Experts unveil the truth behind ‘clean beauty’

Efficacy and effectiveness in clean beauty products largely depend on the specific ingredients and formulations used. File image.

Efficacy and effectiveness in clean beauty products largely depend on the specific ingredients and formulations used. File image.

Published Jan 3, 2024


The beauty world is buzzing about “clean beauty”, a term that’s popular but not clearly defined.

People are asking for products that are safe and honest about what’s in them. “Clean beauty” usually means products that don’t include ingredients some believe are bad for our health.

These days, there’s a big push for looking natural. The “clean girl” look is all about letting your true self shine, with hardly any make-up on.

Thanks to social media and the focus on skincare, this no-fuss style is all the rage. It’s about looking after your skin and practising self-care.

But here’s the catch: getting that “effortless” no-make-up look can actually take a lot of work and can cost a lot of money. This has led to the concern that this trend is only accessible to those who can afford it.

Meanwhile, there is also the debate about whether the natural ingredients found in beauty products are actually better than those made in a lab.

This notion has even led to Cosmopolitan magazine recently stating that just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Jen Novakovich, a Canadian cosmetic chemist and founder of The Eco Well - a knowledge-sharing, science communication platform - echoed similar sentiments when she pointed out: “Really dangerous stuff, like the poison arsenic, comes straight from nature.”

Clean beauty, despite its popularity, is a term without a strict, universally recognised definition.Picture: Unsplash Mathilde Langevin.

These statements prove that clean beauty is more than just a simple tag on a product. It’s about critical thinking and making smart choices, both for consumers as well as companies who manufacture beauty products.

Being “clean” is also about health welfare and including all parties in the conversation.

“Clean beauty”, despite its popularity, is a term without a strict, universally recognised definition. Its core principle is the formulation of personal care products without ingredients that are suspected of being harmful or toxic.

The trend is in part a response to consumers’ growing concerns and awareness of the potential health implications linked to certain chemicals used in cosmetics and skincare products.

Efficacy and effectiveness in clean beauty products largely depend on the specific ingredients and formulations used.

While many natural ingredients are effective for certain skin types and conditions, some natural products may lack efficacy - in comparison with their traditional counterparts - particularly in areas like preservation and long-lasting performance.

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Dr Tina Alster, a leading dermatologist, has noted that a major myth in clean beauty is that if a product is natural, it is inherently better for the skin.

But in reality, some natural ingredients can be irritants and cause allergic reactions.

Meanwhile, skin care experts also caution against the misconception that synthetic ingredients are inherently bad.

In fact, some of these ingredients can be more stable than their natural counterparts, less likely to cause reactions, and are at times more eco-friendly due to less farming and resource use.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), known for its Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, has been criticised for contributing to fear-mongering around cosmetic ingredients without solid scientific backing, an opinion voiced by numerous scientists and dermatologists.

One of the challenges in evaluating clean beauty’s claims lies in the fact that the cosmetic industry is not as heavily regulated as industries such as pharmaceuticals.

This means that manufacturers often have more of a licence to claim their products are “clean” or “natural”, without adhering to a standardised requirements.

Efficacy and effectiveness in clean beauty products largely depend on the specific ingredients and formulations used. File image.

A study conducted by the American Contact Dermatitis Society found that natural oils and botanical ingredients are among the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis.

So, while “clean” may imply a degree of safety or health, this assumption is not always grounded in clinical evidence.

It also common to believe that “clean” beauty products are always safe because they’re seen as free from harmful ingredients.

But this oversimplified view often overlooks a critical point that all substances - whether natural or synthetic - can be harmful under certain circumstances or in excessive amounts.

British Magazine Tatler also stated that there is a widely held belief that natural skincare products are the safest choice. They're typically made with plant-based ingredients, leading to the assumption that they're inherently safer than synthetic alternatives.

But dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto pointed out in the publication that the safety of a substance isn’t solely determined by its source.

In addition, it’s essential to scrutinise the actual regulation of cosmetic products. According to Monique Richards, a spokesperson for the FDA, there has been little change in American cosmetic regulation since 1938, with only 11 additives being banned by the FDA.

This lack of oversight highlights the need for consumers to be vigilant about the products they use and the potential risks they may pose.

In addition, certain chemicals commonly found in beauty products have also come under scrutiny. For example, parabens, which are widely used as preservatives in cosmetics, have raised concerns due to their potential oestrogenic activity linked to cancer risk, according to the FDA.

Similarly, phthalates, found in some cosmetics, have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues, as highlighted by both the FDA and scientific research.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group and various scientific studies have stated that Oxybenzone, which is often used in sunscreen products, has been associated with irritation, sensitisation, allergies, and potential hormone disruption.

In addition, sulphates, commonly found in products like toothpaste and cleansers, have drawn conflicting opinions on their safety, with claims of skin irritation due to their propensity to strip away moisture and protective barriers.

Experts also argues that fragrances, found in a significant percentage of beauty products, may contain a multitude of unknown toxic chemicals that can irritate the skin, disrupt hormones, and potentially lead to health issues, as highlighted by Orgaid, an organic skincare line.

This insight into the realm of “clean” beauty underscores the necessity for consumers to approach product selection with caution and an understanding that the absence of certain ingredients does not equate to guaranteed safety.

It’s vital to stay informed, scrutinise ingredient lists, and consider potential risks when choosing beauty and skincare products.