The Billion Dollar Beauty Movement That Needs to Clean up Their Act
Last year, when the world woke up to the reality of a global pandemic, people predictably rushed to buy essentials like water and cleaning supplies. The sleeper hit? Toilet paper. In the US, restrictions were quickly put in place on how many rolls you could purchase. Toilet paper shortages and panic were widespread. Social psychologist Sander van der Linden noted in an article for CNBC that our collective toilet paper hoarding was thanks to a phenomenon called “fear contagion.” This fear contagion was powerful in motivating buying behavior of toilet paper in not one country, but globally. The adage in advertising is usually “sex sells” but the reality is, fear is more profitable. Sex sells, fear spreads.
The fear formula works something like this: create an anxiety (the villain), provide the solution (be the hero). This is what makes using fear one of the more predatory marketing tactics; you’re exacerbating anxiety to motivate a purchase. Toilet paper companies didn’t incite fear, society did, but the impact on sales was clear. The anxieties marketers create within these ‘clean’ movements are varied but all offer a similar promise, their brand is safe to use unlike all those other dirty brands. Whether the marketing play is around the vague idea of toxins or the idea that you can’t trust governments, institutions or experts, the end message is always the same; you don’t have to be scared if you buy from us. As with any fear-based message, regardless of its truth, the contagion spreads.
You may be surprised to learn the “clean living” movement didn’t originate with a wellness newsletter or a west coast detox retreat, it started with the white temperance movement in the 1890s. In a paper documenting the resurgence of clean living in the 1990s, Dr. Ruth C. Engs, Professor Emeritus from Indiana University’s Department of Applied Health Science, notes that America’s obsession with “clean” and “pure” living started in the late 19th century. Dr. Engs writes that in addition to a “health and fitness campaign that advocated a diet rich in whole grain products, exercise, self-help books, filtered water, and warnings about the danger of heavy caffeine” there was also a heavy emphasis on temperance and controlling reproductive rights. Per Engs goes on to say; “Reformers claimed eliminating the evils of alcohol, tobacco, and pornography [including birth control] would return traditional family values and lead to a prosperous Golden Era free from crime.” While the next generation of clean living that Engs later documented coalesced around single-issue advocacy groups, it’s interesting that at the same time that “clean living” was coming back in Vogue, the Environmental Working Group (the EWG) was founded.
No organisation has codified and mobilised clean eating and beauty quite like the EWG. Originally founded in 1993, two years after Dr. Engs paper, as a “think tank” by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles, the group came to notoriety by publishing “dirty” food lists in the mid 90s and circulating now debunked anti-vaccine research. If dirty lists and fear around life-saving vaccines sounds familiar, that’s because the language from the EWG on food and health formed the modern clean beauty movement and it’s messaging is consistently rooted in fear.
Speaking with Erin, widely known as Food Science Babe, a chemical engineer and a food scientist, she explains EWG lists like the “Dirty Dozen” are deeply misleading due to their flawed science. These lists rank fruits and vegetables from “cleanest” to “dirtiest” based on pesticide residue. But, there’s a catch. Food Science Babe explains (along with any expert in the space), that the EWG “manipulates the USDA PDP data, which shows us year after year how incredibly safe our food is from a pesticide residue perspective.” For example “in 2019 over 99% of the samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Erin explains. Erin goes on to note that these lists simply count the number of pesticide residues on each food. To put this into context, a fruit could be completely coated in a pesticide but be listed as “cleaner” than a fruit that has trace amounts of four pesticides. The list only counts the number of pesticides, not the dose or potential harm of the specific pesticide.
The same year the EWG trademarked their “Dirty Dozen” list, the EWG got into skincare. In 2004 Skin Deep® launched. Much like how the EWG approaches food, the database lists potential toxins in skincare ranking their “potential harm” with flawed interpretations. Mirroring the “Dirty Dozen,” these lists do not take into consideration dose, mode of exposure, and selectively choose which studies to list. For example, essential oils are routinely given “safe” seals of approval despite being well documented to be potentially dangerous based on dose. Conversely, certain synthetic ingredients are given much higher ratings despite having little data on harm. Erin from Food Science Babe points out the organisation appeals to nature fallacies and fear around science. Playing into these fears has led to the creation of multi-billion dollar industries.
Ren skincare launched with “no” lists alongside ingredient blacklists in 2000, Tata Harper in 2007 became the “Queen of Green” popularising the vague yet effective term “non toxic skincare.” Drunk Elephant launched to enormous success with the storyline of the suspicious 6 ingredients in skincare and finally, retailers started to crop up further spreading the dogma of clean. Retailers like The Detox Market, Follain and Credo all started opening doors with the promise to sell you products that aren’t dirty. Credo boasts the largest ban list of all retailers with a whopping 2700 ingredients. On Credo’s “why clean” page they simply state “what you put on your skin matters.” Directly under this banner is a $58 mascara you can “swap” your current (presumably dirty) mascara for. The result of clean’s “fear contagion” is clear; the industry is projected to be worth 22 billion dollars by 2024. While the EWG likes to frame itself as solely a non-profit, it is important to note that while the EWG is a non-profit, in 2002 the EWG founded their sister lobbying organization, the EWG Action Fund. This allows for the EWG to lobby for corporate interests without violating their non-profit status. In 2015, their tax returns showed the EWG spent $700,000 in lobbying and $555,000 of this was expenditures to influence a legislative body.
Anke Ginzburg, PharmChem PhD, a pharmacist and Cosmetic Scientist who has specialised in plant extractions explained that “trends have always driven formulations” but seeing the rise of clean beauty, she knew it “was the start of something terrible.” Ginzburg explains that we now have a situation where we have a beauty consumer who’s increasingly scared, confused and misguided about what is safe in skincare. Instead of being informed on what is best for their skin, the environment and their wallets, consumers are increasingly being alienated from science. Put plainly, making products more effective, safe and sustainable is a noble cause; the clean beauty movement is getting us further away from that goal, all while profiting on the confusion.
Take for example the widely cited claim that there are 1400 banned ingredients in Europe and only 11 banned in the US. Brands have built their entire raison d’etre off the idea they don’t use any of these banned EU ingredients. Despite media outlets repeating the lie, the reality is in the United States you don’t need to ban crude oil, chloroform and prescriptions from cosmetics. They aren’t present in formulas because it’s illegal to include them. Last I checked, you can’t go to Sephora and pick up spironolactone, one of the banned EU ingredients from cosmetics.
So what would be helpful? Making Good Manufacturing Practices (currently a guidance in the United States) compulsory, requiring companies to assemble detailed safety data testing on ingredients, extensive stability testing prior to launching products and finally more detailed toxicology data. These are requirements in Europe that brands can be creative on avoiding in the United States.
If these weren’t reason enough to question the credibility of “clean,” the movement has another glaring issue; it’s built by and profited on largely by white people. Natural remedies and holistic healing are largely from ingredients and practices that originate from cultures white society either rejected or persecuted for practicing. To then profit off of these ingredients without recognising the history and origins of ingredients isn’t a very clean practice, especially as Black, brown and indigenous communities have very real reasons to be suspicious of medical institutions. Black maternal mortality rates are astronomically higher than white maternal deaths, lack of representation is rampant, and generally when looking at American systems and institutions, the track record is abysmal in its treatment of non-white, poor and vulnerable communities. To play into these understandable fears demonising products like Vaseline while trying to sell more expensive products that aren’t always held to higher standards is, quite simply, fucked up.
The reality is the beauty industry is far from perfect. Clean beauty wouldn’t have taken the industry by storm if it was. Looking at the US market, there is a long list of things to fix. Before using fear to sell you a moisturiser, the fear of ageing or imperfection was more common and still happens. Focusing on outrageous marketing claims versus science has led to disillusionment on what products can do. Due to the FDA being poor at enforcing regulations, brands can skirt the rules or create products that would fail the most basic of stability testing. That being said, panicking and focusing all attention on ingredients that are demonstrably safe is detrimental to a better beauty industry. You can’t fight the right problems with the wrong solutions. It’s a distraction from areas where the industry needs to change. This includes regulating marketing claims, understanding environmental toxicity of ingredients, ensuring the stability of products, having enforceable manufacturing practices and ensuring every ingredient in formulas is not only traceable but has extensive safety data.
Improving on issues like safety, measuring environmental harm and understanding toxicology data are things every industry should look at, including beauty. Instead, we are left with a growing movement that uses fear instead of reason, which, while helping bottom lines glow up, does nothing to benefit you or your skin.