What Is Clean Beauty?

When we shop for clean beauty products, we assume we’re buying skincare and makeup made from non-toxic ingredients that won’t harm our bodies or the environment. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

The last piece of legislation governing the personal care products industry was passed in 1938. Thousands of chemicals and catchphrases have been invented since then! I walked down the beauty aisle at Target the other day and took note of all the feel-good language beauty companies are using today:

  • Non-toxic
  • Cruelty-free
  • All-natural
  • Environmentally-friendly
  • Green
  • Clean

 The list goes on. None of these labels are regulated. We can only determine whether a product is actually “clean” by reading its ingredients list. And it’s not like the toxicity and environmental impact of  dimethylaxiwhatsit is common knowledge. (Although I did write some helpful blog posts about clean beauty ingredients here and here.) So how do you know you’re choosing a truly clean beauty product?

Why Is Clean Beauty Important?

If you really want to understand how to choose clean beauty products, then you first need to know why they’re important. As I mentioned earlier, the beauty industry is shockingly unregulated. Whereas the EU restricts or bans over 1300 ingredients, the US regulates less than 20. And at the time of this post, manufacturers are not required to disclose their ingredients, either. (Although that’s (hopefully) changing!) Think about it this way: there are over 80,000 chemicals that can be used to make your lashes look thicker, or your wrinkles disappear. And there’s nothing stopping manufacturers from using them, whether or not they’re safe.

That’s why we’re starting to see more stories popping up about individual ingredients causing problems ranging from coral bleaching to cancer. Here are just a few side effects that have been widely associated with beauty ingredients:

Endocrine disruption. Chemicals that can mimic the body’s hormones are known as endocrine disruptors. I mentioned in a previous post that I started learning more about clean beauty when I was pregnant and my OB gave me a list of chemicals to avoid. Endocrine-disrupting parabens were among her chief concerns, as these faux-hormones may not only mimic the natural hormones that impact a developing baby, but also change the way our hormones behave. You can learn more about the research behind those concerns here.

Cancer. Remember that news story about asbestos turning up in cosmetics at Claire’s boutiques? It was scary for more reasons than the headline suggests. Not only did a chemical with a proven history of causing cancer end up in a product that was being marketed toward children, but the FDA was powerless to force Claire’s to pull the tainted cosmetics from store shelves!

I was happy to see that the uproar helped bolster support for the Personal Care Products Safety Act, but I was surprised that it took so long. After all, we’ve known about formaldehyde in nail polish for a long time. (Just FYI: there are also many chemicals in beauty products that can break down and form formaldehyde. You can read about them here.) We’ve also recently linked talcum powder to cancer. In a nutshell, we’ve been accepting carcinogens in our personal care products for decades.

This is why it’s so important to choose clean beauty products: our health depends on it!

Is Clean Beauty Worth It?

When I was doing my keyword research for this post, the question “is clean beauty worth it” kept popping up on Google. I think I’ve made a pretty good case that it’s worth our time to seek out clean beauty products given the potential health risks. But are they worth the higher price tag? And why do clean beauty products tend to be more expensive? 

As Annie Jackson, COO of clean beauty retailer Credo, told Allure magazine recently, many potentially harmful ingredients are cheaper and easier to formulate with. In addition, many clean cosmetics companies seek out additional certifications – like becoming a Certified B Corporation – to legitimize their claims of sustainability and safety. This also adds to the cost, which then gets handed down to the consumer. And then there’s the “currently trending” markup. Allure sent several products to an independent chemist to analyze potential manufacturing costs. I cringed when I read that one product – a trendy facial masque – was marked up by 1350%.

It’s the same issue we have with food: many of the healthiest products are only available to the privileged few.

 Fortunately, major retailers and even some mainstream manufacturers are working to change that. These days, a walk down a drugstore beauty aisle yields an exciting array of affordable clean beauty brands ranging from Burt’s Bees (which makes a great toner, btw) and Acure facial products, plus several natural deodorant brands like Native and Schmidt’s.

 I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that even the more affordable products are still generally more expensive. For example, EWG-Verified Herbal Essences Bio: Renew Sulfate-Free Shampoo Costs $1 more than the OG formula. And while Dr. Bronner’s bar soap is priced at an affordable $3.99, that’s still four times as much as a bar of Ivory.

What You Can Do About It

  • Write your Congressional representatives. There are currently two bills under review: the Safe Cosmetics And Personal Care Products Act of 2019 and The Personal Care Products Safety Act. Read up, decide which one resonates with you, and make sure your representatives know this is important to you!

  • Share info. I’m not talking about getting up on your soapbox and writing a book-length Facebook rant, or sunscreen-shaming moms at the park. I’m talking about sharing your concerns about certain ingredients openly and honestly, then using information to back it up. Are you cutting out parabens because breast cancer runs in your family? Share that with your sister. Are you avoiding fragrances because your child has asthma? Mention it to a friend whose child is also suffering.

  • Pass your products around. One common myth around clean beauty products is that they are less effective than the chemical-laden creams and cleansers we grew up with. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! As I mentioned in this blog post, my skin has greatly improved since I switched to clean cosmetics. It’s less sensitive, and I have far fewer breakouts. Bonus: the botanicals contained in most of the products I use smell great! So share the products you love at your next girls’ weekend, or give them as a gift!  

So….What Is Clean Beauty?

Have you ever heard the term “greenwashing?” That’s when companies make their products seem safer and more sustainable than they actually are. Given the unregulated state of the personal care products market, there’s a lot of that going on. Just because a store has pasted green leaf signs all over a certain section doesn’t mean that those items don’t contain chemicals we’re trying to avoid.

When shopping for beauty products, I vet my cosmetics using these four criteria:

  1.  They must pass the ingredients test. I run the product through the EWG’s Skindeep database to see what it’s rated.

  2. No fragrance. Ever. Even if the product qualifies the ingredient by saying it’s “natural” or “botanical,” they could be hiding anything under the fragrance umbrella. For me, it’s an automatic pass.

  3. Additional Certification. Fortunately, there are some labels that do carry weight. EWG Verified products have passed rigorous, third-party tests for safety and toxicity. In addition, companies that have gone through the trouble of getting certified as a B Corporation are also showing they’re committed to the highest standards of sustainability and stewardship.

  4. Go with glass. If I have a choice between glass and plastic containers, I’ll go with glass every single time. In addition to avoiding the “ick” factor of plastic, a beautiful glass container can be repurposed as a container for hair ties, earring backs, thumb tacks, or even a votive candle. Why recycle what you can repurpose?  

 I know I’ve just given you a lot to digest. If you have more questions, I’ve written additional blog posts about clean beauty here and here. Or just email me! I’m always interested in hearing about what concerns you the most!


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