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What comes to mind when you think of “clean” beauty?
Perhaps they are strictly plant-based ingredients; o Eco-conscious companies that prioritize sustainability; or “free from” labels that promise to contain no sulfates, parabens, or phthalates; or women in flowing dresses and flower crowns spinning in a field of tall grass.
Therein lies the problem: There is no real definition of “clean” when it comes to cosmetics, and according to experts, it has primarily become a term used in marketing parlance to sell products. Essentially, no one is regulating the claim to be clean.
What is “clean” beauty?
“The market wants to move based on what the consumer wants, not necessarily what the science shows, because ultimately everyone wants to make a sale,” said Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist at New York City. “That has driven everything in skin care. So clean beauty means nothing. If you have to give it a definition, it means removing anything that people might be worried about.”
When it comes to ingredients to avoid in cosmetics, Nazarian said there are two different routes to dictating that. “You can go black and white science or you can play with the hype. And when you go to science in black and white, none of it makes sense. Everything is safe. That’s why it’s still out there.”
These days, people seem to have developed a fear of the idea of chemicals in general, which cosmetic scientist Jennifer Novakovich believes has fueled the “clean” movement along with basic science illiteracy. That’s why she founded The ecological wella platform dedicated to making accurate scientific information about cosmetics available to everyone.
The chemophobic mindset is unfortunate because everything is a chemical, according to Novakovich, and “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safer. For example, poison ivy and arsenic are found in nature, but it’s commonly known that you don’t want to come into contact with either.
“The idea that using things from agriculture is better is problematic,” Novakovich said. “Some ingredients can be obtained naturally, but we choose to make them synthetically for economic and sustainability reasons.”
He used vitamin C as an example. The amount of plant materials he would need to use to make vitamin C would not only be economically taxing, she explained, but also enormously destructive to the environment.
The high degree of variability when it comes to naturally-derived ingredients presents another challenge, as does the fact that they typically don’t undergo the same safety testing as synthetic ingredients.
“We should apply the same standards that we apply to synthetic ingredients to natural ones. [ones]but very few companies do it,” Novakovich said.
Misinformation around ingredients
Three of the main ingredients I tend to see mentioned in “free from” claims include parabens, sulfates, and phthalates, which all fall under the umbrella of synthetic preservatives. And the “clean beauty” message tells us that preservatives equals toxic and bad.
But effective preservatives actually prevent something dangerous: “The biggest public health risk from products is microbial contamination,” Novakovich said. “People can actually die, people have died, from improperly preserved products.”
It is possible that some of these ingredients could cause irritation, because each person’s skin is different. No matter what you’re using, it’s not a bad idea to test a product on a small area of your skin to make sure you don’t react badly. However, preservatives are necessary in skin care products and are well tolerated by most people.
In fact, parabens won the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s “Contact Non-Allergen of the Year” award in 2019, meaning they’re one of the less allergenic preservatives available.
Rigorous research has also been conducted to assess its purported link to breast cancer, and Novakovich said the body of evidence overwhelmingly supports safety in that regard as well.
“At this point, there are probably like a thousand studies that have concluded that we have no evidence that parabens cause breast cancer or are significantly estrogenic,” she said. “They can be minutely estrogenic, but so are a lot of things. Much of what we eat is drastically more estrogenic.”
Chemists also like parabens because a little goes a long way, so you don’t have to use as much for them to serve their purpose.
When it comes to phthalates, Novakovich said that while some are a concern, they’re simply not relevant to cosmetics. Dimethyl phthalate was removed completely due to the fact that if you ingest too much it can temporarily disrupt your hormones, so diethyl phthalate, which has been shown to be safe, is the only one used in any product.
He added that phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment and that the highest concentrations are found in food packaging and dust, not cosmetics. That makes it pretty hard to say there’s zero phthalates in any product, but applying something topically shouldn’t cause significant exposure.
Bacterial growth, on the other hand, can pose a danger to the user. Nazarian pointed out that naturally-derived preservatives don’t offer the same storage stability as synthetic preservatives like parabens, sulfates and phthalates, meaning the risk of bacterial growth is increased in products that don’t use them.
“That’s what I find to be the most ironic part of all of this,” Nazarian said, referring to “clean” beauty marketing that touts the exclusion of these ingredients. “You’re trying to do something that’s supposed to be safer even though there was no evidence to really say it wasn’t safe, really, and now you’re causing more problems and contact dermatitis and allergic reactions because there’s so much in the nature that the body cannot handle.”
He went on to explain that nothing in nature can mimic skin itself, so he sees it as a luxury that companies can create something that can safely repair their own skin and keep it strong and healthy.
“That’s not a bad thing,” said Nazarian. “That’s good. And if you’re using something like that and you don’t have any irritation and your skin really tolerates it well, why would you throw it away just because it’s not considered clean?
What to consider when choosing your skin care
So if not all synthetic chemicals or preservatives are bad, what should people avoid in their cosmetics?
“I like to follow the irritation profile, because I can’t say that using any of these so-called natural or clean things can actually lower the risk of developing something bad,” Nazarian said. “But I can tell you that a lot of them are related to irritation.”