Clean Beauty Buzz


Have you caught the clean beauty buzz? Maybe you've seen a segment on a morning talk show talking about clean beauty. Or you have a friend who recently went clean and she's trying to convince you to toss out your lipstick because it's totally full of lead or parabens or something. And you're thinking, what am I doing wrong now? I just got the 8 step K Beauty double cleansing, snail extract routine down to thirty minutes. What now? It's enough to give you chin zits just thinking about learning a new beauty trend. But before you tune out just yet, consider learning what the latest beauty buzz is all about and why it's more than just a fad. 

Just as the food industry has confused the hell out of us, so too have the cosmetic and personal care industries. Buzzwords are tossed around like dollars at a strip club, and there we are sweeping them all up hoping for a golden ticket that will solve all of our body issues. Words like anti-aging, sulfate-free, paraben-free, free radical damage (this would make a great punk band name, btw), natural, organic, made by fairies (just kidding on that one), cosmeceuticals, and now clean, are all over the internet, talk shows, and magazines. Remember the good old days when we just had to choose between hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic? By the way, those are bs buzzwords too with absolutely no regulation or real science behind them. 

I get why these buzzwords are used. I use them, too. It's pretty hard to not use the words clean, natural, or organic when you're trying to convince people to buy clean, natural, and organic products. The problem is these words don't have any regulated meaning. They are just marketing words. Sort of like that scene in Elf where Buddy thinks he's found "the world's best cup of coffee," when it's actually just a crappy cup of diner coffee. As long as a company is not making any health or healing claims (like cures eczema), it can write pretty much anything on a package including the words natural, organic, or hypoallergenic. These words combined with suggestive packaging (also a great band name) can be really misleading for well-meaning shoppers. 

Case in point: On a recent (read weekly) trip to Target, I was stopped in my tracks by the cutest, rainbow-striped box in the beauty aisle. I had to check it out. When I read the front of the package, my pulse quickened. It was a fragrance made only from "pure essential oils." In Target! Finally, a natural fragrance I can get 10 minutes from my house instead of online, where, last I checked you cannot scratch and sniff to see if you like a fragrance before buying it. Being a good conscious consumer, I flipped over the package excited to read what blend of essential oils was listed. Lavender? Clary Sage? Please tell me it's Ylang Ylang. But no. Nada. Not a single essential oil was listed. The only ingredients listed were alcohol and fragrance. Waaaah. Waaaah. Waaaaaaahhh. 

Misleading practices like these, called greenwashing - also a buzzword- have paved the way for yet another marketing term. Because, you know, you can never have too many buzzwords when it comes to personal care products. Clean beauty, is the latest beauty buzz swallowing up the natural and organic trend - Why? There are a few reasons. One is Gwyneth Paltrow. I guess introducing the world to the concept of conscious uncoupling wasn't enough. The overachiever had to go and disrupt the beauty industry, too. She and her Goop empire have convinced some of us that spending $125 on an exfoliator is a totally normal thing to do. Other leaders in the industry include Gregg Renfrew, founder of Beautycounter, a direct sales company aiming to make safer beauty mainstream and a growing-by-the-second list of companies and specialty retailers (like this one).

So what exactly is clean beauty and why does it matter? Clean beauty is more of a movement than a trend. The movement is largely in response to the loosely regulated world of personal care products. By world, I really mean the United States. Europe has stricter standards and testing requirements for personal care products. The E.U. has banned more than 1,500 ingredients or restricted their use in personal care products, while the United States has banned 30. Apparently, we save our regulations for things like getting a permit to have a bonfire on the beach and homeowner associations meetings. Oversight for cosmetics in the U.S. falls under the FDA and occasionally the EPA if it affects the environment. More on this later, but let's just say fish don't really need our sunscreen clouding up their habitat. 

Excerpt from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) on how cosmetics are regulated.
The law doesn’t require cosmetic products or ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market, and it doesn’t require cosmetic firms to share their safety data with the agency. Cosmetics must be properly labeled and safe when used according to their directions or when used in the customary or expected way.
FDA monitors the safety of cosmetics on the market, and we can take action against cosmetics that don’t comply with the law.

What this means is literally anyone can make and sell skincare, haircare, or makeup without having it tested for safety before it goes to market. The exception to this is colorants which are regulated by the FDA. This unlawfulness is why your aunt Meg can sell her goat's milk soap at the farmer's market without any kind of government oversight when it comes to her formulas. Hey, what happens in Aunt Meg's kitchen, stays in Aunt Meg's kitchen. In some ways, that's pretty great. I like making skincare, too, and I'm grateful I can both make and sell handcrafted beauty. But let's be real. Making some body butters to sell at the farmer's market isn't really the problem. It's the billion dollar cosmetic and personal care companies selling us every single product we use from morning until night that we need to pay attention to. 

Ever stopped to think about how many ingredients you're slathering on your body day in and day out? Toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, exfoliants, serums, night creams, eczema creams, sunscreens, and 5-10 makeup products to top it all off. Let's not forget hair color, perms, keratin treatments, relaxers, nail polish, and now of course eyebrow and eyelash treatments. If you knew even one of those ingredients was linked to hormone disruption, acted as a formaldehyde releaser, or could be contaminated with a known carcinogen, would you keep using it? Wouldn't you at least like to know if the products you're using are safe before you throw down $40 for foundation? As of right now, the only way a product can be recalled for safety is if the FDA receives enough complaints that it issues a request to the company to recall the product. If the company does not follow through, then the FDA alerts consumers via their website and newsletter. When was the last time you read up on FDA consumer warnings? That's what I thought.

Organizations like the Environmental Working Group were questioning these practices long before Gwyneth and the rest of us. The nonprofit group's Skin Deep Database has over 76,000 searchable products and ingredients with safety ratings and associated research. Some brands submit their products to EWG to get their stamp of approval or even include their EWG ranking on their website. A rating of one is the safest, while 7-10 is considered hazardous. EWG also includes a data availability score to demonstrate how much is known about an ingredient. Some ingredients have lots of scientific research behind them, while others have very little. Another organization working to educate consumers is MADE SAFE, which has a rigorous certification process companies can elect to go through in order to get their MADE SAFE seal award.

Clean beauty is made up of three major components: safety, efficacy, and transparency. Clean does not mean 100% natural or organic, though oftentimes clean beauty products do contain natural or certified organic ingredients. And when they do, those ingredients tend to be top of the line, harvested ethically, and very carefully selected powerhouse ingredients. For example, a compay may use essential oils that are USDA Certified Organic or Ecocert, the European equivalent. Rather than using Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (which can be contaminated with 1,4 Dioxane -a likely human carcinogen), they may use a plant-based ingredient like Lauramidopropyl Betaine or Coco Glucoside. However, these companies recognize that natural does not equate to safe, so if a synthetic ingredient is safer to use than its natural equivalent, they will use the synthetic version. This is an important distinction between clean-focused brands and natural-focused brands.

Efficacy is a big motivator in clean beauty. Some ingredients that make a product high-performing can be controversial, and it's not always the ingredients with complicated chemical names. Talc, for example is a natural ingredient but one that is not popular in the world of organic beauty. Talc is really effective in making eyeshadows long lasting (think M.A.C., Urban Decay, etc), but it can contain trace amounts of asbestos. So, it's somewhat surprising to find talc in the eyeshadows made by Beautycounter. This is a great example of how clean beauty differs from organic beauty. Beautycounter wants the high-performing qualities of talc without the possible dangers of asbestos contamination. It addresses this problem by testing its eyeshadows for any trace of asbestos. This way Beautycounter can use a somewhat controversial natural ingredient, but assure customers that it has been properly vetted. How do I know all of this? Because it's disclosed right on the Beautycounter website. Which brings us to the third major component of clean beauty: transparency. 

Clean personal care product companies are typically adamant about transparency. Not only are ingredients listed on the package, but often websites include how the ingredients work, where the ingredients have been sourced, and how they have been tested (and by whom). These brands tend to be on the geeky side, putting a great deal of emphasis on research and development. They create effective products by using time-tested ingredients or innovative ingredients backed by the latest research. For example the company Mother Dirt developed a line of personal care products around the idea of considering the skin biome when formulating products. They created a topical probiotic spray to help regulate your skin's bacteria, which you can read all about on their website. Mother Dirt and Beautycounter are both examples of clean beauty companies because they utilize both natural and synthetic ingredients, innovative design, transparent practices with an educational bent, all backed by research and experimentation. Pretty cool stuff. 

Clean beauty is taking the mystery out of personal care products and cosmetics through an emphasis on safety, efficacy, and transparency. It is a movement that is influencing consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. Companies are starting to disclose their full list of ingredients on packages and websites including explanations for the use and non-use of certain controversial preservatives like parabens. Retailers like Sephora, Target, and CVS are taking note by rolling out public commitments to stricter chemical standards. This is more than a trend; clean beauty is a disruptor of industry.