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What comes to mind when you think of “clean” beauty?
Maybe it’s strictly plant-based ingredients; or eco-conscious companies that prioritize sustainability; or “free-from” labels promising no sulfates, parabens, or phthalates; or women in flowy dresses and flower crowns twirling 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 language to sell products. Essentially, nobody is regulating the claim to be clean.
What is “clean” beauty?
“The market will 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 in New York City. “That has driven everything in skincare. So clean beauty means nothing. If you have to give it a definition, it means take away anything that people might be worried about.”
When it comes to the ingredients you should actually avoid in cosmetics, Nazarian said there are two different routes to dictate that. “You can either go black-and-white science or you can play into the hype. And when you go black-and-white science, none of it makes sense. It’s all safe. That’s why it’s still out there.”
These days, people seem to have developed a fear of the idea of chemicals altogether, which cosmetic scientist Jennifer Novakovich believes has fueled the “clean” movement along with basic science illiteracy. That’s why she founded The Eco-Well, a platform dedicated to making accurate scientific information regarding cosmetics available to everyone.
The chemophobic mindset is unfortunate because everything is a chemical, according to Novakovich, and “natural” also doesn’t mean safer. For instance, poison ivy and arsenic are both found in nature, but it’s commonly known that you do not want to come into contact with either.
“The idea that using things from agriculture is better is problematic,” Novakovich said. “Some ingredients you can get naturally, but we choose to make them synthetically for economic and sustainability reasons.”
She used vitamin C as an example. The amount of plant materials you would need to use to produce vitamin C would be not only economically draining, she explained, but also hugely 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 generally do not undergo the same safety testing as synthetic ingredients.
“We should be applying the same standards that we apply to synthetic ingredients to natural [ones], but very few companies do it,” Novakovich said.
The 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 “clean beauty” messaging tells us that preservatives equate to toxic and bad.
But effective preservatives actually prevent something dangerous: “The greatest public health risk for products is microbial contamination,” Novakovich said. “People can actually die — people have died — from improperly preserved products.”
It is possible that any of these ingredients can cause irritation, because everyone’s skin is different. No matter what you’re using, it’s not a bad idea to patch-test a product on a small area of your skin to make sure you don’t react poorly. However, preservatives are necessary in skincare products, and most people tolerate them just fine.
In fact, parabens won the “contact non-allergen of the year” award from the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2019, meaning that they’re one of the least allergenic preservatives available.
There has also been rigorous research to evaluate their supposed link to breast cancer, and Novakovich said that the body of evidence overwhelmingly supports safety in that regard as well.
“At this point, there’s probably like a thousand studies that have come to the conclusion that we don’t have evidence that parabens cause breast cancer or are meaningfully estrogenic,” she said. “They might be minutely estrogenic, but so are a lot of things. So much of what we eat is drastically more estrogenic.”
Chemists also like parabens because a little goes a long way, so you don’t need 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 just not relevant to cosmetics. Dimethyl phthalate has been completely phased out based on the fact that if you ingest a lot of it, it can temporarily disrupt your hormones, so diethyl phthalate — which has been shown to be safe — is the only one being used in any products.
She added that phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment, with the highest concentrations being found in food packaging and dust, not cosmetics. That makes it fairly difficult to say there are zero phthalates in any product, but applying something topically should not cause significant exposure.
Bacterial growth, on the other hand, can pose a danger to the user. Nazarian pointed out that naturally derived preservatives do not offer the same shelf stability as synthetic preservatives like parabens, sulfates, and phthalates — meaning the risk of bacterial growth goes up for 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 the “clean” beauty marketing touting 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, truly, and now you’re causing more problems and contact dermatitis and allergic reactions because there are a lot of things in nature that the body cannot handle.”
She went on to explain that nothing in nature can mimic the skin itself, so she sees it as a luxury that companies are able to create something that can safely repair your own skin and keep it strong and healthy.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Nazarian said. “That’s a good thing. And if you’re using something like that and you don’t have irritation and your skin actually tolerates it well, why would you throw it out just because it’s not deemed clean?”
What to consider in choosing your skincare
So if not all chemicals or synthetic preservatives are bad, what should people avoid in their cosmetics?
“I like to go by irritation profile, because I can’t say that using any of those things they’re calling natural or clean may actually decrease your risk of developing anything bad,” Nazarian said. “But I can tell you a lot of them are linked to irritation.”