By Tian Lan, Ph. D.
If you bought some cosmetic products for yourself or someone else in the past few years, you may notice the so-called clean beauty cosmetics have become quite popular. These products are often marketed with claims including, but are limited to, vegan, organic, green, natural, cruelty-free, paraben free, silicone free, sulfate free, etc. While some of these phrases may sound relatively foreign, the other phrases definitely echo popular sustainability concepts and therefore appear as the perfect choice. However, after doing some research, I realize that this clean beauty concept is quite complicated even for people who use cosmetics routinely.
First of all, “clean beauty” does not have a legal or official definition. Consequently, as commented by Good Face Project, many brands are simply defining clean beauty according to their agendas to attract customers. As U.S. law does not require most cosmetic products and ingredients to have FDA approval before their launch, consumers should look for products certified with widely acknowledged industrial standards (such as COSMOS, ECOCERT, LEAPING BUNNY, etc.) to ensure the brands are doing what they claim. However, if consumers like to take a step further and understand what these standards define, things start to get very sophisticated. For example, the COSMOS-standard has 46 pages and describes requirements for organic and natural cosmetics including the origin and processing of ingredients, composition, storage, manufacturing and packing, etc. Reading these documents is not a trivial task, but it is the most accurate way to understand what clean beauty products really are.
Unfortunately, the complexity of this topic does not end after you find products with the right certifications and understand the associated standards. Hyram, a skin care Vlogger with over 4 million subscribers on YouTube, gave a very interesting presentation on the controversial claims embraced by clean beauty cosmetics. As he mentioned, this movement has triggered a mini cold war between dermatologists and the clean beauty community. One of the most debated topics is whether natural ingredients are safer for humans than synthetic ones. For example, while the use of parabens is ditched by the clean beauty community because of their suspected link with breast cancer, the FDA’s response to this question is “FDA scientists continue to review published studies on the safety of parabens. At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”
Hyram suggested that one of the contributions of the clean beauty movement is that it encourages consumers to watch for cosmetic ingredients and consider what to put on their skin. However, that is not easy to accomplish either. While cosmetic brands are required to list ingredients by their INCI names (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient) that are overseen by PCPC (Personal Care Products Council), INCI names are rather generic. As acknowledged by PCPC: “while materials with the same INCI name might have similar chemistry, they could exhibit dramatically different physical characteristics. In fact, a diverse group of materials could have the same INCI name, yet different attributes and applications.” Only the formulation chemists know what the ingredients truly are and how much of them are used in each product.
In a nutshell, the concept of clean beauty is not as simple as it sounds. However, as history tells us, controversies often lead to great success as the parties involved challenge each other. Dermatologists and chemists might be correct in claiming that some synthetic materials are safer for humans than certain exotic natural ingredients. It is undeniable that certain synthetic materials, such as microbeads made of non-biodegradable plastics, are detrimental to the environment. Nowadays, many big cosmetic brands and their suppliers are investing significant amounts of money and effort in developing novel cosmetic ingredients and formulations that are more sustainable for the planet and safer for humans, taking advantage of cutting-edge material science and technologies. The clean beauty movement is no doubt one of the catalysts.