The problem with clean beauty

What is clean beauty? It seems like a simple question but the answer is anything but. You see, clean beauty is not legally defined by a regulatory body. Clean Beauty is whatever brands want it to be (or not be in many cases). If you’ve shopped for beauty products in the past 10 years or so you would have noticed a rise of this beauty category. Products labelled as clean, non-toxic, no-nasties, free-from and natural went from lurking in health food stores to being front and centre at mainstream retailers quicker than you could say “pseudoscientific fear-mongering”.

The problem for me with clean beauty is the marketing. Formulations and products aside, it’s the misinformation and manipulation that I find difficult to stomach. There are many brands that choose not to formulate with certain ingredients behind the scenes, but they also choose a different path for marketing their brands. A path that focuses on results and efficacy or the brand’s point of difference.  Others, however, rely on clean beauty as their main selling point and to do that requires them to employ some unethical marketing methods.

I have no judgement if you choose to buy from clean beauty brands. I use some products from brands that subtly label themselves as clean because I enjoy the efficacy of the products – not the clean claims. I’d like this post to be an educational one, so that you can be more informed when faced with anti-scientific claims and made to feel guilty for putting “chemicals” on your face (p.s. everything is a chemical, heard of H2O?). Let’s get into some of the reason why I think clean beauty can be problematic.

My experience with clean beauty.

It was around the beginning of my first pregnancy that this idea of clean beauty got into my head. I can’t quite recall how it all started but I do remember being convinced that all of my beauty products were going to harm me and my unborn child. I was in protective mother-to-be mode and very swiftly I started tossing out all of my products. I wiped the slate clean and began re-building my skincare and makeup collection. In retrospect, the products that I was replacing my “toxic” makeup and skincare with were very underwhelming but I kept going. Motivated by a need to control everything that I put in and on my body. Not only was throwing out perfectly usable products unnecessary but it was completely unsustainable from a financial and environmental perspective.

It wasn’t until I started my blog and Instagram page that I became more aware of just how problematic clean beauty marketing can be. That’s the great thing about getting out of your bubble. You starve your  unconscious bias and open your mind to other ideas. I’m happy to say that I came out the other end of the clean beauty vortex in one piece. I have to thank a few people for that and I encourage you to follow them if you are interested in a scientific perspective on the beauty industry.

Michelle Wong of Lab Muffin Beauty Science

Hannah English

Jen from The Eco Well

Sam By The Counter

Tony from Capricorneum Skin

Kind Of Stephen

What is clean beauty?

Like I said in the introduction, there is no single definition of clean beauty.  Look at any clean brands’ website and you will find their own flavour of it. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Our makeup should be free from toxic chemicals, but we also want it to work and look good.

“We’re a clean brand, but our focus is on what goes into our formulas — not the 2,000 ingredients we leave out. We rely on clean active ingredients that deliver visible skincare benefits.”

“We are PFA-free and ban over 2,700 ingredients. We also adhere to the EU, Sephora and Credo clean standards, and formulate without Parabens, phthalates, sulphates, talc, formaldehyde, BHA/BHT, PPG, PEGS, Phenoxyethanol, Petrolatum, Aluminium, Undisclosed “Fragrance”, Dimethicone, Cyclic Silicones.

“We learned early on that not every natural ingredient is good for the skin, nor is every synthetic bad. Clean beauty is where those two collide—with conscious, carefully-selected ingredients, and no compromises.”

“We have been setting the standard for clean ingredients since 2009. In the world of today, clean beauty isn’t all the same. Our living ingredients set us apart, bringing the energy of raw, food grade, organic, wildcrafted and natural ingredients to your skin, in as close to their fresh-picked state as possible.”

I think I’ve made my point here. Nobody actually knows what “clean” is. Is it natural, certified organic, synthetic, raw or a mix of both? Even without a clear definition, clean beauty marketing has a way of getting into our heads and causing a number of thoughts and reactions that eventually lead us to buy, buy, buy. Which, let’s face it, is the end goal.

Safety doubts and fear-mongering.

One of the main ways that clean beauty or natural brands market to their audience is by selling to them the notion that certain ingredients, especially synthetic ones, are unsafe. This fear-mongering is further boosted by lobby groups such as the Environmental Working Group and large retailers like Sephora and Credo who seem to dictate to the industry what is safe and what isn’t. Let me get straight to the point here. The only people who should be dictating what is safe are toxicologists, chemists and other qualified scientists. Unfortunately, these lobby groups and retailers have a loud voice and huge databases of misinformation that brands often reference as evidence. These databases rely on weak scientific information to support their claims that, e.g. parabens are endocrine disruptors or that aluminium in deodorant is linked to breast cancer (neither are).

Have you heard the saying “the dose makes the poison”? I think this is a really important term to remember when confronted with this sort of misinformation. Let’s take Arsenic for example. Arsenic can kill, but in a small and controlled dose it treats a particular type of Leukaemia. So the next time you see a brand telling you that an ingredient is toxic, remember – the dose makes the poison.

Social media also fuels the fire of misinformation. I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen a brand post the statement “60 per cent of your skincare is absorbed into your bloodstream“. Do we fill up with water when we sit in a bath for 20 minutes? No, thank heavens our skin is not a sponge. Sadly, myths like this one can spread like wildfire and brands latch on to them without fact-checking. Shock marketing and fear sells.

Oh, the irony.

Now that we’ve talked about safety as being one of the main selling points, let’s talk about the irony of all of this. Some of the same ingredients that are demonised by the clean beauty industry are those that keep formulations stable and keep us and our skin safe. Some skincare brands that follow the clean beauty credo substitute synthetic preservatives with natural or less researched ones, or just exclude preservatives altogether. That’s a red flag. In an attempt to create what they believe are safer formulations, they’ve created something else – a habitat for mould and bacteria. It’s comical and horrifying at the same time. Not all clean beauty brands do this but it certainly makes me approach them with caution and check the ingredients list very carefully. You do not want to be going rogue when it comes to preservatives!

The cost of clean beauty.

Aside from the fear-mongering and demonising perfectly safe ingredients, clean beauty is problematic on a societal level too. For many people, clean beauty is unattainable. Much like the clean eating movement, this kind of lifestyle tends to empty your pockets pretty quickly. If we look at a product like foundation we know that mainstream beauty brands like Maybelline and L’Oreal are quite affordable, accessible and are even regularly discounted.  They’re usually easy to find in chemists and supermarkets and they offer a good spectrum of shades (although Australian supermarkets really need to get their act together and stock full shade ranges).

Comparatively, much of the big players in clean beauty price their products towards the luxury end of the scale. Kosas and ILIA’s foundations retail for around AUD$81, rms beauty’s is $AUD78 and Westman Atelier’s is AUD$100. Australian brands Ere Perez have a foundation for AUD$50 and INIKA for AUD$62.50 but they only come in 8 shades. So it begs the question, if these brand claim that their products are safe and mainstream products are toxic, why should only the affluent be afforded safety? Doesn’t everyone’s health and safety matter?

And to top it off, with the aforementioned preservative issues shortening product shelf life we’re expected to pay more for something that is going to turn into a Petri dish in a few months? No, thank you.

Clean beauty is not inclusive.

Picture this. A clean beauty brand is preaching that their products are “safe” and “non-toxic”, but they price them so that they’re out of reach for the average consumer. Not only that, but they don’t actually make the products in shades that suit your skin tone. It’s time to introduce another term to this clean beauty chat and that is – systemic racism. If you’ve been following me on Instagram for a while you will know that I sometimes call out brands that have non-inclusive shade ranges and more often than not these are brands that also identify as clean. I am yet to come across a clean beauty brand that truly caters to a variety of skin tones. Whilst mainstream beauty brands can also be exclusive in that sense, clean beauty brands are usually young brands that have had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of heritage brands and, you know, read the room.

When faced with this criticism most indie brands offer a few standard responses such as “we’re a small brand and don’t have the budget to offer a wider shade range” or “we’re working on expanding the shade range”.  Sometimes they follow through with these promises and sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s irrelevant because clean beauty should not be excluding whole groups of people because of their skin colour. That is the very definition of systemic racism.

If it’s not clean is it dirty?

When something is labeled as clean and non-toxic is it signifying that other things are dirty and toxic? Guilt and shame are emotions that can easily be stirred up when confronted by this idea that what we’re buying and consuming is in some way unclean. Similar to clean eating, clean beauty sets standards that are nearly impossible to achieve. Just like with any pursuit of perfection, striving for absolute purity can become an unhealthy obsession. We’re bound to fail and then feel guilty for it and clean beauty marketing really feeds off of that.

The future of clean beauty.

Clean beauty isn’t going away. Why? Because at the end of the day, consumers are asking for it and brands are meeting that demand. Clean beauty sells and is expected to grow from $5.4 billion in 2020 to $11.6 billion by 2027. Whilst I think this sort of growth is hard to get in the way of, I do think that brands have a responsibility to market their products in an ethical way. I would love to see new brands challenge the status quo and put the clean speak aside.

We are already seeing some brands step back from their previous hard-lined approach to clean beauty. Some are even sharing posts that clarify that everything is a chemical, or they’re re-defining their idea of clean beauty as being more than just about ingredients. It’s becoming about sustainability and inclusivity too. It’s quite interesting to see brands ease up on their clean speak so as to keep up with the rise of cosmetic science influencers. This group of influencers is educating, debunking myths, holding brands to account and I’m all here for it. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that pseudo-science can have serious impacts on public health.

If you’ve made it this far, I want to thank you for reading and I hope it this post gave you something to think about.

– Sanida

Feature image photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash.