The era of clean beauty: a revolution or a gimmick?

It is perhaps a truth universally acknowledged that trends in the beauty industry come and go faster than Boris Johnson’s relentless levels of lockdowns. “Clean beauty” is no exception to the rule, with an increasing number of major brands jumping onto bandwagon, releasing products donning clean, white packaging and sage green minimalist lettering to further sell us their vision of what it means to be “clean” in the beauty industry.

This new era promises many things – a skincare regime that is “nontoxic” with “no nasties”, and free of chemicals. The luxury skincare brand Drunk Elephant is a key example of how this “clean” movement is embodied as they warn their consumers of the “suspicious six”, a handful of “harmful” ingredients they claim are at the root of all of our skin issues. These alleged culprits are primarily parabens and sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which are the two ingredients that have been cut out from nearly all “clean beauty” brands. Advocates of the movement emphasise findings that suggest links between parabens, a preservative ingredient, and hormone-related cancers, yet FDA scientists still conclude, “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.” Similarly SLS, a surfactant used to create the lather found in products such as shampoos, is deemed as an irritant to be avoided at all costs. Prof Guy Richard, however, notes in The Guardian , “Given that SLS is still found in many personal care products, this suggests that it is generally being used at sufficiently low levels that irritation is avoided.” From this it becomes vividly clear that while the “clean beauty” movement may be well-intentioned, many of the claims pushed forward by its advocates are often not widely supported by scientific data. 

Jen Novakovich from The Eco Well elaborates further on how many “clean beauty” claims are not entirely backed by science. Critiquing the notion that “clean” products are synonymous with being “safer” for consumers, Novakovich exemplifies the reality that it is simply illegal to sell a product that is unsafe, with there being multiple processes in order to rigorously check the safety of ingredients. Furthermore, the prominent use of the word “toxic” in “clean beauty” marketing becomes problematic when it is weaponised in the fear-mongering of “chemicals”.  After all, anything can be toxic – the focus here lies on the dose used of the ingredient, rather than the general presence of the ingredient itself. Brands often point to out-dated studies where the ingredient is used in a way not relevant to cosmetics, thus loosely connecting science to their agenda in order to build on the notion of “clean beauty” being “safer”. 

Another common claim within this movement is that “cleaner” products are also more sustainable, or “green”, with natural ingredients being better for the environment than their synthetic counterparts. Novakovich highlights the fallacy of this overly simplistic point of view by pointing to how many of the natural and organic ingredients used in “clean beauty” products are in fact massively resource intensive to produce. An example to think about here is the growing demand for aromatherapy. To produce a single pound of rose essential oil, you would need to source approximately 10,000lbs of plant material. How could this ever be sustainable when it requires increasingly vast amounts of land? Instead we need to focus on reducing our agricultural impact, with this being one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss, in order to tackle environmental issues. In many cases, it can be far more environmentally friendly to produce some ingredients synthetically. 

The “clean beauty” movement may certainly be well-intentioned as it has made consumers more conscious of the ways in which their beauty products can contribute to the climate crisis we are currently battling, and has pushed us to consider on a deeper level what ingredients we put on our skin. However, it is also a movement that embodies a distrust of science when it pushes the divisive narrative of what is “clean” by thus implying other products are “dirty”. While there is always room for improvement in the industry, it is still unnecessarily conspiratorial to suggest that the strict regulations we have in place are not truly there – a conspiracy that runs deep within this movement and by its advocates but is simply not backed by science. There may indeed be instances where natural and organic ingredients are better, but the same can be said for synthetic ingredients too. The blanket statements often claimed by advocates disregard the complex nature of the science behind the cosmetics industry, ultimately only making consumers feel guilty when they are unable to pay the largely luxury price tag of these “clean beauty” products. All in all, the “clean beauty” movement is more a new marketing scheme being implemented by brands to target their environmentally-conscious audience than anything truly substantial to our skincare routines. 

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