With over 4 million posts on Instagram, clean beauty is the latest trend every beauty brand wants to hop on to. Despite its immense popularity, there is still a sense of ambiguity associated with the term ‘clean beauty.’
This is a new and evolving concept that has garnered some controversy from chemists, dermatologists and skincare experts for being a marketing gimmick. Brands can make any claim about being eco-friendly, sustainable or free from ‘harmful chemicals and detergents’. But there is no global governing body to recognise or validate their claims.
While shopping through the aisles of a beauty section at a grocery store or a department store, products that yell out the words ‘made from recycled plastic’ and ‘free from harmful or dye and toxins’ will instantly grab your eye. But these statements can sometimes not be completely true.
The global clean beauty movement has been criticised for fearmongering and spreading pseudoscience. The members of the clean beauty movement routinely dismiss professionals in the beauty industry and have been accused of propping up medical charlatans.
Despite the valid grievances raised against clean beauty, there are some positives. It has helped consumers make more ethical choices and be environmentally conscious. Clean beauty has brought issues such as palm oil deforestation and mica extraction into mainstream media.
Is clean beauty an actual revolution that will radically change the way we buy and consume beauty products or is it a greenwashing stunt created by a $532 (Dh1958) billion industry? Let’s find out.
What is clean beauty?
According to Goop, the celebrity site for all things natural and organic, clean beauty products are made without parabens, phthalates, PEGs (polyethene glycol), chemical sunscreens, synthetic fragrance, talc, silica, sulfates and petrolatum. The site was founded by Hollywood actress and businesswoman Gwyneth Paltrow, who was one of the early adopters of clean beauty.
Clean beauty experts claim that ingredients in wellness and personal care products can cause skin irritations, disrupt hormones and in serious cases might be linked to cancer.
According to Dr Michelle Wong, a cosmetic chemist and content creator with over three hundred thousand Instagram followers based in Sydney, Australia thinks clean beauty is just a fad created by beauty brands.
She told Gulf News in an email interview: “I think it’s a marketing gimmick. The idea is that there are lots of ingredients in beauty products that are harmful to our health, but in reality, the claims aren’t backed up by evidence. Usually, the concerns are based on animal or in vitro studies on cells and tissue samples that don’t translate to human use.”
For Ayat Toufeeq, the co-founder of Powder, a clean and sustainable beauty online store based in the UAE, clean beauty is more than just a trend, it’s a transformative movement that values conscious consumerism. She said: “The principles of transparency, sustainability and conscious consumerism that underpin the clean beauty movement are part of a permanent, long-term, and global cultural shift that has impacted all consumer sectors. This movement has even inspired the dominant mass market beauty brands… to either invest in or acquire promising Clean Beauty players or to add elements of transparency, sustainability, or ingredient awareness to their products.”
However, Dr Nader Sheasha, pharmacist and founder of Ioxra, Dubai-based organic beauty brand with several outlets in the Emirate, says defining clean beauty is indeed tricky. She said: “Clean beauty is a general term to describe beauty products that you can use without risking your own health, it doesn’t have to be all natural or organic but it’s free from most controversial harsh chemicals and toxic ingredients like parabens, sulphates, or Synthetic fragrances. Also, you have to know there’s no legal or official definition for the clean beauty claim, which has allowed many brands to misuse it.”
The principles of transparency, sustainability and conscious consumerism that underpin the clean beauty movement are part of a permanent, long-term, and global cultural shift that has impacted all consumer sectors.
– Ayat Toufeeq, the co-founder of Powder
So, is ‘natural’ always better?
Dr Wong stresses that many so-called ‘natural’ ingredients do more harm than good. “Clean beauty can be effective, but the fact that it’s ‘clean’ doesn’t provide much benefit. Natural products aren’t necessarily safer or more effective, and in fact, many natural ingredients are less safe, such as essential oils which can cause photoallergic reactions. Synthetic fragrances are usually safer.”
Even Dr Vimi Ponnamparambath, Dermatology and Aesthetics Specialist, at Aster Beauty Clinic Al Warqa agrees with Dr Wong. “Organic products may contain certain substances such as essential oils that can cause dermatitis and could irritate individuals with sensitive skin,” she said.
Poisonous ingredients such as poison ivy and arsenic are natural, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid natural ingredients collectively. Turmeric, aloe vera, and green tea have tremendous benefits. It depends on the formula of that specific product.
Brands that use labels such as ‘toxin free’ and ‘preservative free’ pride themselves as natural, pure, and ‘clean.’ But, Dr Wong thinks otherwise, “These labels are bogus. Everything is made of chemicals, including water, so no product can be ‘Chemical-free’. Synthetic ingredients aren’t inherently more dangerous than natural ones. Preservatives are very important for keeping products safe since high amounts of microbes can cause dangerous infections. The term ‘toxins’ is commonly used to mean ingredients that have had negative effects in unrealistic studies, but most ingredients will cause harm if used in some unrealistic way.”
Preservatives are very important for keeping products safe since high amounts of microbes can cause dangerous infections. The term ‘toxins’ is commonly used to mean ingredients that have had negative effects in unrealistic studies, but most ingredients will cause harm if used in some unrealistic way.
– Dr Michelle Wong, Cosmetic Chemist and Content Creator
So, how do I know if my beauty products are organic?
Dr Sheasha explained the protocol and rules behind certifying beauty products as organic.
A certified organic beauty product must have the following qualifications:
- Contains at least 95 per cent natural and organic ingredients
- Cruelty free – not tested on animals
- Sustainably sourced
- Free from GMO (Genetically Modified) ingredients, synthetic perfumes, parabens, sulfates and more than 1500 harsh chemicals are not allowed
- The whole production process, storage and retail outlets till it reach the end consumers are audited by the certifier organisation
Claiming your product is safe from harsh ingredients is not an easy feat, it has go through more clarification. Dr Sheasha added: “No cosmetic brand can claim their products are organic without being certified by an authorised certification program like Cosmos Organic, which is the highest standard of certification in the beauty sector developed at the European and international level by BDIH (Germany), Cosmebio and Ecocert (France), ICEA (Italy) and Soil Association (UK).”
Toxic ingredients banned in the European Union but not in the USA
It’s hard to grasp that toxic ingredients were hiding in our everyday beauty products, but how do conventional beauty companies get away with this? Well, it all boils down to the health and drug administration of each country. For example, the European Union has banned over 1300 ingredients in cosmetic ingredients, while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned 11, according to safecosmetics.org, the website of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of organisations that campaign for safer cosmetic products.
But the FDA states that cosmetics in the US are FDA regulated but not FDA approved. The FDA website states: “The two most important laws pertaining to cosmetics marketed in the United States are the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). FDA regulates cosmetics under the authority of these laws.”
“Ingredients such parabens, alcohol, silica, talc and artificial fragrances that are deemed dangerous by clean beauty, depends on many factors, including dosage. As used in skincare products, they are generally safe unless you have a sensitivity to one of them,” said Dr Wong.
Dr Ponnamparambath, warns that organic products have a poor shelf life. Dr Ponnamparambath said: “Organic products are devoid of preservatives such as parabens, and harbour bacteria and fungi, so they get spoiled easily. Sulfates have mild side effects, and many people benefit from the effectiveness of shampoos that contain them. People with especially greasy hair or dandruff may notice that shampoos containing sulfates are the only products that clean their hair effectively. Organic products do not require efficacy data, so many of these products have not gone under the strict scrutiny of scientific investigation.”
Ayat Toufeeq explained: “When it comes to ingredients, there is a lack of regulation and oversight on what ingredients are allowed in beauty products [globally]. Given that up to 60 per cent of what we put on our skin gets absorbed, the products we put onto our bodies affects our health and overall wellbeing, either negatively or positively.”
Toufeeq advises consumers to be informed about what they are putting on their bodies.
She said “It’s therefore very important for consumers to seek out and demand products that are clean. Some of these ingredients have been linked to health issues such as allergies, eczema, hormonal disruption, reproductive problems, and even cancer. It is true that what may cause sensitivity for one person might work for someone else. Ultimately, we want to give our customers choices that align with their personal values.”
Organic products do not require efficacy data, so many of these products have not gone under the strict scrutiny of scientific investigation.
– Dr Vimi Ponnamparambath, Dermatology and Aesthetics Specialist, at Aster Beauty Clinic Al Warqa
Is clean beauty a form of greenwashing?
As previously mentioned, brands can exaggerate the benefits and labels of their products. Due to deceptive marketing and cherry-picking data, companies can get away. The beauty industry is largely unregulated and can slap on labels ‘sustainable’ or ‘vegan’ labels without any evidence.
Clean beauty brands are leading the way for recycled and minimalist packaging and employing eco-friendly solutions. None of this information can be certified unless this is overseen by a third party. Clean beauty uses natural ingredients, but extracting and cultivating them might be destructive to biodiversity.
“Clean beauty tends to favour natural ingredients, but there are many natural ingredients that have far higher environmental impacts than synthetic ingredients. Organic ingredients are also favoured, but meta-analyses have found that organic ingredients aren’t always more environmentally friendly than conventionally grown ones. One solution to the high environmental impact of farmed ingredients is biotechnology, but many certifications don’t allow ingredients produced using GMOs (genetically modified),” explains Dr Wong.
There are a lot grey areas when it comes to the certification on clean beauty products.
According Toufeeq there are brands that make unsubstantiated claims and doing your own research can help you figure out what’s real and fake.
“We often find that clean beauty brands are produced with sustainability and respect for the environment in mind at every step. That said there are also those who try to make you think that they are more sustainable than they really are, and it can be difficult to separate the good from the bad. Therefore, it is very important to do your research when it comes to those claims.”
She also further explained that clean beauty has increased the standards and expectations in the beauty industry. “We also sometimes forget that we, as consumers, have a lot of power when it comes to influencing trends with what we purchase. For example, the more we make clean, sustainable choices in terms of our spending, the higher the standard becomes for conventional brands as they try to keep up with growing expectations when it comes to sustainable, cruelty free production and packaging. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
How do people know what products are safe for them?
Dr Ponnamparambath cautions people to always conduct a skin patch test before applying any skincare product, especially those with sensitive skin. She said: “If you’re allergic to a certain product, you can do a skin patch test, which can identify the ingredient that is causing the allergy. You can avoid using products containing the said ingredient in the future but unfortunately in the case of organic products the actual ingredients in them is unknown, therefore making it difficult to find out whether you are allergic to it even with a skin patch test.”
Cosmetic chemistry and skincare formulas are confusing for the average person. It’s important to always conduct your own research and fact check any unsubstantiated claims by a brand.
“I think in general, thinking more critically about the information you’re given, the source of the information, the credentials of the source and checking what other reputable sources say on the same topic are good ways of checking information,” said Dr Wong.
Dr Naglaa Ramzy, a dermatologist at Prime Hospital said: “Ingredients such as alcohol and parabens are dangerous in high concentrations but everyone’s skin is different. What works for someone else may not work for you. That’s why it is important to always consult your dermatologist before trying out a new product or changing your skincare routine.”
Ingredients such as alcohol and parabens are dangerous in high concentrations but everyone’s skin is different. What works for someone else may not work for you. That’s why it is important to always consult your dermatologist before trying out a new product or changing your skincare routine
– Dr Naglaa Ramzy, a dermatologist at Prime Hospital
A source that might be helpful
Environmental Working Group (EWG): https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
This site creates online profiles for cosmetics and personal care products, and their potential hazards and health concerns.