this fruit and salad dressing can easily burn your skin and perhaps even leave a permanent scar.
Using olive oil, for example, may soften the skin and make it appear hydrated and plump, but if you are prone to acne, you must know that olive oil will likely clog your pores and exacerbate your acne issue.
Which truly brings home the point that just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean that it absolutely must work better.
Helpful Websites to Research Cosmetic Ingredients
To clarify, I have nothing against websites that decode cosmetic ingredients, and in fact, I often use them myself when I am stuck on an ingredient I don’t truly understand.
However, it’s important to have multiple sources of information and be willing to do your own research before demonizing, hating, or being scared of your cosmetics.
Once you’ve gathered enough information on a single ingredient, it is entirely up to you to decide whether you want to avoid it or not, but don’t let fear from lack of understanding decide for you.
Or even worse, don’t fall prey to companies that are trying to scare or guilt-trip you into buying their products.
If you landed on this article, you are probably someone who is trying to make a difference in your health and the environment by being more selective with the cosmetic products you spend your money on and the causes you want to support.
However, as of right now, “clean beauty” appears to be an unregulated term that gives cosmetic companies an opportunity to greenwash their products and potentially exploit consumers that just want to do good in the world.
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.
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