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What comes to mind when you think of “clean” beauty?
Maybe these are strictly plant-based ingredients; or environmentally conscious companies that prioritize sustainability; or “free” labels promising the absence of sulfates, parabens, or phthalates; or women in flowing dresses and wreaths of flowers twirling in a field of tall grass.
Herein lies the problem – there is no real definition of ‘clean’ when it comes to cosmetics and, according to experts, it has mostly become a term used in marketing parlance to sell products. Essentially, no one regulates claiming to be clean.
What is “clean” beauty?
“The market will evolve based on what the consumer wants, not necessarily what the science shows, because ultimately everyone wants to make a sale,” said Dr. Rachel Nazarian, board-certified dermatologist in New York. “It drove everything in skincare, so pure 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 you should actually avoid in cosmetics, Nazarian said there are two different avenues to dictate this. “You can either do black and white science or play in the hype. And when you’re doing science in black and white, none of that makes sense. Everything is safe. That’s why he’s still there.
These days, people seem to have developed a total fear of the idea of chemicals, which cosmetic scientist Jennifer Novakovich says has fueled the “clean” movement as well as basic science illiteracy. This is why she founded The eco-wella platform dedicated to making accurate scientific information on cosmetics accessible to everyone.
The chemophobic mindset is unfortunate because everything is a chemical, according to Novakovich, and “natural” doesn’t mean safer either. For example, poison ivy and arsenic are both found in nature, but it’s well known that you don’t want to come into contact with either.
“The idea that using agricultural products is better is problematic,” Novakovich said. “Some ingredients can be obtained naturally, but we choose to manufacture them synthetically for economic and sustainability reasons.”
She used vitamin C as an example. The amount of plant material you would need to use to produce vitamin C would not only be economically draining, she explained, but also extremely destructive to the environment.
The high degree of variability in 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 apply the same standards that we apply to synthetic ingredients to natural ingredients. [ones]but very few companies do,” Novakovich said.
Misinformation around ingredients
Three of the main ingredients that I tend to see mentioned in “free” claims include parabens, sulfates, and phthalates, all of which fall into the category of synthetic preservatives. And “clean beauty” messages tell us that preservatives are synonymous with 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 stored produce.”
It’s possible for any of these ingredients to cause irritation because everyone’s skin is different. No matter what you use, 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 skincare products, and most people tolerate them very well.
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.
There has also been rigorous research to assess their supposed link to breast cancer, and Novakovich said the body of evidence overwhelmingly supports safety in this regard as well.
“At this point, there are probably a thousand studies that have come to the conclusion 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 significantly more estrogenic.
Chemists also like parabens because a little is enough, so you don’t need to use that much for them to do their job.
As for phthalates, Novakovich said that while some are of concern, they’re just not relevant to cosmetics. Dimethyl phthalate has been completely phased out due to 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 used in all products.
She added that phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment, with the highest concentrations found in food packaging and dust, not cosmetics. So it’s pretty hard to say there’s no phthalate in any product, but applying something topically shouldn’t result in significant exposure.
Bacterial growth, on the other hand, can pose a hazard to the user. Nazarian pointed out that naturally occurring preservatives don’t offer the same shelf stability as synthetic preservatives like parabens, sulfates and phthalates, which means the risk of bacterial growth increases for products that don’t use them. not.
“That’s what I find to be the most ironic part of it all,” Nazarian said, referring to “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, really, and now you’re causing more problems and contact dermatitis and allergic reactions because there are many things in nature that the body cannot handle.
She went on to explain that nothing in nature can mimic the skin itself, so she considers it a luxury that companies can 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 use something like that and you don’t have irritation and your skin tolerates it well, why are you just throwing it away because it’s not deemed clean ?”
What to consider when choosing your skincare
So, while not all synthetic chemicals or preservatives are bad, what should people avoid in their cosmetics?
“I like to base it on the irritation profile because I can’t say that using any of these things they call natural or clean can actually decrease your risk of developing something bad,” Nazarian said. “But I can tell you that a lot of them are related to irritation.”