Clean beauty: what was once something you’d only hear about in a Goop newsletter is now considered the next frontier in the cosmetics industry.
Put simply, a “clean” beauty product is one formulated without ingredients such as sulphates (SLS/SLES), parabens, mineral oil, phthalates, essential oils, synthetic fragrances and chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone. These ingredients have been blacklisted by clean beauty enthusiasts for causing everything from skin irritation to hormone disruption.
It has never been easier to switch out your mainstream products to less “toxic” alternatives, with entire brands and stores dedicated to hawking clean products and even beauty superstore Sephora developing a “clean” category on their website.
But before you rush to your vanity to purge your entire makeup collection, is there any real health benefits to switching to a cleaner beauty regime, or is it all just a case of clever marketing?
I spoke with Michelle Wong, chemistry PhD and beauty blogger at the helm of Lab Muffin Beauty Science, to clear up some myths about this latest trend.
Myth: the term “clean beauty” is regulated with a set definition and covers a specific list of blacklisted ingredients.
FALSE – the terms clean, green, non-toxic etc. are not regulated at all by the cosmetics industry and ingredients that are considered ‘harmful’ can vary greatly between brands. “’Clean’ usually means that a product is ‘free from’ ingredients that the brand has deemed to be harmful, either to their health or the environment,” explains Wong. “The problem is that every ingredient has a safe level, and every ingredient is harmful when used in excess, so there aren’t really any brands that have a scientifically accurate definition of ‘clean’.”
For example, both Drunk Elephant and Cover FX are considered “clean” brands at Sephora, but a number of Cover FX products contain silicones; an ingredient group categorised as one of the “suspicious 6” in Drunk Elephant’s product philosophy.
Myth: certain ingredients like parabens and oxybenzone can affect our hormonal systems.
TRUE (sort of) – “Oxybenzone is a sunscreen ingredient that has the strongest hormonal effect found in sunscreen ingredients so far, but it still isn’t a very strong effect at all,” says Wong. In fact, a 2011 study found that you would essentially need to apply a sunscreen with high amounts of oxybenzone over 100 per cent of your body every day for about 35 years for it to have any noticeable effect on your hormones.
As for the widely-avoided parabens, their negative side effects are also considerably blown out of proportion, according to Wong. “Parabens are actually very safe preservative that haven’t been associated with breast cancer, as has been widely publicised,” she says. “Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone are two preservatives that are commonly irritating that have been introduced into more cosmetics as the safer parabens have been removed due to fearmongering.”
As far as internal disruptions go overall, Wong suggests that there is little to worry about with topical beauty products. “Skin is a good barrier, so very little of what we apply actually enters our bodies in a high enough concentration to have any effect. In general, unless you’re allergic to a specific ingredient, there isn’t much reason to avoid it.”
Myth: natural products are safer to use than those containing synthetic chemicals.
FALSE – Natural products are commonly found in the clean beauty realm and are considered to be healthier alternatives to products with chemical-laden, hard-to-read ingredients lists. According to Wong, this is perhaps one of the most misleading marketing myths in the cosmetics industry.
“Everything in nature is made of chemicals. Synthetic substances are not automatically less safe than natural ingredients, and in fact this is often the opposite of reality. The most toxic chemicals in the world are natural, and many natural ingredients in beauty and skincare are irritating.
“Natural ingredients are also more likely to go off and become contaminated. Most natural substances can also be synthesised, which means it’ll have exactly the same effect even though it comes from a different source.”
Myth: online databases are a reliable source for the average consumer to learn more about ingredients in their cosmetic products.
FALSE, mostly – A common source used by clean beauty enthusiasts to vet products and ingredients is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. On this site, products are given a rating from 1 to 10 based on the “toxicity” of their ingredients, with 10 being the most hazardous. Despite the site’s popularity, it is associated with a fair amount of controversy. “It isn’t very reliable,” says Wong. “The EWG is a lobby group that profits from scaremongering with their certification system, are highly funded by the organic industry, and they’ve been criticised by scientists and dermatologists in the past.”
There are some resources available to the general public providing more trustworthy, scientifically-valid information; Wong recommends the Paula’s Choice ingredient dictionary and The Eco Well as well as her blog and YouTube channel, but points out that they aren’t comprehensive.
Although there is no harm in becoming more educated, Wong contends that it’s easy for the average consumer to be misled, and that we can generally trust the scientists formulating the products and the regulatory bodies that test them.
“I think the greater awareness is good, but I think there’s also a lot of people who think they understand complex toxicology without having studied basic science.”
So – is making the switch to clean beauty worth it?
Well, it won’t hurt you to try, but it’s not going to dramatically change your life or improve your health
either. While cleaner products are often likely to also be cruelty-free and vegan, there aren’t too many other benefits to making the switch.
And if you ask Wong whether she thinks it’s worth replacing your normal products with clean ones: “No, unless you have an aversion to having money”.