The Messy Truth of “Clean” Beauty — What It Really Means

The Messy Truth of “Clean” Beauty — What It Really Means

“Clean beauty” is a term that sounds good on paper, especially if you’re someone who tries to live an environmentally conscious life. A lot of people also look for “clean” labels on their beauty products because they sound reassuring and safe.

So naturally, I’m here to ruin all of that for you. YAYY!

Okay, so maybe I won’t totally ruin it, but I’m definitely going to be shining some light on clean beauty’s dirty laundry.


The Dirt on Clean Beauty

In the world at large, and especially in the beauty world, there is a pervasive fear of chemicals. “If I can’t pronounce it, it must be dangerous” is something that I see repeated in lots of different spheres, and it saddens me because it’s just so roundly untrue.

(For example, “tocopherol acetate” is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s just vitamin E!)

unrealistic expectations from skincare

Even if you don’t actively seek out “clean” or “green” products, there’s no denying that there’s a certain feeling of relief or safety that we associate with the “clean” label. It even happens to me sometimes!

There are certain types of phrases, color schemes, images, and packaging that evoke those feelings of freshness, safety, positivity, and eco-friendliness that make us really believe that we are doing the right thing by choosing “Natural” Product X over “Dangerous” Product Y. This tactic is a big part of the “clean beauty” movement’s success.

I know this sounds a little bit like a conspiracy theory, and I don’t mean for you to think that “clean beauty” is some big evil scheme with a hidden agenda. All I want to do is help you understand that labels like “all-natural,” “clean,” and “green” are just marketing terms that don’t have any bearing on how good, safe, or effective a product is.

Labels like “all-natural,” “clean,” and “green” are just marketing terms that don’t have any bearing on how good, safe, or effective a product is.


Navigating the Murky Waters of Clean Beauty

See, what most people don’t know (and what companies definitely won’t volunteer!) is that there is no universal standard for what it means to be “clean.”

This is not a phrase that’s regulated by any kind of governing body, so companies can more or less make up their own standards for what constitutes “clean” or “all-natural.”

Brands have a TON of wiggle room and no real incentive to be upfront about what they mean when they say they’re a “natural beauty” line. They could be talking about sustainability, “non-toxic” ingredients (which is another nonsense term), cruelty-free testing, vegan formulas, or any number of things.

Clean beauty is 100 percent a marketing gimmick, and it does not translate into anything that is better, safer, or less irritating to your skin.

“But!” you say, “My clean beauty routine works so well!” Okay, fair enough. If your products are working, I’m not here to tell you to change what you’re doing! Marketing tactics aside, I’m sure there are plenty of well-formulated “clean” products out there, and if you like them, use them!


Cleaning Up Some Misconceptions

The stance that most brands take when they claim to be “cleaning up” their formulas is that they’ll be free from “harmful” or “irritating” ingredients. What these ingredients are varies from one company to the next, and it’s common for different brands to have conflicting convictions about which ingredients are harmful and which are “safe.” (For example, Drunk Elephant has “the Suspicious 6,” and Officinea has an entire app dedicated to scanning for “controversial” chemicals.)

clean beauty

1. “Non-toxic” is nonsense

The truth is that, aside from obvious things like lead and mercury, there is no hard and fast list of what’s “bad” and what isn’t. Some things, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), are more likely to be irritating to your skin, but this doesn’t make them bad or dangerous.

Calling common ingredients and complex chemicals toxic is just fearmongering. It’s fine to steer clear of things that don’t work for you, but “non-toxic” personal care is not necessary! Save yourself some shopping stress, please.

2. Parabens are fine

Another misconception is that parabens are dirty, dangerous chemicals that cause cancer, endocrine disruption, hormone imbalances, global warming, unemployment, and that fight you had with your sister last week. (Just kidding about those last three, but with the way parabens are maligned in beauty blogs, you’d think they were responsible for all of the world’s problems!)

Anyway, the real truth is more nuanced than that. Yes, there are conflicting studies about what parabens do and don’t do. In general though, dermatologists, doctors and researchers agree that parabens are “one of the least-sensitizing preservatives in commercial use.”

It’s also important to understand that a lot of the studies that are quoted by crunchy blogs and “clean beauty” brands were done on animals rather than humans, and the doses used were wildly higher than they would ever be in real life applications.


Do We Really Need to Detoxify Our Beauty Routines?

The final thing that I want to mention is the old adage that “the dose makes the poison.” Anything can be toxic, harmful, or irritating to your body (internally or externally) in a high enough concentration.

Too much water can kill you. Slathering on a whole bottle of sunscreen will irritate your skin. Taking high doses of vitamin D can be toxic.

The major takeaways that I want to leave you with are these.

  • Phrases like clean, green, all-natural, and non-toxic are for marketing appeal only. They have no scientific merit, and they have no standardized definition.
  • When you’re shopping, avoid the feel-good trap of buying something that claims to be “safe” or “free from (insert random list of chemical names)!”
  • Be smart about your purchases. Take the time to figure out what works and doesn’t work for YOU, and buy based on that rather than based on what this brand or that beauty guru says.

What are your thoughts on clean beauty? Do you have questions or concerns I didn’t address? Drop a comment below and let’s start a conversation!



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