The truth behind clean beauty: Why marketing does not equal fact
In the past few years, along with the world's exponentially growing interest in skincare and beauty as a general, there's been an overwhelming surge in the demand for clean, 'non-toxic' products that promise to be a one-stop solution for all your problems... amongst an array of other non-descript and widely-optimistic claims. These so-called "clean" beauty brands will say things like "it's made from organically sourced, 100 per cent natural ingredients!", or "it's free of toxins" without ever going into specifics or actually defining the parameters of what it means to be 'clean' (we'll get back to this).
Now, it should be clear that none of these qualities are particularly bad things to look out for in your products—they just don't actually mean anything. Effectively, these empty claims are a vehicle for fearmongering and misinformation to spread within the beauty community. So many of the key pillars of clean beauty are rooted in misinformation, with the key voices of the movement inciting fear over common (and necessary) cosmetic ingredients to push products.
Think about how many times you've been told that synthetic ingredients and preservatives are 'toxic', or how many times you've been told that the non-descript 'chemicals' in your common products cause cancer. Worse yet, think about how it's widely believed that essential oils are a cure-all for your ailments, despite many being proven irritants to the skin. All of these narratives have been proven false time and time again, yet the movement continues to grow more and more. Well, we have a better name for it now—the anti-science movement.
Jen Novakovich, better known as The Eco Well on her social media, explains this sentiment best: "There’s a growing anti-science sentiment [within the clean beauty community]. This celebration of ignorance is easy to spot when it’s on the other side of the political spectrum (think anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, chem-trailers and flat-earthers). [However], it’s harder to spot when it seems to fit in with our preconceived ideals, and especially difficult when it’s tied up in [the] industry's marketing.
"'Clean' beauty is a perfect storm of this celebration of ignorance, exploiting mistrust in the industry, while trying to convince consumers that buying ‘conventional’ products is the cause behind all of their ailments and that the only cure is to buy clean products. This denigrating marketing strategy trains people not to trust science, encourages conspiratorial thinking around regulations, and it betrays trust across the whole industry.
"Instead of listening to relevant scientific expertise, we’re seeking out fringe viewpoints to support biases. If you go and look at the no-no lists of ‘clean’ standards, you’ll see a trend. If it’s ‘natural’, it gets an automatic pass. If it’s commonly fear-mongered, regardless if there’s robust data to support safe use, [it's] not allowed. Here, cherry-picking data and science-washing is the name of the game.
"Instead of looking at the body of evidence, they’ll find that one obscure study to support their notion (a red flag for pseudoscience) and they’ll forget that basic toxicology principle—the dose makes the poison. Anything can be a hazard—even water if you drink enough—but it’s how a substance is used that presents the risk."
So, what does this actually mean?
At its core, the clean beauty philosophy that people tend to take issue with is typically perpetuated by anti-sciencers and conspiracists who follow a general marketing formula:
1. Pushing the "natural is always better, and 'chemicals' are evil" narrative
This is one of the most common philosophies you'll find perpetuated in the clean beauty industry, and unfortunately, it's not always the case. The idea that natural is better stems from the misguided belief that because it comes "from the earth", it must be "healthier" and "safer" than a synthetic ingredient made by scientists in a lab. Now, here's why this isn't always the case:
Firstly, an ingredient being 'natural' tells us nothing about its safety, longevity, or efficacy in a formulation. Further, with regards to the demonisation of chemicals in cosmetics, here's a newsflash: The reality is that whether the ingredients in your products are synthetic or naturally made, your cosmetics are composed of chemicals... because everything is a chemical.
Take lemon juice, for example. It's a common ingredient in DIY beauty home remedies rich in common skincare actives (AKA, chemicals) like vitamin C, citric acid (an AHA), and niacinamide. As such, it is heralded as a great skin whitener, exfoliant, and hair bleach (does this raise any red flags? It should). DIY enthusiasts are encouraged to blend lemon with everything from honey to turmeric to create anything from face masks to chemical peels. The issue? Lemon has a pH of 2, which makes it highly acidic. As a result, using it on the skin (or—do forbid—the genital area as some have been advised to) can actually damage your skin's acid mantle, leading to irritation, hyperpigmentation, and even chemical burns with sun exposure.
This isn't to say that natural ingredients are automatically unreliable—there are many brands who have successfully harnessed the powers of natural ingredients (including lemon) while optimising their safety and efficacy, and it all comes down to the way that they are formulated. However, this is achieved through the use of certain processing techniques, the addition of preservatives and stabilisers, and a hefty helping of emulsifiers to get the texture right. In other words, it takes the work of a cosmetic chemist tinkering with your natural ingredients to get them formula-ready.
On that note, it's also important to acknowledge that an ingredient being natural tells us nothing about how they were sourced and whether its use is actually ethical and sustainable (or "green", as the clean movement would brand it). How were these natural ingredients sourced? Can the supply chain be traced all the way back to the start? How were they processed? What was the environmental impact? These are the questions that often go unanswered from companies that tout the 'natural' and 'green' image.
2. Any ingredients that are labelled "toxic" by the EWG should be avoided at all costs
If you're not familiar with the EWG, allow us to introduce you: The Environmental Working Group is an American ingredients database that supposedly specialises in the research and advocacy for "safer", "non-toxic" consumer products. While that sounds great in theory, do keep in mind that Gwyneth Paltrow uses it to determine whether products are safe or not. Yeah... no thanks.
The database supposedly lets you know where the ingredients in your products stand on the safe-to-toxic scale. However, what they don't mention is that their database is pretty chemophobic—in addition to misreading studies entirely, those behind the EWG database don't seem to have a basic grasp of toxicology (something you'd expect from an organisation that claims to be an authority on consumer safety).
While most toxicologists would agree that low enough exposure renders the risk of most hazardous substances negligible (summed up by the nifty equation: risk = hazard x exposure), the EWG would have you believe that even the slightest concentration of a no-no substance means that the whole product will kill you. That is, of course, unless they're getting "donations".
You heard that right: Whether a product is labelled "toxic" on the site or not—regardless of whether it is formulated with supposedly "toxic" ingredients—seems to come down entirely to whether they're an EWG donor. Needless to say, you probably shouldn't be taking advice or shopping guidance from them.
Further reading: Here is a great, comprehensive resource that covers most of the issues with the EWG, if you're interested!
Is clean beauty inherently bad?
Well, it depends. These days, pretty much any brand can call themselves 'clean' and still technically be telling the truth—because there isn't a set definition for being clean. In fact, a lot of brands have hopped on the clean marketing bandwagon to capitalise on the trend (not a bad thing, per se—that's just business), because pretty much anything can be spun with the right PR team behind it. That said, having a brand hop on the clean trend doesn't automatically make them untrustworthy, nor does it mean their products are automatically terrible; it just makes them great at business.
Take, for instance, a brand like REN Clean Skincare, whose marketing team is really doing... the most. That said, though the marketing can, at times, feel far-fetched and gimmicky, the brand has a pretty strong product lineup that actually delivers great results. Further, brands like Briogeo that pride themselves on their 6-free, 97 per cent natural formulations also boast the same marketing tactics. Despite this, their products perform as marketed, and upon the brand's launch, it was a ground-breaker for inclusivity in the hair care industry. However, the natural ingredients list and the 6-free philosophy isn't what makes the products good, it's the way that the ingredients are formulated in the product.
You can rightfully argue that encouraging deceitful, clean- and green-washing marketing isn't ethical. However, if a brand can clearly define what 'clean' means to them, and back it up with products that work, misleading marketing may be forgivable. The case where such marketing is not forgivable is when it becomes dangerous. For instance, when brands make unsubstantiated and ridiculous claims that their night creams can "realign your hormonal axis" and "cure your depression" (cough—GOOP—cough). That's why it's important to learn how to filter out the nonsense.
How can you actually spot clean- and green-washing?
The best course of action is to get educated and read up. Now, we know not everyone has the time to sit and pore through research papers, so instead, follow some of our favourite cosmetic chemists, estheticians, and experts to get digestible, bite-sized nuggets of skincare education!
A science educator, skincare enthusiast, and content creator with a PhD in Chemistry (specialising in specialising in medicinal and supramolecular chemistry).
A cosmetic scientist and formulator with a graduate degree in Formulation Chemistry.
Esther Olu, The Melanin Chemist
A cosmetic chemist and formulator who moonlights as a science and cosmetics educator on social media.
A YouTuber and content creator who doesn't have any formal education in skincare chemistry, but still creates educational and informative videos on skincare.
A YouTuber and content creator who creates educational and informative videos on skincare.
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