The Truth Behind “Clean Beauty”?
I still remember it – that one day my co-worker and I went skincare shopping during lunch hour.
She said to me “Don’t buy that thing! I heard that it’s full of chemicals”. I won’t lie, it stopped me dead in my track for a good 5 seconds. I stared into space like I was looking at an invisible camera – embodying Jim Halpert from “The Office”.
What? What did you just say?
She must not have sensed my incredulity, because next, she said “Get this one instead. It’s from blah blah blah [brand] and it’s chemical-free. It’s clean beauty” and handed me a jar of moisturizer.
Still couldn’t believe my ears, I turned the jar around, only to meet with…
…a list of ingredients. And by a “list”, I really mean a LONG list. And by “long”, I mean loooonnnnggggggg. Like 20 – 30 ingredients long. In fact, I’ve said the word “long” for so long that at this point the word “long” has long started to sound like an alien language.
Still, it grabbed my attention: Clean beauty. What exactly is that?
Well, let’s talk about it today.
- What is clean beauty?
- Organic vs. vegan vs. natural vs. clean – are there any differences?
- So why might people prefer “clean beauty”?
- But is there any basis behind it?
- Are natural products actually safer and more effective to use?
- How is it an issue?
- Clean beauty – a marketing machine?
- Other common concerns with “natural” or “clean” beauty
- Final words
1. What is clean beauty?
Generally, clean beauty refers to cosmetic products that are thoughtful and safe. And usually, clean beauty is created with green, natural, and plant-based ingredients.
There are no official regulations to define “clean beauty”, so this section of the industry is pretty much self-regulatory. And so, different skincare brands can have their own definition of what clean beauty means to them
For example, for skincare retailer Credo Beauty, their definition of “clean beauty” involves being transparent about the safety, sourcing, ethics, and sustainability of ingredients. In facts, they prohibit over 2,700 ingredients in the products they choose to sell.
Another example is the skincare brand Drunk Elephant. They have a list of what they call the “Suspicious Six”, which are six ingredients they choose not to formulate their products with, as they believe those ingredients to be harmful to skin health.
However (another, however), the choices to exclude certain ingredients are a huge gray area. These choices may be based on actual scientific studies, the brand’s own methods of research, or just a preference.
2. Organic vs. vegan vs. natural vs. clean – are there any differences?
To put it simply, organic, vegan, and natural products are considered clean. But clean doesn’t necessarily mean organic, vegan, and natural?
Confused? Don’t be.
Here’s what it means.
- Organic beauty – cosmetic products that are formulated with organically farmed ingredients. these ingredients are grown without the use of GMO, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and more.
- Vegan beauty – cosmetic products that are formulated without any animal-based ingredients. and of course, they are also not tested on animals.
- Natural beauty – cosmetic products that are formulated with ingredients derived from nature, such as herbs, roots, flowers, essential oils, beeswax, honey, milk, and more.
Aside from these three big categories, there are also several more factors that associate with the “clean beauty” label. Think plant-derived, cruelty-free, eco-friendly, and sustainably sourced. It sounds like a lot, but basically, they all revolve under the “clean beauty” umbrella.
They all have one common conception:
They prefer green and natural ingredients, as they believe they are safer.
And that’s where they differ from “clean beauty” just a little bit.
The cosmetic industry has evolved so much, and with it also comes a lot of synthetic, man-made ingredients that are considered safe. And brands that subscribe to the clean beauty concept aren’t shy from using these types of ingredients.
3. So why might people prefer “clean beauty”?
To put it simply,
people are afraid of chemicals.
And it’s easy to see why. Nowadays, it’s common to come across statements such as:
- “This or that ingredient is toxic and can cause cancer”
- “You shouldn’t use that product. It’s full of chemicals. Only use chemical-free products”
- “Natural products are better”
Overall, we can see the general idea of these kinds of messages are: Natural is safe, healthy, non-toxic, and chemical is bad, unnatural, toxic, dangerous.
And consumer reports reflect that. The FIT Transparency Perception Assessment Survey survey found that “90% of consumers believed that natural or naturally-derived beauty ingredients were better for them.”
In another report in 2017 by The NPD Group, they found that “40-50% [of women in the U.S] actively seek natural or organic ingredients in their products, and those free of ingredients including fragrances, parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and gluten”.
This shows that there’s a shift in consumer demands, and people are becoming more selective about the types of products they choose to put on their skin.
4. But is there any basis behind it?
Here’s the thing:
Everything is chemical.
- The air we breathe contains nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and other gases
- The water we drink is made up of hydrogen and oxygen
- Even our human body is an extremely complex machine made up of many, many chemicals: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium…
So yes, nature is chemicals – and often times, natural things can contain lots and lots of chemicals. Almost everything in nature is a huge mixture of many chemicals. And these chemicals, depend on many factors, may or may not be toxic to the human body.
That’s also another thing:
Chemicals are not inherently good or bad.
Any chemical has the potential to be toxic. It depends on five different factors: 1) How that chemical enters the body 2) the amount of that chemical entering the body 3) the toxicity level of that chemical 4) how our body naturally removes that chemical 5) and some other biological factors like age or sex.
To demonstrate, here are several cases where the line between “medicine” and “poison” is blurred:
- Aconitine is a deadly toxin from the Aconitum plant, but it’s also used as a heart stimulant
- Cobra venom can kill you within 30 minutes, but it can also treat strokes & high blood pressure
- Even with water, if you drink 6 litres of it all at once, it can also cause water poisoning
So, while it might be tempting to classify an ingredient as “good or bad”, “toxic or non-toxic”, it’s best to understand that reality is not so black and white. What matters most is to educate ourselves about the ingredients in our products and understand how they work within a cosmetic framework.
5. Are natural products actually safer and more effective to use?
Where something comes from doesn’t tell you much about how safe or effective it is.
Let’s talk about Vaseline for example. Most of us have a jar or two lying around the house. It’s super useful. Put it on your lips. Put it on your elbows. Your knees. Your feet. It’s nonallergenic. It’s cheap. And it’s generally safe to use pretty much anywhere on the body, and it does a good job too.
As useful as it is, do you know what it’s made of?
Petroleum jelly – which is a byproduct of petroleum (aka. fossil fuel).
Now, the idea of rubbing crude oil on yourselves may seem like a terrible idea, but not all that bad. Scientists have become really good at separating mixtures found in nature. For example, they were able to separate all the petrol chemicals out of petroleum jelly, making it completely safe to use topically.
This goes both ways, with natural products and synthetic.
Just because a brand decides to take extract an ingredient from a plant, doesn’t mean that would do us much good. Some natural ingredients, like aloe vera, could be very good to use. But other natural ingredients might not be as good. For example, essential oils from plants can give you some horrible reactions when misused. And you wouldn’t rub poison ivy all over yourself, would you?
And vice versa, just because a product is made with ingredients in a lab, doesn’t make it bad.
6. How is it an issue?
It doesn’t have to be an issue.
After all, companies could choose to include whatever ingredients they feel best to represent their values and beliefs. And if their preference happens to lean towards certain ingredients, while straying away from certain ingredients, then that’s absolutely fine.
However, it does become a problem if it turns into “greenwashing”.
What’s “greenwashing”, you ask?
It’s when a brand pushes an agenda towards a “green” product benefits, such as environmental, health, or wellbeing benefit. This agenda makes the product and the brand appear like the healthy or better alternative – while that isn’t necessarily true, and in some cases, just straight up misleading.
- A brand may try to label a product as “chemical-free”, or that they contain “no nasties”. As we all know, everything is chemical. And chemicals can be safe or unsafe, depends on how we approach them.
- They may say something like “60% of products applied to the skin is absorbed into the bloodstream. So only use natural products”. This is another myth. How much a product gets absorbed depends on many factors, such as the molecular size of the ingredient, whether it’s oil-based or water-based, and the absorption rate also varies depending on the area of your skin.
- Or they may even say something like “preservatives are bad. Our products don’t contain any preservatives”. Again, another myth. Our products can easily become spoiled due to bacteria, yeasts, molds, and undesirable chemical changes. So most products need broad-spectrum preservatives to prevent them from becoming harmful.
At the end of the day, a brand can create their own definitions and pass them off as facts. And this could become dangerous if unaware customers buy into this agenda, and fail to educate themselves.
7. Clean beauty – a marketing machine?
Again, there’s nothing wrong with brands deciding to include and exclude certain ingredients, as long as their reasoning is backed up by actual science.
The problem occurs when certain brands employ fearmongering marketing tactics to mislead consumers – which is what the clean beauty movement seems to have become. Nowadays, clean beauty is starting to become synonymous with misinformation.
This marketing sells the ideal of “clean” as virtuous.
Think about it, what’s the opposite of “clean”?
Dirty? Impure? Unclean?
Whatever it is, it’s framing anything other than “clean” as the worse and unhealthy alternative.
This effectively creates an “us vs. them” mentality – trying to make you feel good for being the “smart” ones who stand above the ignorant masses with their chemicals-filled serums and preservatives-full moisturizers. It implies that you’re a better person based on what you choose to put on your body.
Just from the name alone, it’s a shifty way to create brand loyalty.
8. Other common concerns with “natural” or “clean” beauty
So aside from the misinformation and the fearmongering – which is the biggest issue here – clean beauty products are pretty safe to use right?
As long as the products are formulated properly – with ingredients that are scientifically proven to be helpful and effective, then there’s absolutely no problem.
But that isn’t always the case.
There are brands that, in their effort to be greener and cleaner, have formulated products with natural-based ingredients that actually have a negative effect on skin health instead.
- Essential oils – There are brands who use essential oils instead of synthetic fragrance. Some examples include tea tree oil, lavender oil, and citrus oil. They smell nice, and they are natural, so they are better right? Well, not necessarily. While it’s true that essential oils can have certain benefits such as anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, they also have the potential to irritate your skin if misused. And in many cases, consumers can develop serious contact allergy to products containing certain essential oils.
- Preservatives – Most of the shelf-life of organic or plant-based ingredients is about three months. The reason? Some brands prefer not to use traditional preservatives (which I’m sure reflects what consumers believe) and go for the natural alternatives instead. As mentioned, we do need broad-spectrum preservatives to prevent products from becoming spoiled. And these natural preservatives aren’t as effective as traditional preservatives in that regards.
And that’s not all.
Clean and green beauty doesn’t mean they are more environmentally sustainable. Natural ingredients can require huge amounts of plant materials to create.
When something is grown, lots of natural resources like land, water, as well as a workforce must be dedicated to care and acquire them. This can have negative impacts on the resources, environment, and geopolitics of a region.
9. Final words
At the end of the day, are natural ingredients bad?
No, absolutely not!
Our planet is extraordinary. The Earth’s biological diversity is immense and magnificent. It’s magical to say the least. And harvesting the power of nature is how we were able to come up with so many scientific advancements.
After all, science is the language we use to understand nature.
And that’s a great thing for the skincare industry.
Product formulations are becoming more and more refined. We have arrived at a point where we can utilize green biotechnology to create ingredients that mimic natural components.
This is exciting because we can be intentional about creating real, meaningful change in people’s skin. And biotechnology is reliable in the way that we have control over its efficacy and sustainability.
There’s so much power in harnessing both science and nature in skincare – which I believe is the direction that the skincare industry should head towards.
Instead of fearmongering and capitalizing on misinformation, brands should put efforts into educating consumers about the science behind skincare and the reasoning behind their product formulations. That requires transparency.
And perhaps one day, we’d no longer have a divide between “clean beauty” and “conventional beauty”, and instead we’d just have “beauty”.
- There are no official regulations to define “clean beauty”, so this section of the industry is pretty much self-regulatory.
- “Clean beauty” brands prefer green and naturally derived ingredients, as they believe they are safer and healthier.
- People prefer “clean beauty” because they’re afraid of chemicals. They associate chemicals with things that are toxic and impure.
- Everything is chemicals. And chemicals are not inherently good or bad.
- Naturally-derived ingredients aren’t actually safer than synthetic ingredients. Where something comes from doesn’t tell you much about how safe or effective it is.
- Natural products aren’t a problem, but “greenwashing” is.
- “Clean beauty” is a marketing machine. It frames anything other than “clean” as the worse and unhealthy alternative.
- “Clean” or “natural” ingredients, like essential oils or natural preservatives, might compromise skin health. Also, they are environmentally unsustainable.
- Science is the language we use to understand nature. And biotechnology is the way for the skincare industry to evolve and become better.
Essential Oils, Part IV: Contact Allergy: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27427818/
Cosmeceutical Contact Dermatitis – Cautions To Herbals: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40521-015-0066-9
Herbivore’s Moldy Face Cream Recall at Sephora Underscores an Ugly Issue for Natural Beauty:https://www.fastcompany.com/90334490/herbivores-moldy-face-cream-recall-at-sephora-underscores-an-ugly-issue-for-natural-beauty
Lethal Dose of Water, Caffeine, and Alcohol: https://www.compoundchem.com/2014/07/27/lethaldoses/
Natural Does Not Mean Safe: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/2751513
Natural vs. Chemical – Which is Better? https://labmuffin.com/natural-vs-chemical-which-is-better/
Positive Patch-Test Reactions to Essential Oils in Consecutive Patients From North America and Central Europe: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28614106/
Sins of Greenwashing: https://www.ul.com/insights/sins-greenwashing
Transitioning to Transparency: http://www.fitnyc.edu/documents/transitioning-to-transperancy.pdf
What Makes Chemicals Poisonous: https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/poisonou.html
Women Are Gravitating Towards More Natural Ingredients: https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2017/for-nearly-half-of-us-women-using-facial-skincare-products-ingredients-determine-their-purchases/