Spotlight On: Clean Beauty
What is clean beauty? You may be surprised to learn that there is no set definition. Generally, the concept is that a brand (or retailer) obtains some list of ‘dirty’ ingredients which are supposedly not good for us or the environment, and so long as a product doesn’t contain any of these ingredients, it is ‘clean’. Sounds simple, right? Well, in reality, it’s far from black and white.
Many ‘clean’ brands pride themselves on transparency, but the truth is, if brands focused more on what actually is in their products rather than simply listing what isn’t, this would create a much more transparent marketplace for the consumer.
Here, we explain why there’s a lot more to consider by outlining a few of the main problems with the clean beauty movement:
The fundamental principle of clean beauty is scientifically incorrect.
Perhaps clean beauty’s main flaw, the idea that an ingredient can be grouped into one of two categories, ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ aka ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is scientifically incorrect.
It’s similar to the issue with ‘toxic’ ingredients – another term the clean beauty movement loves to throw around. An ingredient itself is not necessarily toxic, but rather most ingredients have a toxic dosage. Just as there are safe dosages for drugs, there are safe concentrations of cosmetic ingredients. Everything can be ‘toxic’ or ‘bad’ if you don’t remove dosage from the equation.
If we took on the fundamentals of clean beauty and applied them to our everyday lives, we’d probably have nothing left to use, as everything has the potential to be ‘bad’.
Both usage and dosage are considered by authorities. For example, in the UK / EU there is a strict list of prohibited & restricted ingredients. All products must also undergo an independent safety assessment prior to being sold, where a qualified professional reviews each ingredient individually in the context of the overall product and how it will be used. In short, companies cannot sell products containing harmful ingredients.
There is no official definition of the term ‘clean’, anywhere.
This one may be surprising as, in an industry where there are endless regulations, there is no officially recognised definition of the word ‘clean’. Each brand has come up with its own definition, leading to a lack of clarity and consumer confusion. Where one company will label a product as ‘clean’ based on their definition, another company may not do so based on their own. When used in this way, it is a very real fear tactic - making other perfectly safe and legal products appear unsafe because they haven't chosen to use this labelling. In 2020, the EU published guidance against the use of ‘Free From’ claims on cosmetic products, in part because they promote unfounded negativity. We think that the same reasoning should be applied to the term 'clean'.
‘Natural’ is not always better than chemical.
This topic links closely to clean beauty, as many clean beauty brands also pride themselves on using natural ingredients, which are portrayed to be superior to using chemicals. The truth is, and as our Founder puts it, everything is a chemical, including water. There is not a single cosmetic product out there, no matter how short the INCI list, that uses no chemicals.
There are indeed naturally derived ingredients which can be included in skincare, such as willow bark extract, from which salicylic acid is derived, but again, this is still a chemical. If you prefer to use naturally derived ingredients, that is perfectly fine as that is your preference, but you cannot say that ‘natural’ is better than ‘chemical’ as the two are not synonyms.
So, now you can understand why the way the term ‘clean’ is used to substantiate products is completely misleading, as it does not tell us anything about the product itself. The bottom line is if you want to shop ‘clean’, go ahead, but just know that the term itself doesn’t make one product any better than another and it is, in all likelihood, no better for the environment - it is nothing more than a marketing tactic.
Words by Ceyda – Team Skin Rocks
Qualifications – MSci Chemistry