The dirt on clean beauty: some natural products are just as toxic as their chemical counterparts
Why this booming trend has some experts worried about bad marketing and the lack of overall science
Clean beauty has skyrocketed from a niche market into an international trend. Already the global market sits at a whopping $35 billion (Dh128.5bn), according to Future Market Insights, and experts predict it will shoot up even higher, to a value of $48bn by 2025.
Plus, the regional market for natural cosmetics will grow 12 to 15 per cent annually until 2023, reports TechSci Research. In other words, clean beauty is big – and it’s only going to get bigger.
Yet this booming industry, with its focus on all things “clean” and “natural”, has local and international experts feeling sceptical.
We don’t really have a standard definition. Does clean mean fewer ingredients? All natural ingredients? Plant-based-only ingredients? We don’t really know
“Currently in the beauty industry, ‘clean’ refers to products that are sustainable, environmentally friendly and do not have a negative impact on the world,” explains beauty expert Rebecca Treston, founder of Rebecca Treston Method. “The ideal is great, but there are some aspects that could be a cause for concern.”
Claire Coleman, an investigative beauty journalist and consultant, says we just need to look at the term “clean beauty” to see what Treston means. “We don’t really have a standard definition. Does clean mean fewer ingredients? All natural ingredients? Plant-based-only ingredients? We don’t really know,” she says.
“The terminology is really unclear and has become more of a marketing tool by the beauty industry than an actual category of products.”
The result is immense confusion, says Dr Lana Kashlan, an American board-certified dermatologist. “Clean beauty in particular is a big business, so patients are bombarded with marketing and an overwhelming number of products. It’s almost impossible for the average consumer to know what to look for.”
It isn’t necessarily the answer, either, she adds.
Toxicity and allergic reactions
Consider toxicity, another term Dr Kashlan stresses has been used to create confusion and drive sales. “Toxicity is really more dose-dependent. For instance, some things that are good for us, like oxygen, if you get too much, it can be harmful. So just the presence of a chemical in a skincare product doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.”
It’s all about the concentration of that ingredient and just how much your skin actually absorbs.
Even certain natural or botanical ingredients can be toxic. Dr Kashlan points to poison ivy, for example. It’s natural, but it can cause severe allergies. “The issue of allergenicity and botanicals in skincare is more common than you’d think, and it’s increasing, as we’re seeing more botanicals being used as substitutes in cosmetics.”
Often, traditional chemicals are actually added for a reason, continues Dr Kashlan. “They act as preservatives or prevent products from getting contaminated with bacteria, fungus and other micro-organisms.” Parabens act as fungicidal, preventing things like eye ulcers from contaminated mascaras, for example.
“Ironically, the clean beauty movement has pushed to using alternative preservatives like methylisothiazolinone, which is more likely to cause allergic reactions,” the doctor explains.
No watchdog to do checks and balances
Treston adds that some plant-based ingredients can be too potent. “At the very least, they can disrupt the body’s microbiology, but the real danger is that certain ingredients are considered carcinogens.”
There’s also no clean beauty industry watchdog to regulate everything, she adds. “This means that, in theory, the brands can make very false claims and there is no comeuppance for them.”
This all combines to create a confusing, emerging industry that brands itself as “good”, but lacks the regulation of more traditional skincare products.
Think about how many times you’ve eaten an orange. Are some more acidic and some more sweet? Of course, because nature doesn’t have the consistency that can be created in a lab
“Brands use [the lack of definition], knowing that consumers will assume it means organic, sustainably sourced, environmentally produced, and excluding certain ingredients that certain parts of the industry have deemed ‘bad’, even if their products only partially tick a couple of these criteria,” says Coleman, who also runs the Beauty Geekery podcast.
“It also demonises brands that aren’t hopping on the clean bandwagon by suggesting they’re somehow dirty.”
That’s not to say all clean beauty is evil, stresses UAE make-up artist Angelique Turner. “Like anything, balance is critical. Natural is wonderful and we should use as many natural ingredients in our products as possible, but science is key in delivering any product to an effective level.”
Turner uses many organic products in her work, but she blends this focus on nature with peer-reviewed studies. Her favourites include Inlight Beauty, a range of 100 per cent organic products, created by Dr Speiza, as well as Ole Henriksen, which mix natural ingredients and traditional science.
“You should use products that have been tested and regulated,” continues Turner. In real terms, this means we shouldn’t go rubbing an avocado all over our face, or buy the first product we see that has the words ‘clean’ and ‘eco’ on its branding. “Think about how many times you’ve eaten an apple or an orange,” she continues. “Are some more acidic and some more sweet? Of course, because nature doesn’t have the consistency that can be created in a lab.”
Even essential oils can be extremely irritating for the face. “Relying on research and development by a cosmetic company is important,” adds Turner.
Discuss products with your dermatologist
As eco-awareness and general sustainability practices continue to grow, the clean beauty industry looks to become even more omnipresent, both in the UAE and abroad. “I fervently hope clean beauty will be exposed for the marketing trick that it is, and that brands will be forced to define the specifics of the products they’re producing,” says Coleman.
“I’d love to see brands step up and say things like ‘We don’t use parabens or preservatives, because although they’re perfectly safe, our customers don’t want them in their products’, or ‘Our products are produced from organic ingredients, because we believe that they are better for the planet, and we’ve got the Soil Association accreditation to show that this claim has been independently verified’,” she says.
Ultimately, when it comes to skincare, Dr Kashlan suggests we go back to basics by visiting a professional. “If you’re looking for products that have fewer ingredients and are made in a sustainable way, discuss those with your dermatologist,” she says. “We have spent years studying the skin and its diseases, are much more qualified to advise you, and are more invested in your skin health than any sales associate at a make-up counter.”
Updated: March 23, 2020 09:10 AM