Beauty trends come and go, but over the past couple of decades, one thing has remained the same: an undercurrent of unease in an ocean of cosmetics, occasionally swelling into tsunami-sized waves like today’s “clean beauty” wave.
The generalized distrust is understandable. Knowing what we know about corporate ethics (or lack thereof), we find ourselves having to take a leap of faith whenever we choose to trust that the products we put on our faces and bodies won’t harm us.
That leap of faith can be especially hard to make these days. All over the internet, especially on blogs and social media, we’re confronted by claims that the lotions and potions we love are full of “toxic ingredients.” Multiple websites serve as ingredient databases, promising to help consumers figure out which products are safe to use and which ones aren’t.
Do our beauty products really contain toxic ingredients? I think so. But not the ones you might expect.
All over the internet, especially on blogs and social media, we’re confronted by claims that the lotions and potions we love are full of “toxic ingredients.” Are they really?
Toxic Ingredient: Fear
When we say something is toxic, we mean it causes harm. For that reason, I consider fear to be one of the most toxic ingredients in the beauty industry today: Cosmetics fearmongering can actually cause physical harm. For the best example of this, let’s look at the category of skincare with the most proven and critical health benefits: sunscreen.
Sunburns hurt, as anyone who’s ever had one knows. But the harmful effects of excessive sun exposure don’t stop with a few days of pain and peeling. Exposure to UV radiation, whether from the sun or from tanning beds, increases your risk of developing skin cancer, which can be disfiguring and even deadly.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the U.S.: “More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined.” By the age of 70, more than one in every five Americans develops skin cancer. And, like other cancers, skin cancer can become invasive, and it can kill: two Americans die of skin cancer every hour. UV radiation is classed as a proven human carcinogen in the same category as cigarettes and plutonium. It’s no joke.
Unlike with many other carcinogens, where your only real recourse is to avoid exposure to them in the first place, we have developed a nifty way to significantly lessen the risks associated with UV radiation: sunscreen! Even an SPF 15 sunscreen can halve your risk of developing melanomas, and these days, SPF 15 is at the low end of the available SPF spectrum. Seems like it would be a slam dunk, if not for the reams of sunscreen fearmongering that have sprung up in recent years.
It’s often claimed that sunscreen actually increases the risk of cancer. Scientific organizations have debunked these claims numerous times. The often-cited study that people who used sunscreen developed skin cancer at higher rates than those who didn’t relied on self-reporting and didn’t take into account that many people use far less sunscreen than needed to receive the full protection and then spend more time in the sun than they would otherwise, due to a false sense of security. And the also often-cited study showing that certain organic UV filters disrupt endocrine functions was done by feeding rats massive amounts of the filters in question; achieving an equivalent dose in humans “would take applying sunscreen all over the entire body every day for 70 years.”
We know that UV radiation causes cancer. We have no credible evidence that proper and consistent use of sunscreen does. But due to toxic fearmongering, many people are so worried about the unsubstantiated health impacts of sunscreen that they end up increasing their actual proven risk of developing skin cancer. That makes fear a truly toxic beauty ingredient.
Toxic Ingredient: Clean Beauty
Sunscreens aren’t the only cosmetics whose reputations suffer from fearmongering. While folk remedies and natural ingredients have always had a place in beauty (and I love plenty of extracts and herbal ingredients myself!), the “clean beauty” trend currently dominating skincare takes it to an extreme that is often no safer than its competition, and in some cases can be even more harmful.
But first, a definition of terms. Or rather, a discussion about the lack of definition.
The “clean beauty” trend currently dominating skincare takes it to an extreme that is often no safer than its competition, and in some cases can be even more harmful.
“Clean” beauty has no clear, standardized definition. It’s one of those marketing terms that means whatever you (and/or the brands using it) want it to mean. Sometimes it means the product contains no synthetic ingredients, only “natural” ones like extracts and plant oils. Sometimes it means that it contains no “harmful” or “toxic” chemicals. Since neither of these terms have a clear and regulated definition within the context of ingredients legally allowed to be used in cosmetics either, that still tells you almost nothing. And that’s not even getting into brands whose definition of “clean” beauty encompasses ethical concerns as well, like animal testing or sustainability.
But going back to the question of “toxic” and “non-toxic” “chemicals” in your skincare: Just about any substance can cause harm … if exposure occurs at a high enough concentration. Water can kill you if you ingest too much, for example. This fact is often simplified to the saying “the dose makes the poison,” and it applies just as well to cosmetics as to any other substances we come into contact with.
Are there ingredients in skincare that you wouldn’t want to pour into a shot glass and chug? Yes. Does that mean they don’t belong in your skincare or that putting them on your skin in often miniscule concentrations will harm you or your skin? No. I wouldn’t eat a spoonful of parabens a day, but I do want them in my beauty products, because the kind of unchecked mold and bacterial growth that parabens prevent is much more likely to cause me harm.
Much of the “clean beauty” movement relies on a suspicion of man-made, synthetic chemicals and the perception that anything from nature must be gentler and safer for human use. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ingredients developed and synthesized in a lab tend to come with plenty of safety and stability testing, as well as standardization—what you see is what you’ll get, without variation.
Meanwhile, naturally derived substances are no less likely to irritate your skin or break you out. Coconut oil and olive oil are both common causes of breakouts; fragrant essential oils like lavender and citrus are known to be especially sensitizing for many. The fact that they come from plants doesn’t give them any special advantage over other ingredients that come from labs. Expecting a product to be safer or gentler for your skin because it’s marketed as “clean” can be an express ticket to a breakout or reaction if your skin happens to be sensitive to any of those “clean” ingredients.
Toxic Ingredient: Unattainable Expectations
Toxicity isn’t limited to the potential physical effects of using (or not using) skincare products. In fact, some of the most toxic ingredients in our cosmetics are the ones that affect us mentally.
Think about the typical skincare ad. Take a minute to consider the promises they make. Not just the explicit ones, like “removes makeup” or “moisturizes dry skin,” but the implicit ones.
Most countries have laws governing the language used in cosmetics ads. This is to protect the consumer from being outright scammed. As a result, cosmetics companies are generally very careful about the verbiage they use in their marketing. It’s rare to see an ad from a mainstream beauty brand (one with a legal team or at least marketers aware of the laws) that will outright promise that their product will erase all wrinkles, zap all pimples into oblivion, or return your skin to the state it was in when you were six months old. But what brands are allowed to say can still set toxic, unattainable expectations.
Many brands will conduct their own “clinical trials,” for example, so that they can say that “86% of women who used this product experienced a reduction in fine lines within 14 days” or other similar claims. It’s only by looking at the fine print that you may realize those “clinical trials” consisted of a sample size of 10 people. You can further assume that the methodology wasn’t designed for objectivity, either, but rather for the most positive results possible. Seen this way, the claims are not a lie, but they’re not exactly scientifically credible, either.
It’s rare to see an ad that will outright promise that their product will erase all wrinkles. But what brands are allowed to say can still set toxic, unattainable expectations.
But you have to look and think closely to understand that. If you’re just going by what the marketing says, which is what they want you to do, these “clinical results” set you up for disappointment. The “proven results” claimed by others serves to make us feel that if the product didn’t work for us, it must be something wrong with our skin, rather than something lacking in the product itself. Brands and marketers know that. They bank on it to keep consumers coming back to try again with a different product or to keep trying with the same one.
This is just one example of the type of toxic claim we see too often in cosmetics advertising. There are plenty of others. Arguably the most familiar yet still powerful example is the expectation of perfection implied by the heavily edited model photos used in ads and the equally heavily edited “after” photos of “real people” in before and after comparisons.
Even when we’re aware that the studies and images are likely manipulated, they can do a number on anyone’s self-esteem and their perception of what’s possible. That can be just as toxic as any topical beauty ingredient.
Avoiding Toxic Beauty Ingredients
Fearmongering, fear-based marketing, and unrealistic implied promises are everywhere in beauty, but that doesn’t mean we have to write off skincare altogether to avoid their effects. The first step to seeing through these tactics is to recognize them. Not every hysterical headline about the newly discovered life-threatening effects of commonplace cosmetics ingredients is based in fact or in credible interpretations of credible research. Not every before and after photo is truthful. Learn your own skin’s sensitivities and triggers, seek to achieve realistic goals for your skin and lifestyle, and find what works for you. There are so many skincare products to love—just go into the relationship with your eyes open!