Clean Beauty or Anti-Science: Part I

As a teen in the early 2010s, I remember watching YouTube videos of influencers’ makeup collections. These people would have thousands of dollars worth of cosmetics stashed away in custom Ikea closets, opening drawers to reveal hundreds of lipsticks in nearly indistinguishable shades or eyeshadow palettes of every imaginable color. In recent years, these over-the-top makeup collections, in all their gaudy glory, have given way to a rise in skincare and multi-purpose cosmetics. With the rise of the “that girl” aesthetic, social media stars and regular consumers alike are increasingly turning towards products promising a natural, fresh look. With their minimalist designs, they speak to a sense of health, self-care, and safety – all so desirable in a time of increasing global instability.

Welcome to the new era of cosmetics consumerism: clean beauty.

Store shelves are now lined with “clean” products claiming to be all-natural, preservative-free, sustainable, toxin-free, or “formulated without harmful ingredients”. Without a precise definition for what “clean” really means, retailers have designed their own criteria for a product to be worthy of the coveted green checkmark. There is no official certification process for what “clean” really means.

All of this amounts to a new wave of confusing morality marketing, greenwashing, and skincare misinformation. Fundamentally, “clean beauty” is just another consumer buzzword, ignorant of actual science.

The dose makes the poison

It’s true that some ingredients in skincare and cosmetics are associated with certain levels of risk. Especially in North America, where our governmental regulatory bodies are less strict than their European counterparts (11 FDA-banned ingredients versus the EU’s much more comprehensive list), some formulations should be called into question. But it’s really not as simple as omitting a few hot-button ingredients, slapping on a “clean” label, and calling it a day.

You can’t judge ingredients without considering how they’re used

Beauty blogger Michelle Wong, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, is passionate about debunking the “clean beauty” myth. She emphasizes key notions in toxicology, the science of how objectively good or bad substances really are, to justify her arguments. Dose, application method, hazard, and risk are important to consider when judging a product’s safety.

“You can’t say that an ingredient is good or bad without considering how it’s used,” she writes in a November 2020 article. “Drinking a glass of water is very different from inhaling a glass of water. And the amount of ingredient that you use makes a huge difference as well: inhaling some steam is very different from inhaling a whole river.”

The same logic can be applied to the products we use on our skin.

A few case studies

Every molecule has its own level of toxicity: even water can be dangerous if you drink too much at once. How a molecule is used, its concentration, exposure over time, products of degradation, its metabolites… many factors need to be considered when evaluating an ingredient’s safety. It’s not a simple process.

Parabens are commonly vilified in the name of “clean beauty”. This class of chemicals, used as preservatives in cosmetics, are absorbed into the body when used on the skin. Some studies have linked parabens to hormone disruption, certain cancers, and causing wrinkles – which is technically true. But these studies have been criticized for being performed on rats who ate or were injected with parabens (we aren’t rats, and parabens in cosmetics are topically applied at much lower concentrations), having small sample sizes and no control, or only being performed in vitro (you can’t assume the same results in living animals).

Plus, there are lots of different parabens, each with their own respective toxicities, and “clean beauty” ingredients lists don’t appreciate this nuance. Instead, all parabens, at all concentrations and intended uses, are lumped together on lists of molecules to be avoided. Forget the fact that parabens are especially effective at preventing fungi and bacteria from colonizing personal hygiene products… and who actually replaces all of their makeup when it expires?

Even when formulated with parabens, mascara is only good for a mere 3 to 6 months

Retinoids, man-made or natural derivatives of vitamin A, have been successfully used to treat or prevent a wide variety of skin conditions. Topical retinoic acid or tretinoin can help clear up acne or reverse signs of skin damage. Isotretinoin, a molecular cousin, is instead taken orally as a powerful medication and can cause severe birth defects if taken while pregnant. Yet vitamin A, the core structure, is essential in the human diet to maintain good health. The point here is that differences between molecules, no matter how slight, represent drastically different levels of risk – no matter if naturally sourced or synthesized in a lab.

Lipstick and other lip-products are often inadvertently ingested. If these types of cosmetics are your go-to, you may choose to opt for food-grade formulations. But if lipstick is something you reserve solely for rare occasions, then it may be smarter to skip the “clean” label, choosing a less expensive product with a longer shelf life instead. Again, it’s all about evaluating how much of a particular component you may be exposed to over time, its inherent hazards, and the overall risk it may pose to your health.

Clearly, judging the safety of our cosmetics isn’t black or white.

Stay tuned for Part II, which will explore what it means when a product is “all-natural” or man-made, sustainable ingredients, and the genuine dangers of homemade makeup and counterfeit cosmetics.

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