Clean Beauty or Anti-Science: Part II

This article is a continuation of my last post, published on February 28th, 2022.

Clean – for you and the environment

“Clean” branding and greenwashing – a misleading marketing strategy used to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly – are often intertwined. While most instances of greenwashing are subtle, implied by keywords like organic or naturally sourced, some companies are more flagrant with their marketing claims.

At the beginning of 2022, cosmetics giant Sephora launched such a campaign, labeling some products as “Clean and Planet Positive.” Products stamped with this seal of approval must be formulated with approved “clean” and sustainably sourced ingredients (they must be microplastic-free, and palm oil, mica, and CBD must “meet certain standards”). Products must also be responsibly packaged, meaning companies must “create internal reduction targets” and focus on using recycled or infinitely recyclable materials. At least 1% of profits must be donated to “a high-impact, long-term giving program that is multiyear and ongoing,” or the company must be a Certified B-corporation. Finally, companies must meet at least one of Sephora’s Climate Commitments by having carbon-neutral operations, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or their operations must be powered by 100% renewable energy.

On the surface level, these commitments seem promising, especially when these companies are called “the most ambitious clean brands on a mission to change the beauty landscape, and the earth, for the better.” But when digging into the fine print, it’s easy to see that these gold-standard products are not equal. There’s a big difference between committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving completely carbon-neutral operations, yet both allow a product to check the Climate Commitment box. As for sustainable ingredients, boasting microplastic-free formulations is easy to validate, but promising to encourage and ensure responsible mica sourcing by avoiding child and forced labor “whenever possible” certainly doesn’t meet the same standard. Again, although this certification is better than nothing, it can encourage companies to do the bare minimum when developing ethically-produced and sustainably-designed products.

“Clean” certifications are the industry’s equivalent of a participation trophyyou tried, here’s a medal.

Natural versus synthetic

In other instances, striving to create products worthy of clean beauty buzzwords can be antithetical to sustainability. First off, to call a product natural is void of any true meaning; there is no certification process behind this claim. Neither is chemical-free,  another common cliché. At least organic can only be used when a formulation has undergone external certification, validating that it does not contain any synthetic ingredients and that synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are avoided in cultivating plant-based materials.

No matter the claim, nature is not always harmless and synthetics are not something to be avoided at all costs. Essential oils, while natural, can be irritating and laden with toxic impurities. They are energy and resource-intensive to produce, as they are found in minute quantities in plant matter. Minerals that provide pigment and shimmer to many natural products are sourced through mining practices. Again, this is incredibly energy and resource-intensive and often relies on exploiting vulnerable people for the required labor. In these examples, we can see that it is more environmentally friendly and ethical to use a product formulated with synthetics.

Yet, clean products are not necessarily dirty or ineffective, just as poorly designed artificial ingredients can be polluting or contaminated. A molecule can be practical in one application and harmful in another. Some ingredients – no matter their origin – can be detrimental to the environment, damaging to sensitive skin, or downright dangerous to some users.

If you’re hungry, dieticians don’t recommend eating your cosmetics. Equally, dermatologists advise against using food as makeup.

So, what to do?

First of all, be aware of the key notions of toxicology. Just because a molecule is toxic in one setting, doesn’t mean that it should always be avoided at all costs. Remember that the dose makes the poison.

Consider how your products are used. Synthetic preservatives may not be necessary for the bread you’ll buy today and eat tomorrow, but they may help ensure the safety of a product that will live on your bathroom counter for the next two years. Food and personal hygiene products are not the same. Molecules in different settings serve different purposes and will not have the same impact on your health and well-being.

Be wary of homemade products. Personal hygiene products found in stores are developed by cosmetic chemists and validated by dermatologists and toxicologists. These experts understand how different formulations interact with you and your environment, leading to better product safety.

Call on your favorite companies to do more for the environment. While certification programs such as Sephora’s “Clean and Planet Positive” are a start, be aware that all products bearing these labels are not necessarily equal. Be conscious of which claims are substantiated by third-party organizations and which are just meaningless buzzwords. Support companies that are transparent in their efforts to achieve environmental sustainability and ethical production.

Don’t blindly favor natural products over synthetics. At the end of the day, when two substances share the same molecular structure, they are the same. Plus, some valuable molecules are exclusively man-made, and shouldn’t be devalued because of their lab-based origin.

Lastly, don’t get discouraged! Evaluating products and ingredients on a case-by-case basis is an arduous and complicated task. Don’t strive for perfection. Instead, strive to strike a balance between your personal needs and your ethical and environmental values. Remember that even slight changes can make a significant difference over time.

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