"Clean Beauty" is Dirtier Than You Think

"Clean Beauty" is Dirtier Than You Think

You may have noticed a new buzzword popping up over the last few years: clean beauty. It sounds simple and straightforward enough, but why have the cosmetics and wellness industries jumped on the clean beauty bandwagon? Let’s take a look at some key sales metrics to see why clean is starting to overtake natural when it comes to marketing beauty products.

Before we get too deep in the weeds, let’s define a couple of key terms related to cosmetics:

  • Prestige describes cosmetics and beauty products that typically sell for a premium and used to be found almost exclusively in department stores or high-end retailers like Ulta or Sephora.
  • Mass (short for food/drug/mass) is a different category of products that are more likely to be cheaper and widely available, often at retailers like Walgreens, CVS, and Target.
  • Natural, according to the FDA, means that “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule so much as a guideline, and it only addresses the ingredients in a consumer product, rather than the methods under which the ingredients may have been created or combined.
  • Clean, on the other hand, may include some artificial ingredients, but it shies away from more controversial compounds like parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde-releasing agents.

The distinction between clean and natural might seem superficial at best, but the data doesn’t lie. In 2019, within the prestige beauty market, skincare products that positioned themselves as part of the natural beauty trend saw a 14% year-over-year growth in sales. Those that pitched themselves as part of the clean beauty movement, however, saw a 39% growth in sales. In 2021, clean skincare constituted 13% of sales within the prestige skincare market, more than doubling its market share from only four years ago. Clearly, this difference in branding resonates with consumers, but why?

The history of the clean beauty movement

You’ve likely been bombarded over the years with slogans hyping a given product as all-natural, organic, or green and eco-friendly. Some of these terms, like organic, are narrowly defined and enforced by regulators like the USDA, while other terms like clean and natural are more open to interpretation. The clean beauty pitch itself first appeared in an early 1970s CoverGirl marketing campaign that emphasized both the minimal, realistic aesthetic and the wearable, lightweight feel to their new line of cosmetics. Since then, many brands have come and gone from the market by advertising themselves as clean, but only when several brands began to collectively refer to themselves as clean did the phrasing reach a critical mass and constitute an actual movement.

Like the CoverGirl campaign alludes to, clean beauty products suggest a certain type of formulation, aesthetic, and lifestyle. It generally means that a product might have artificial or synthetic compounds as part of its formula, but that it doesn’t contain anything overtly harmful or toxic. If we trace the implications of the clean ideal back to Ayurvedic practices, it means that if you can’t ingest the ingredient, you shouldn’t put it on your skin. If you’ve started to notice that these definitions feel a little hand-wavy, you aren’t alone: The FDA doesn’t outline a definition or labeling standard for clean beauty, and as recently as 2016, the FDA was soliciting public comment on the use of the term natural in food labeling. From both a legal and public safety standpoint, it’s important that consumer goods use clear, precise language that conveys a genuine, trustworthy message to consumers.

Clean beauty falls into the unregulated gray area outside of the FDA’s scope. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that most of the clean beauty movement is fundamentally a marketing ploy to capitalize on the positive connotations of words like clean and natural. Using positive language to hype up products also creates an implicit fear: What does it mean if a product isn’t labeled as clean or natural? Unnecessary scaremongering from emotive language can drive consumer behavior just as effectively.

If 2019 was the year clean beauty made its breakout, 2021 was the year that serious conversations about the ramifications of clean beauty marketing started to take place in earnest.

The goal for 2022? To shift the narrative away from vague, nondescript claims and instead focus on cold, hard scientific evidence to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the products we use on a daily basis. Let’s take a look at some of the key controversies arising from the rise of “clean” and “natural” products in the cosmetic industry.

Issue #1: Brands imply natural is synonymous with safe.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Natural and safe can’t be used interchangeably. Think about it—plenty of natural compounds are extremely hazardous to your health. Some of the most poisonous things we encounter—from elements like arsenic and lead, to minerals like asbestos, to derived compounds like the botulinum toxin found in Botox—are, by definition, natural products. Modern marketing tactics, on the other hand, imply that natural or naturally derived ingredients are inherently safer. Over time, consumers begin to associate the term natural with positive aspects of a healthy lifestyle, and the implicit contrast between natural and artificial begins to take root.

Science doesn’t abide by semantic tricks, however. From the rational perspective of a scientist, “natural vs. artificial” and “good vs. bad” are subjective evaluations that don’t correlate with how objectively toxic a compound actually is. Instead, science decides the safety of an ingredient by looking at the dosage of the compound in question. From retinol to hyaluronic acid, anything—even water!—can be hazardous at the wrong dose. Think of it like applying perfume or cologne: A tiny spray can go a long way, but slathering it on can get a bit excessive, fast. When you’ve got a throbbing headache, do you down the whole bottle of Tylenol, or follow the recommended dosage? Why? Whether we’re taught or we learn it the hard way, we all intuitively know that everything should be taken in moderation—and that specious claims should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Issue #2: Clean and natural ingredients are pitched as being inherently gentler without scientific support.

Even if you’re not a diehard chemist, you’ve likely heard of parabens. Why?

Parabens are a class of antifungal, antimicrobial compounds used in both food and cosmetics as a preservative. The anti-paraben narrative began in earnest following the 2004 publication of the paper Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours (Darbre et al., 2004), which concluded that parabens appeared to accumulate in human breast tumor tissue samples.

It was also concluded that parabens may mimic some of the effects of estrogen and other signaling hormones, and though the authors inferred it—and have continued to grind the ax—they never clearly stated that parabens caused the tumors in the breast tissue samples they studied. Quite the opposite, in fact. After an outspoken refutation to their publication in a 2004 Letter to the Editor by Robert Golden and Jay Gandy, Philippa Darbre, the first author of the original paper implicating parabens in breast cancer, was compelled to respond with the following:

Nowhere in the manuscript was any claim made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancer, indeed the measurement of a compound in a tissue cannot provide evidence of causality.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that: The original authors, in plain English, had to admit that the actions being inspired by their paper weren’t founded in sound science. Unfortunately, the horse was already out of the barn, and the advocacy organizations had begun to gain momentum based on flawed cause-effect conclusions.

Though it doesn’t discredit their critique, it should be noted that in the footnotes to their letter, Golden and Gandy disclosed that they had served as “consultants to the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) in reviewing the toxicity data on parabens.” The cosmetic industry clearly has a vested interest in maintaining the position that its ingredients are safe, but that doesn’t mean that critiques of Darbre’s methodology are unfounded.

So how did a single scientific paper gain such crossover appeal in the spirit of a generation? Coincidentally founded in 2004, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics—a project of the larger Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, formerly the Breast Cancer Fund—has made eliminating estrogenic compounds from beauty products a priority. Highly understandable! In 2015, the movement gained steam when the European Union lowered the safe limit on two parabens, propyl- and butylparaben, while affirming the limits of two more common parabens, methyl- and ethylparaben.

Pie graph showing 68% of consumers desire clean beauty brands

In an attempt to get ahead of any potential controversy, cosmetic brands started seeking alternative preservatives to parabens, often looking to natural botanicals and other synthetic preservatives like methylisothiazolinone. The downside to this scaremongering tactic? A new epidemic of contact dermatitis is associated with the rising use of these alternative preservatives. It’s worth noting that in 2019, the American Contact Dermatitis Society named parabens their nonallergen of the year.

Sometimes it really is true: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Issue #3: Statements like “chemical-free” are inherently misleading.

We’re so accustomed to associating simplicity with safety because complexity feels artificial, constructed, confounding—it’s precisely this type of sentiment that the clean beauty movement preys upon. What if I said, “Here, eat this mixture of myristic acid, 3-methylbut-1-yl ethanoate, pentyl acetate, and phylloquinone.” Would you? Me neither. Now, what if I said, “Here, have a banana”? This same intrinsic aversion to complexity is something we all face, and it’s being used against us when deciding whether or not to purchase everyday products.

Image inspired by James Kennedy's original piece here:

Every clean, naturally derived ingredient is still a chemical at its core. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a chemical is “any substance that has a defined composition.” Think of it like a consistent recipe at the atomic level: Water, H2O, is a chemical because it always contains the same formulaic recipe of two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. In a variety of different forms, we’re all made up of chemicals, but the confusing, scare-inducing names that make your eyes glaze over are often used as pseudoscientific proof that if something sounds complicated enough, it must be unnatural.

Given that the term clean isn’t strictly regulated in the United States by the FDA or CDC, advocacy groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group can operate in this gray area of half-truths to sow doubt and raise suspicions. It doesn’t help alleviate public mistrust that, by necessity, scientists both design the formulations and review their safety and efficacy. In some cases, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted—science both requires and thrives under the scrutiny of peer review—but the criticisms themselves must be based in sound science as well. In the European Union, for example, the terms “chemical-free” and “preservative-free” are banned from cosmetic packaging because of fears of misinformation.

How should we as consumers approach the clean beauty movement?

As a quick recap:

  1. Clean and natural don’t automatically mean safe—plenty of natural ingredients are incredibly lethal.
  2. Natural and synthetic are words that describe how ingredients are made, not how they perform.
  3. We’re all chemicals. Labeling products as “chemical-free” is a misnomer.

The concept of clean beauty is an ideal, and it’s noble to be conscious and critical of the ingredients we consume on a daily basis. We’re glad that you’ve read this far and that you’re curious about the subject—at Revela, we’re not blindly pitching products, we want to transparently engage with you about how the industry works behind the scenes. We’re scientists by training, and want to show you the respect you deserve by giving you straight, undiluted information, backed by respected references. To do anything else would be unjust, and every time a company tries one of these tactics, we want you to remember: They’re saying it because they think you don’t know any better.

A healthy sense of skepticism is incredibly valuable, and that skepticism can be used to fuel useful debates that keep beauty brands honest. In having those debates, however, it’s important that both sides are bringing facts to the table, not marketing tactics or pseudoscience. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but there a few key tips to try and sift through it all without falling too deep in a rabbit hole:

  1. See what authoritative sources are saying. Teachers are responsible for educating the next generation. Chefs cook the cuisine of our desires. We all play a specialized role in society. For scientists, it’s their job to study, research, question, and most importantly, report on their findings.
  2. Be conscious of the message. If the pitch you’re hearing is highly emotional, consider why. Are the facts not compelling enough to stand on their own? Social media and news outlets have an incentive to blow stories out of proportion and misrepresent facts as truth. Misinformation can be evocative and click-worthy, so it’s important to be careful and questioning of what you see and hear on social media—even from us! We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Profile photo for Avinash Boppana

Reviewed by: Avinash Boppana, BS

Avinash is a computer scientist. He completed his BS from Princeton University, concentrating in Statistics & Machine Learning. He has deep experience in computational research, working for reputable institutions, including Harvard Medical School, the Flatiron Institute, and the NIH.

Written by: Enzo Benfanti, MEng

Previous Blog Next Blog


Minoxidil vs. ProCelinyl™: A Tale of Two Serums

When it comes to treating hair loss, unexpected and repurposed ingredients constantly pop up with claims to regrow hair at a fraction of the cost. The reality is that if...

Skin Elasticity: The “Secret” to Tone & Lift

Fine lines and wrinkles are a hot topic across the entire skin care community, especially in anti-aging products. While these two telltale signs become more pronounced as we age, one...

From Nutraceuticals to Drugs, We Are What We Eat

When it comes to managing health issues, whether hair loss or something else entirely, it makes sense to take a look at the fuel we put into our bodies. Are...