Words by Zoe Suen
One of the industry’s most lucrative buzzwords abounds with gray areas—especially when it comes to how good products are for our health and the planet. What’s to be done?
While discussing the impact toxic product ingredients have on our health, Annie Kreighbaum, beauty podcaster and founder of body skincare brand Soft Services, quips: “as every cosmetic chemist says, poison ivy is all natural. But are you going to put it all over your skin?”
She highlights the blurred lines that cloud one of beauty’s most lucrative buzzwords. When it comes to cleansing, moisturizing, and other tenets of the average grooming routine, what “clean” products really have to offer our health and the environment is ambiguous and complicated. Years since the wellness boom, clean as a term has gone mainstream (alongside labels like non-toxic, sustainable, natural, green, and more standardized terms such as cruelty free and organic), but the industry has yet to land on an agreed-upon definition. Instead, brands and shoppers are faced with a litany of retailer-specific stickers and recognized, but disparate, criteria like the Leaping Bunny and the Vegan Trademark.
“Most brands have their own interpretation of this buzz phrase,” says Dr Maryam Zamani, the London-based oculoplastic surgeon, facial aesthetics doctor and founder of MZ Skin. Generally, she associates the label with products that omit “potentially harmful or toxic ingredients, but that does not mean it has to be natural, organic or vegan products only.”
Julie Pefferman, a cosmetic chemist and consultant, has seen her own definition evolve over the years. For her, clean beauty helps indicate to shoppers what products are compatible with their personal choices. But she no longer highlights its toxic or chemical aspects “because they are so misinterpreted on all sides,” Pefferman writes in an email. For Kreighbaum, clean beauty is a marketing term “used with mostly good intentions,” but a lack of clarity leaves room for misuse.
When it comes to developing clean formulas, Pefferman witnesses a constant push and pull between brands’ R&D and marketing departments. “Products must sell, or no cosmetic chemist has a job,” she writes. But calling clean beauty marketing fodder would be reductive. Aluminum, according to the CDC, is harmful in large amounts, and the market is now full of aluminum-free deodorants, but that wasn’t always the case: brands had to educate shoppers on why their products were safer in a strategy she says many deemed fear mongering.
“As every cosmetic chemist says, poison ivy is all natural. But are you going to put it all over your skin?”
From there, many other brands co-opted the tactic of slapping free-from claims on everything, even when a so-called ingredient wouldn’t be found in an item to begin with, hence the ever-growing lists of chemicals to avoid. But it’s difficult to raise awareness—and crucially, research—without the marketing machine, argues Pefferman.
Then, there are ongoing reports of labs finding carcinogens in beloved sunscreens, and the potentially hormone-disrupting impact of phthalates (commonly found in nail polish and hairspray). Ingredients may be proven safe in low doses but when consumers are applying products daily, how does it add up? A study by City of Hope found that ingredients like parabens disproportionately affect Black shoppers, where academics link the demographic’s higher spending on beauty products to the discrimination Black women face when it comes to their natural hair.
It’s easy to see why many choose to be better safe than sorry, but there’s still much more nuance at play. Take parabens, a preservative that prevents the growth of bacteria and mold, and one of the latest ingredients to be targeted by free-from labels. Studies have linked parabens to major health issues, but many more attest to their benefits, says Kreighbaum. “You would think there’d be black and white answers to some of these things, but opinion really comes into the mix.”
Even when it comes to environmental and labor practices, clean beauty’s effect is far from straightforward. Palm oil, for one, is commonly found in everything from haircare to skin and body care to makeup, thanks to its emollient qualities. The oil has also been linked to deforestation and child labor. But switching to another ingredient would volley its problems to another source, says Kreighbaum, who formulates and develops Soft Services’ products. Brands can obtain a certification from Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to signal that their palm oil is sourced ethically, but according to Kreighbaum, only half or less of the oil needs to be consciously procured for a company to receive the stamp.
“The more products we produce, the more pollution we produce, and the more skin issues are exacerbated by our environment.”
That’s not all. Beyond packaging, shipping, and other processes that we typically link to sustainability, common beauty ingredients—even ones marketed as clean—can harm the planet. The beauty industry is dependent on fossil fuel-derived petrochemicals like mineral oil, petroleum jelly, and paraffin wax, writes journalist Jessica DeFino in an interview published through her newsletter, The Unpublishable, where she cites the recent trend of “slugging,” or coating one’s skin in petroleum jelly or mineral oil. On a wider scale, there’s the “environmental impact of farming, harvesting, processing and extracting every actual ingredient that’s being used,” alongside the potential secondary effects the applied products then have on the air, water, and soil.
Clearly, further regulations are needed, as well as standards that address personal health, the environment, and considerations like labor practices, separately. Besides not becoming a brand in the first place, beauty’s fragmented supply chains limit what even the most thoughtful brands can do: most trust third party labs and facilities to ensure products are safe and made to spec. But that’s not to say founders can’t and shouldn’t try, given they (and not their labs) are often held accountable when a product falls short. Both Zamani and Kreighbaum opt for ingredients that have been around longer and been backed by extensive research over fashionable, trendy options. Kreighbaum sends a third-party regulator to oversee production in Hong Kong, where Soft Services’ packaging is made, and stays abreast of ingredients that could potentially be toxic.
On the other end, Pefferman encourages shoppers to know their standards—whether they use an app or shop from a retailer’s clean section. There’s also researching products before buying them so that fewer items go to waste, and of course, the unimpeachable option of using less.
“It’s so backwards that we attempt to treat these skin issues with products, because the more products we produce, the more pollution we produce, and the more these issues are exacerbated by our environment,” DeFino writes. “We are not going to be able to stop these things with products, because products are part of the cause.”