Unpacking the complicated world of clean beauty

Photo credit: Agata Pospieszynska
Photo credit: Agata Pospieszynska

More than a zeitgeisty buzzword, ‘clean’ beauty has become a bedrock of the industry – and as its prevalence continues to grow, so does the inevitable backlash. Fuelled by the uncensored platform that social media provides, experts from both sides of the beauty fence are weighing in on skincare’s most resilient movement.

Those on the ‘science-first’ side have been coming after the ‘clean’ club for some time, but now feels like the feverish height of the conversation – just look at the furore surrounding Gwyneth’s outrageously Goopy viral video, in which the clean-beauty stalwart advised using your sunscreen solely “as a highlighter”. Dermatologists across the globe were, predictably, outraged, and the video has become a poster boy for the ‘anti-clean’ cause, touted by some as proof that ‘clean’ beauty has become ‘anti-science’.

Now, it’s the most outspoken industry figures that are gaining traction, as consumers become tired of the confusion and seek sensible, measured answers to their questions. The likes of Paula’s Choice founder Paula Begoun, cosmetic scientist Michelle Wong, science podcaster The Eco Well and, of course, Caroline Hirons, have all made dispelling skincare misinformation a full-time job, gaining follower counts to rival an A-lister in the process.

But while these industry players may be urging us to skip the pseudoscience, retailers are still banking on our collective desire for ‘clean’, with many recently launching dedicated clean beauty sections. You have to consider the authenticity of such a move: if the other brands stocked by a retailer are really ‘toxic,’ then how, in good conscience, are they continuing to sell them?

What is clean beauty?

On the surface, clean beauty is attractive: it signals morality, health, cleanliness, sustainability and, somehow, safety.

Some brands use ‘clean’ in reference to their all-natural ingredient lists, whereas others use it to describe a preservative-free stance. Others consider ‘clean’ a sustainability issue, while many tag it onto products that are vaguely yet dramatically marketed as ‘toxin-free’ (more on that later).

Scratch the surface of ‘clean’ and it soon becomes obvious that the word is merely a marketing term with no set definition or certification. It’s the beauty equivalent of ‘clean eating’, and comes with the same problematic associations: that a burger is ‘dirty’, and so is your long-loved face cream.

But condemning clean beauty outright isn’t all that helpful: no one single approach to skincare is all-encompassing, and terms can often be subjective. Shaming someone for choosing clean over medical, or vice versa, achieves little. (It’s also important to consider that 'cosmeceutical' and 'hypoallergenic' are equally undefinable terms.) It’s a complicated discussion, with several valid viewpoints to consider: I personally enjoy products from self-certified ‘clean’ brands, stacking Tata Harper’s natural face masks next to my dermatologist-prescribed Treclin.

So, what’s really behind the social-media takedown of clean beauty? The problem arises when brands use the concept of ‘clean’ to sell through fear: seeing ‘toxin-free’ plastered on a new mascara likely makes you side-eye your current wand, as if it were laden with lead. (It isn’t.)

Michelle Wong, the chemistry PhD graduate and science educator behind the Lab Muffin blog, has long been pushing the idea that clean beauty simply doesn’t make sense. However, she agrees that ‘clean’ products aren’t necessarily bad, or ineffective: rather, the crux of the issue is the fearmongering, and the perpetuation of the myth that man-made ingredients are suspicious, whereas natural ones get an automatic safety pass.

“It's the misleading marketing that's a problem,” she says. “They're making people believe there's a benefit to their products that doesn't exist, and often charging people more for it. It gives them an unfair and unethical marketing advantage.”

The origins of distrust

It’s important to note that the clean movement took hold with particular vigour in the United States, and to acknowledge that it largely began with good intentions. In comparison to the UK and the EU, the United States has a much lower safety standard for personal-care ingredients: EU law currently bans more than 1300 chemicals from cosmetics for safety reasons, while in the US the total is just 11.

However, these statistics are often used by beauty brands to infer that US-made cosmetics are pumped full of ingredients that are, on other continents, illegal. Such actions are fuelling an almost conspiratorial way of thinking: you can choose to buy clean, or take the toxins.

It also creates the perfect environment for pseudoscience to thrive; recent ideas sparking controversy on social media include the myth that ‘60 per cent of your skincare is absorbed into your bloodstream’ and the thought that the sulphates in your shampoo are akin to poison.

The nasties

Those at the most extreme end of the 'clean' spectrum want you to know that there are some key ‘nasties’ or ‘toxins’ you must avoid in your toiletries and beauty products - and of course the only way to be sure of avoiding them is to buy their ‘toxin-free’ brands.

Take phthalates, for example. This group of chemicals are used as lubricating agents in products such as nail varnish and hairspray. Some are considered, via extensive scientific research, to be safe and harmless to the human body, whereas others are not. The phthalates that didn’t pass safety tests are banned on both sides of the pond, so there is no risk of them appearing in your skincare (unless you bought it in a back alley). To quote the perfectly to-the-point Caroline Hirons, “Saying that they are not included in your line is redundant and akin to saying, ‘there is no cocaine in our eyeshadow’.”

Preservative-free is another clean buzzword – but in fact, all products that contain water require help in preventing bacteria growth. A product that doesn’t contain preservatives might, at best, become unstable or ineffective within weeks. At worst, the bacterial growth inside it may make it unsafe for the skin. We may not want preservatives in our food, but do you use up a face serum as quickly as you do a bag of apples?

“Preservatives are important for preventing microbial contamination of products,” confirms Wong. “Beauty products have lots of ingredients that can act as food for bacteria and fungi, so you can imagine how quickly they'd grow in your room-temperature product without preservatives! Some of these can lead to very nasty infections, and preservatives prevent these,” says Wong.

Parabens are perhaps the most commonly vilified form of preservative, but as Wong explains, a lot of the fear surrounding the parabens used in beauty products is unsubstantiated.

“Parabens are potent preservatives that are effective at very low concentrations, and they've been very commonly used for a long time. Because of this, there's been a lot of research on their effects. Due to a very sensationalised but not very well-designed study, there's been a lot of talk about them being linked to breast cancer. However, when looking at all the evidence we have about them overall, they're very safe as used within the recommended guidelines for cosmetics.”

Wong explains that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the removal of parabens, but rather in the lack of appropriate substitutes. “The big problem with avoiding them is that they're being replaced by newer preservatives, which have a lot less data on them. This means there's a lot less information on their harms, which makes them appear safer, but this is mostly because they haven't been researched as well,” she says.

Sulfates have also long been vilified in the clean community. This group of surfactants are widely used in the cosmetics industry, in everything from shampoo to foaming cleansers, and indeed can cause skin irritation in certain strengths and formulations. However, “they have a reputation for being harsh, but when they're combined with other ingredients like non-ionic surfactants, they can be very mild on skin,” explains Wong.

And of course, it’s important to consider the ultimate clean faux-pas: “chemical-free.” All together now: water is a chemical.

The dose makes the poison

One issue with ascribing ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ credentials to an ingredient is that dosage is often not considered. Half a century ago, Swiss physician and chemist Paracelsus expressed the basic principle of toxicology: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Simply put, an ingredient such as a paraben may indeed be dangerous in excessive amounts, but not at the levels present in your face cream. Your morning coffee is equally dangerous, if you amp up your intake to 27 cups a day.

“The amount of an ingredient we get is very important when it comes to the effect it has on our bodies. Things that are harmful in high amounts are usually fine if you get a small enough amount. We can actually see this happening with active ingredients too: applying 0.001 per cent glycolic acid probably isn't going to do anything, but 90 per cent will likely burn your face off,” says Wong, who also raises the issue of misinterpreting scientific studies.

“Clean beauty says that products are ‘dirty’ if they contain ingredients that have been linked to harm in scientific studies, but these studies usually aren't relevant to what happens when we use a beauty product on our skin.” she explains. “It doesn't take into account our exposure – how much we're getting, how we're getting it – which is very important to the impact the ingredient has on our health. For example, injecting a cup of something is very different from rubbing half a drop on our skin. A lot of the studies are also done on animals or in vitro, which is very different to applying it on our skin.”

So, while the beauty industry may want you to pick a side, doing so likely has little benefit to you, the consumer. Ultimately, diving too deep down the social-media rabbit hole, worrying too much about whether your face cream is predisposed to harm you, is likely to create stress. And we all know what stress does to the skin…

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