What does clean beauty actually mean? The short answer is that there is no clear cut definition of clean beauty and that is exactly why this is such a controversial question. The longer answer is a lot more nuanced.
The term ‘clean beauty’ has entered the mainstream beauty vocabulary over the past few years. Prior to that, brands used terms such as green beauty or natural beauty. These terms were equally as vague and undefined. There was a lot of room for brand greenwashing leading to customer mistrust of these marketing terms.
More recently, beauty brands have started adopting a more balanced and transparent approach by formulating products with a mix of safe synthetics as well as naturally derived ingredients. Clean beauty came out of the idea that not all synthetics are harmful and not all-natural ingredients are safe. Instead, cosmetic formulation requires a careful and proactive approach in avoiding certain ingredients that could potentially be harmful.
This list of excluded ingredients goes by several names: "Black List", "The No List", "Free From list" to sometimes more creative marketing twists like "The Undesirables", "the Toxic 20" or "The Dirty List".
Who determines which cosmetic ingredients are bad and which are good?
In the ideal world, the FDA would determine which ingredients should not be included in cosmetics. Unfortunately, the FDA has not issued new cosmetic regulations since 1938, where they banned 11 ingredients. It's fair to say that the beauty and skincare industry has evolved since then! To give you a comparison, the European Union banned 1300 ingredients from being used in cosmetics.
The discrepancy between U.S regulations and European regulations is definitely startling and can leave many Americans afraid that their cosmetic products are full of potentially harmful ingredients.
Without official oversight, we depend on the scientific community to clarify which ingredients should be avoided. Scientific research carries its own limitations such as studies with small sample sizes or statistically insignificant results. Even when scientists agree that there is enough evidence to presume that a chemical to be harmful to humans the FDA will deem that there is not enough hard evidence to support such claims.
One common example of this disagreement is the question of the safety of Phthalates, which are esters of phthalic acid mainly used as plasticizers helping plastics increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. A quick google research, will tell you that phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system.
I wanted to dig in deeper to truly understand what information is available and why there is tension between the FDA and the scientific community regarding the risk of Phthalates and other suspected ingredients. This exercise also helped me understand why clean beauty brands often take the precautionary approach of avoiding an ingredient even when the evidence is not black and white.
Studies on Phthalates
In 2003-2004, scientists at the CDC (Centers for disease control and prevention) measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of 2,636 or more participants who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The amount of phthalates that entered people's bodies is estimated by analyzing metabolites levels in urine. The study found that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S population, but found that adult women have much higher levels of urinary metabolites than men, seemingly from their higher use of cosmetic and personal care products containing them.
Phthalates have been shown to have adverse effects on the reproductive organs of male rats. Similar studies on humans show that we are much less sensitive to phthalates than rats. Nevertheless, scientists presume that it is possible that phthalates can cause reproductive issues in humans.
A 2015 study published in the Environmental Research journal concluded their research on Phthalates on the neurodevelopment of children by saying: "There is enough scientific data around the adverse effect of phthalates on animals. A systematic review of the literature supports the contention that prenatal exposure phthalates is associated with adverse cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children, including lower IQ, and problems with attention, hyperactivity, and poorer social communication."
Does this mean Phthalates are bad?
Scientists suggest that there is enough evidence pointing to the possible risks of phthalates to humans. Small daily doses do not seem to be dangerous, but aggregate exposure over decades is a cause for concern. The FDA nevertheless maintains the stance that there is not enough scientific proof against phthalates, leaning on the opinion of the CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel) that suggests that exposures to phthalates from cosmetics on humans are low compared to levels that would cause adverse effects in animals.
What to make of clean beauty claims then?
My personal take as both a consumer and a beauty brand founder, is that science isn’t static and that there isn’t always a definite black and white answer. We shouldn't accept the status quo and continue to formulate with ingredients that are strongly suspected of being harmful. It is also important to point out that there will always be new scientific developments, new studies and new opinions. An ingredient that is deemed safe today and widely used by clean beauty brands might be suspected of being harmful in the future and vice versa. So no, clean beauty is not a hard promise of ingredient safety, but rather a promise to do it's best based on current information, and to continue to push the conversation and refute the status quo.
What else does clean beauty focus on?
Other than focusing on safer formulations to protect consumer's health, clean beauty brands also make an active effort to practice sustainability and protect the earth.
Here are some ways that Clean Beauty brands can make a difference:
Refuse to test of animal and formulate using only vegan ingredients
Aim to use more sustainable packaging and propose recycling solutions (such as partnering with Terracycle)
Promote ingredient transparency
Why is the term ''clean beauty'' criticized?
Clean Beauty is not a regulated term, so any brand who wants to market themselves as such technically can. Customers however are more informed and know which questions to ask to learn whether a brand's practices conform with their claims of trying to do better.
The final criticism of the term "clean beauty" is that it can come off as accusatory of the rest of the industry. It's very easy for clean beauty brands to intentionally or unintentionally use scare tactics when actively speaking about all the toxic ingredients they do NOT use, reminding you that unless you switch to all clean beauty, you continue to put yourself and your family at risk.
Hopefully this article has helped you understand a bit more about clean beauty and the space it is carving out for itself in the beauty industry and in your makeup bag.