IF I COULD “Supermarket Sweep” through any store, it would be Sephora: I imagine grabbing heaps of chubby Nars highlighter sticks, Pat McGrath glitter and enough Jo Malone London perfume to make me smell like a sprawling English garden. This fantasy has its flaws, being neither environmentally friendly nor financially feasible, but beauty products have always been an indulgence for me. As a child in the 1980s, I lived to poke around in my aunt’s nail-polish drawer; more recently, I’ve relished unsheathing my preferred Chanel Michèle lipstick. There was no fretting over ingredients or worries about hidden evils. Lately, however, cosmetics have grown complicated and makeup has become a minefield, thanks to the steady rise of “clean beauty.”
Just as #cleaneats infiltrated my Instagram feed, serving up photogenic bowls of virtuous, compostable kale, the beauty buzzword “clean” has exploded. It’s splashed on ads, anointed with tiny check marks on packaging, hashtagged on TikTok by Jessica Alba. It even has its own section at Target.
Squeaky-clean beauty sounds aspirational, albeit a little laborious and confusing: Are products that are not stamped “clean” considered “dirty” by default? Is the clean-beauty boom legitimate or just another clever marketing ploy urging us to “make the swap” and buy even more stuff? With help from cosmetic chemists, dermatologists, clean enthusiasts and beauty editors, I sought to scrub away the confusion and answer six common questions about clean beauty.
1. What does ‘clean beauty’ even mean?
I used to interpret “clean” literally—my unclogged pores post-facial, for example. Now “clean” means something akin to “pure.” “It dovetails with this idea that natural is better, organic is better, chemical-free is better,” said Jessica Matlin, co-host of “Fat Mascara,” a podcast offering beauty news, tips and interviews, and beauty director at Harper’s Bazaar. “I think it came from [an] open-minded, optimistic place,” rooted in people’s questioning the status quo.
Perhaps the so-called movement’s biggest challenge? “Clean beauty does not have a regulated definition,” said Erica Douglas—aka Sister Scientist—a cosmetic chemist with an interest in clean beauty. There is no official, FDA-ordained set of standards. Instead, clean beauty is in the eye of the beholder—a broad term that brands and sources define differently.
NakedPoppy, a self-described clean-beauty brand and website with staff scientists who vet the ingredients of products it sells, cites four pillars: Is it safe for consumers? (It’s checked for ingredients, from potential carcinogens to irritants, that research by bodies like the FDA and National Institutes of Health indicate could pose a risk.) Is it cruelty-free, meaning it doesn’t rely on animal testing? What is its impact on the environment? And does the brand employ fair labor practices?
“In a nutshell, clean beauty means products that are better for you and the planet,” said NakedPoppy co-founder
2. What makes a beauty product ‘sustainable?’
“Sustainability ” is a “close cousin of ‘clean’” that can feel equally nebulous, said Ms. Matlin. “It’s well-intentioned, but there is no clear definition of ‘sustainable.’” Many so-called sustainable brands preach Earth-friendly attributes, including organic ingredients and recyclable packaging. For example, Dieux, a new line that emphasizes transparency, sells a reusable Forever eye mask. If sustainable beauty is important to you, cut down on waste with reusable cotton rounds and refillable products (you can replace shades of Jane Iredale’s PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation and continue using the same compact).
3. What common beauty ingredients have been deemed harmful to consumers?
Even if you’re a clean-beauty skeptic, there are ingredients that should likely be avoided. The experts I interviewed, from dermatologists to chemists, cited a few potential offenders: parabens, preservatives in foundation, moisturizer and more that can mimic the effects of estrogen and have raised concerns about possible hormonal effects, including cancer; triclosan, an antibacterial in soaps that a Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health study linked to endocrine-system disruption (potentially increasing the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers or affecting reproductive hormones); fragrances that can irritate skin; and chemical sunscreen, which can contain ingredients like oxybenzone that studies by the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology and the Journal of the Endocrine Society have linked to allergies and hormone disruption, respectively.
Still, “It’s not as easy as, ‘if I see this word on a product, it’s going to give me cancer,” said Ms. Douglas. Academic data on beauty products is limited. “We need more oversight and research to determine which ingredients may pose [health] risks,” said Dr. Hadley King, a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine. She supports the Personal Care Products Safety Act—legislation Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins proposed that would allow the FDA to regularly review the safety of ingredients.
Clean-beauty evangelists might be overzealous about the ingredients they shun, said Ms. Douglas. Parabens continue to spark debate, she said, but more research is needed to conclude if they could be a carcinogen.
The dosage of possibly harmful ingredients is key: Charlotte Palermino, an esthetician and CEO of Dieux, debunks “the idea that what you put on your skin automatically goes into your bloodstream. If that were the case, I’d get drunk every time I use hand sanitizer.” She recalled outcry over formaldehyde-releasing agents in shampoo: “It was about the same amount of formaldehyde as in a pear.”
4. Is ‘clean’ always better?
No. “Just because something is from nature doesn’t mean that it’s OK to put on your skin,” said Dr. King, “and just because something is synthetic doesn’t mean that it’s harmful.” She gives a cheeky example: “Poison ivy is all-natural.” Essential oils are a common cause of allergic skin reactions, and data from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that tea tree oil, while extracted from leaves, can be an endocrine disrupter.
Some synthetic chemicals are safe (think: retinol and peptides). “‘Chemicals’ may be a dirty word in the clean-beauty world,” Dr. King noted, but it’s deceiving to demonize them wholesale: “Everything is a chemical,” she reminds those of us who didn’t excel in science, down to water and air.
Ms. Palermino is similarly skeptical of clean-beauty brands’ tendency to slam “toxins,” a vague term for harmful substances. “You’ve got to be more specific,” she said.
Especially amid the pandemic, consumers are realizing that “chemicals can…be good,” said Ms. Matlin. “There’s been an uptick in trusting scientists versus marketers.”
5. What are the benefits of going clean?
The clean-beauty phenomenon has inspired people to question the contents of their products, as they do with food and household cleaning solutions. NakedPoppy CEO Ms. Bisharat turned to clean beauty more than a decade ago, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “What you put on your body is important, just like what you put in your body,” she said. Like the fresh food Ms. Bisharat grew up eating in Iran, clean-beauty products make her “feel I’m doing the very best possible thing [for myself].”
Especially if you have allergies or are predisposed to certain cancers or health issues, Ms. Douglas advocates being aware of ingredients. Unfortunately, deciphering labels is a challenge for most everyone but Ph.D. chemists, said Ms. Bisharat. Dermatologists and trusted clean-beauty sites like Credo Beauty and NakedPoppy can help cut out the guesswork. Dr. King recommends the latter site, calling it “a powerful tool for finding vetted, luxe clean beauty.”
6. Should you make the swap?
Dumping and replacing the contents of your makeup bag is hardly practical or eco-conscious. Plus, it’s stressful. “This language of ‘taking out all the toxins in your life’ [makes] people freak out,” said Ms. Palermino. “It’s a powerful marketing tool” that can make it seem like you’re never doing enough.
Switching to mineral sunscreen is an easy swap: Isdin Eryfotona Ageless Tinted Mineral Sunscreen and Eleven by Venus Williams Unrivaled Sun Serum are favorites of the experts I interviewed. Other clean hero-products aren’t blatantly branded as such, like Weleda Skin Food Original Ultra-Rich Cream, a $19 cream first formulated in 1926. Once villainized for being derived from petroleum oil, Vaseline is “one of the safest skin-care products you can buy,” argued Ms. Palermino, who said its refined formula has filtered out impurities.
New York cosmetic dermatologist and surgeon Dr. Dendy Engelman maintains that you don’t need to choose between clean and lab-made ingredients. She uses products that contain some synthetic ingredients provided they stick to clean standards like being paraben-free and animal-cruelty-free and adhering to fair labor practices. “I call these ‘cleanical’—both clean and clinical, or science-supported.” Glo Skin Beauty, Ambari Beauty and Humphreys Witch Hazel are her cleanical go-tos.
Ms. Matlin supports a measured approach: “A lot of brands use natural ingredients when it makes sense and synthetic ingredients when it makes sense,” she said. “I’m optimistic that everyone has the same North Star: safer, better products.”
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