The “clean beauty” industry has lately been under attack for fear-mongering among consumers, for banning ingredients on their “no” lists that others claim are fine to use, and for spreading misleading terminology like “chemical-free.”
Clean beauty has been a significant achievement as it has supported an awakening among consumers to be more aware of what they are putting onto their faces and bodies which is important because, after all, your skin is your largest organ. Clean beauty has grown fast as a result and challenged an industry that, in the United States, is still governed by a federal regulation that originated over 80 years ago.
Like with any product category, sadly there are brands in the clean beauty space that are taking shortcuts and managing “by fear”, putting out health claims or safety warnings that haven’t been entirely substantiated, simply because “fear sells”. The nature of the internet of spreading all kinds of information, no matter if it is right or wrong, doesn’t help. Fear mongering has been abused by some to make sales targets. As a result, the European Union went so far as to prohibit “no” claim callouts as misleading since they affect ingredients that are not legally forbidden to be in formulations in the EU as per ruling cosmetics regulation. Let us, however, be clear that just because something is not prohibited in a regulatory environment doesn’t mean that it is good for you and that you actually want it in or on your body – as we all know from the food industry. Some may even remember the time when cigarettes were deemed to be good for you, just to give an example. The fact that cosmetic regulations vary widely between, for example, the US, EU, and Canada also tells you that there is far from a uniform perspective to rely on. Important to note is also that in the United States, cosmetics are not FDA approved but FDA regulated, i.e. there is no list of “approved ingredients” that the FDA considers safe and there is no approval process for what is deemed safe for health and planet. Thus, to claim that “the regulators say it’s fine, so that means it is safe” when attacking clean beauty is a false, misleading statement in itself.
One of the main issues when it comes to clean beauty is the fact that, like many terms in beauty, the term “clean beauty” is not clearly defined because, quite simply, there is no regulating body that could define it for everyone. This is the same for the term sustainable beauty which leads to false brand claims such as that bioplastic (which often contains only a percentage of biomass with the rest being petrochemicals and often has the same or worse (aka not recyclable) end of life issues as petro-based plastic) or recycled plastic (which is better than virgin plastic but still far from sustainable) are ‘sustainable beauty’ which is not accurate.
To educate consumers and empower them in their choices, I believe it is imperative that brands are very clear about what “clean” (and sustainable) actually means to them and to explain the “why” behind their “no” choices. To me, the focus of the discussion should not be on “buzz words” but on actual research and science and on transparency and education. Consumers have a right to know what is in their products and why, so that they can make their own decision on how a product fits their health standards and values, and it is the obligation of brands to inform them on ingredient choices and the reasoning behind them. I agree that damning the words “chemistry” and “chemicals” is misleading and ultimately detrimental to the clean beauty industry. Chemistry is the science that deals with the properties, composition, and structure of substances and the transformations they undergo so there is definitely chemistry involved in beauty. A chemical is a substance obtained by a chemical process or producing a chemical effect. So that is another definite “yes” in personal care as most ingredients undergo chemistry to turn them into functional ingredients. Therefore, to make claims like “chemical-free” harms clean beauty because it points at ignorance and fear-mongering tactics. For similar reasons, the term “natural” can be questionable and we prefer the term plant-derived. For example, sugarcane-derived squalane is a plant-derived material but it is produced via fermentation that changes the chemical composition of sugarcane juice – it is debatable if that makes it “natural” since it doesn’t exist in its final form in nature. But it is certainly plant-derived and plant-based.
At superzero, we chose “ban” ingredients based on “clean” standards that go well above and beyond what is customary in the United States. We are deeply committed to transparency and since we manufacture ourselves, we go very deep into ingredients. When looking at “clean” you should really be looking at “safety”. And when looking at “safety”, there are two factors to look at: health and sustainability. The latter is often not looked at enough when talking about “clean”. For example, dimethicone and Cyclomethicone are very widely used in beauty but they are considered microplastic by The Plastic Soup Foundation as they are bioaccumulative and/or environmentally hazardous – a big “no” for us at superzero. Ingredients that are based on petrochemicals are cheap but they deplete non-renewable resources and contribute over-proportionately to greenhouse gases. Synthetic fragrances are not required to reveal their full ingredient lists which is another “no” for us because you have no way of knowing what you put onto your body or into the environment.
So where does clean beauty go from here? I hope it stays clean and that it focuses on transparency and education behind choices that each brand and retailer make and on truth-based education. I hope it doesn’t suffer from marketing campaigns around buzzwords like “chemicals” and “the regulator says it’s safe so it must be safe”. A lack of transparency and definition behind clean beauty is detrimental to those within the clean beauty space who are trying to do the right thing, both from a health and a sustainability perspective, because it allows others to call them ignorant or misleading. We are seeing a little bit of that now.
Finally, let’s not forget when looking at this “backlash” to clean beauty that there is a lot of money on the table. Petrochemical-based ingredients are often significantly cheaper than materials that are based on renewables. Formulating with tons of almost-free water and with synthetics and then packaging the resulting liquid in plastic is much cheaper than formulating water-less with plant-derived materials. So significant players in an industry that is used to high-profit margins also have a lot to lose if consumer behavior shifts in larger segments towards clean and sustainable beauty. Just something to keep in mind when following this discussion and when evaluating if campaigns and statements are made to benefit the consumer and the planet or if they are made to benefit someone’s pocket.