If you walk into any department store, Sephora, or Ulta there is no doubt you will see beauty product for sale marketed as “no nasties,” “chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” and “clean.” In fact, Sephora has an entire “Clean at Sephora” section on their website and in stores (more on that later).
But what exactly does “clean” really mean? The jury is still out on that one. “Within ‘clean beauty’ there are many, many different elements,” Sarah Meadows, the head buyer at the beauty chain Space NK, recently told The Guardian. “Whether it is about sustainability, whether it is vegan, conscious living, free-from… playing into any of those would make you a clean brand. It can be fairly confusing for the customer.”
Do we really need to “clean up” our skincare routine? Is there any scientific evidence that shows the products we’re using may be harmful? Or are these companies just using scare tactics to sell products? Let’s take a look.
What Exactly is Clean Beauty?
The definition of “clean” is pretty fluid and varies from brand-to-brand. Some use it to mean their products are “natural” and “organic” while others (like Drunk Elephant) use it to mean that their products are free from things like parabens, sulfates, added dyes, fragrance, etc. The clearest definition of “Clean Beauty” that I have come across is from Sephora. They have a Clean at Sephora section on their website where they highlight products that are formulated without the following:
Sulfates – SLS + SLES
Undisclosed Synthetic Fragrances (synthetic fragrances allowed providing they meet all of the above criteria AND certify they comply with the brand’s Clean Fragrance criteria, which is “In skincare, makeup, and hair products only, synthetic fragrances allowable at concentrations below 1% of total formula,” and “clean fragrance brands must also be cruelty-free and without the following: PTFE/PFOA, Styrene, Polyacrylamide / acrylamide, Acetaldehyde, Acetonitrile, Methylene chloride, Animal fats, oils, and musks, Benzalkonium chloride, Toluene, Resorcinol, Acetone, Butoxyethanol, Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, Methyl cellosolve, Methylisothiazolinone / methylchloroisothiazolinone, Mercury and mercury compounds (thimerosal), and Bisphenol A (BPA).”
Acrylates (specific to ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, methyl methacrylate, butyl methacrylate, hydroxypropyl methacrylate, tetrahydrofurfuryl methacrylate, trimethylolpropane trimethacrylate)
Benzophenone + Related Compounds
Methyl Cellosolve + Methoxyethanol
Methylchloroisothiazolinone & Methylisothiazolinone
Mercury + Mercury Compounds (Thimerisol)
Insoluble Plastic Microbeads (which applies to rinse off products only)
Talc (Asbestos free talc is okay. Brands need to conduct testing to ensure no contamination.)
BHA/BHT (BHT threshold is 0.1%)
Nanoparticles as defined by EU
Petrolatum & Parrafin (All USP grade is okay)
Phenoxyethanol (under 1% is ok)
Polyacrylamide & Acrylamide
Styrene (specific to Bromostyrene, Deastyrene/acrylates/
dvbcopolymer, sodium styrene/divinylbenzene copolymer, styrene oxide, styrene
1, 4 Dioxane (brands required to test final formulas and need to comply with specific thresholds)
So how does that differ from “Green” beauty products? “‘Clean’ beauty includes non-toxic and non-controversial products that are proven safe and effective,” cosmetic chemist Ginger King explains to PopSugar. “It does not have to be 100 percent ‘green,’ as green may not be efficacious. Consumers have been greenwashed so bad that they think as long as it’s natural, it’s good for you. That is not necessarily the case. Synthetic materials can be good [in products] as long as they are proven safe — having gone through various testing — and do not harm people, animals, or the environment.”
Clean Beauty and Green Beauty are different, however, the “clean” label has become kind of a catchall term.
Does Clean Beauty Actually Make a Difference?
As King mentioned earlier, many consumers believe that “natural always means safer,” which is not the case. Some natural ingredients aren’t supposed to be used regularly. Take, for example, the all-natural ingredient chamomile, which is widely believed to be soothing for the skin. Repeated exposure to chamomile may induce a very irritating rash resulting from a ragweed allergy. Several other “natural” ingredients, such as arnica montana (also known as wolf’s bane) used to treat bruises, may also induce detrimental effects with repeated exposure. There is no research to date demonstrating that all-natural skincare products are always better or safer, while there is substantial research indicating that some natural ingredients are harmful and certain chemical ingredients – retinol, niacinamide, vitamins C & E, and chemical sunscreens, to name a few – have proven long-term benefits for the skin.
Another trend in Clean Beauty is to formulate products without parabens. There is a rumor that parabens are linked to cancer. This comes from a study in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, where researchers made the claim that parabens can bind to estrogen receptors in MCF-7 breast cancer cells. The study suggested that parabens, like those found in skincare, increased the growth of breast cancer cells and were actually found within the cells themselves. But the study came to its conclusions slathering participants in thousands of times the number of parabens a normal person would be exposed to by their everyday skincare routine. Another study subjected fish to ingesting between 100 mg/kg and 300 mg/kg doses of parabens, which resulted in an increase in estrogenic gene expression. The only catch is, that amounts to about 15,000 mg of parabens in the average American woman, which is far more than any cosmetic or combination of cosmetics regularly used could supply.
The FDA released its stance on paraben use in a statement in 2007. The statement described the primary types of parabens used in cosmetics (methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben) and decreed them safe. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review concluded that parabens were acceptable at levels up to 25 percent, and when the statement was published, the average cosmetic product contained 0.01 percent to 0.03 percent. They cited a study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology that concluded that, based on a person using a typical daily amount of cosmetics containing parabens, it was implausible that they could have the estrogenic effect associated with the breast cancer studies. An independent report concluded that parabens rarely cause allergic reactions as well. The study, published in 2000, concludes that it’s because of their efficacy in combating fungus and bacteria in products that parabens are still the number one preservative in use. Another study, specifically regarding propyl paraben, states that there is no risk of accumulation of the paraben through absorption in the gastrointestinal tract or the skin. It’s relatively non-toxic, although the study does point out that it can be slightly irritating to the skin.
So why are clean beauty products always labeled as being “paraben-free?” Tiffany Masterson, the founder of clean beauty brand Drunk Elephant, told the Guardian, “I don’t think they are bad for you…(but) consumers don’t want them.”
You don’t have to toss out your favorite products just because they aren’t “clean.” While there is no harm in investing in clean beauty products if that is something you are interested in, I also don’t believe that they are totally necessary.