Are ‘toxic’ beauty products really to blame for everything from skin rashes to deforestation? Anita Bhagwandas finds out…
It has two billion hashtags on Instagram, over a billion Google results and everyone’s talking about it. No, this isn’t a piece about the climate crisis. We’re talking about ‘clean beauty’. This ambiguous term has become the catch-all phrase for anything that declares itself free from certain ingredients said to be harmful to you and the environment. Which by default means any product that isn’t ‘clean’ is terrible, dirty and basically trying to kill us. Right? Or is it simply that marketing and pseudoscience have gone batshit?
The term ‘clean beauty’ slid into our vernacular after the eruption of the clean-eating trend almost two decades ago, when books such as 2007’s The Eat-Clean Diet by Tosca Renolds sent everyone scurrying for green juices. Before long, as often happens with food trends (hello, superfoods and probiotics), beauty adopted the ethos wholeheartedly, led by Hollywood’s elite. Paltrow’s health-fad-loving Goop opened an e-shop in 2012, promoting clean eating and non-toxic beauty, while Jessica Alba launched Honest Beauty in 2015. Victoria Buchanan, senior futures analyst at The Future Laboratory, says the trend is driven by distrust: “Due to secretive supply chains and unregulated terminology, the beauty sector is facing a backlash from consumers who are seeking honesty, efficacy and simplicity. So as the consumer continues to scrutinise what’s in the products they put on their skin, clean beauty has become a new standard in the industry.”
But do we need it? Typically – as with everything from Brexit to whether to date anyone with a topless selfie on their Hinge profile – the answer isn’t a hard yes or no. But there are some things you should know. Firstly, that clean beauty is – like bubble masks or chrome nails – a trend, and one that has no set parameters, legislation or governing body to regulate it. It can mean anything from avoiding a couple of maligned ingredients, through to vague sustainability claims. “There’s a myth that clean beauty products are safer and better for your skin as well as being more sustainable,” cosmetic scientist Sam Farmer explains. “But they can often be far worse for the environment because of over-harvesting of the raw ingredients. And high quantities of certain natural oils can be irritating to the skin – in many cases engineered ones are safer.”
In the UK, we’re well protected from harmful chemicals. The EU Cosmetics Directive has banned 1,328 chemicals that can be used in beauty products in other non-EU countries (and the Cosmetics, Toiletry & Perfumery Association promises this won’t change with Brexit – phew). But in the US, the FDA (Food And Drug Administration) only prohibits 11 ingredients from being used in beauty products. Hence a US documentary called Toxic Beauty, which suggests chemicals in beauty products could be linked to infertility and cancer. Understandably, this is making people terrified of all chemicals.
But, argues dermatologist and author Dr Anjali Mahto, we need to get our facts straight. “Everything around us is a chemical – even water and olive oil. People think the products we’ve been using for years are suddenly going to kill us and that’s not the case.” On that note, let’s bust some other myths around clean beauty…
Natural beauty is better for you
Words like organic and natural are everywhere. But, as Sam explains, “‘Natural’ doesn’t mean anything in beauty because it’s an unregulated term. In fact, its use is currently being investigated by the International Organization For Standardization. And while organic food avoids the use of certain pesticides, those rules don’t just transfer to beauty.”
The Soil Association, Ecocert and Cosmos are just a few of the many independent bodies that help to regulate the organic beauty claim, but all have different standards to meet, eg different percentages of what needs to be organic in a product to label it so. Likewise, some check up on farms claiming to be organic once a year, some do this more often, others less.
Natural doesn’t mean better for your skin either. “Going natural or organic doesn’t always mean you’ll solve skin issues,” says cosmetic biochemist and Elequra founder Nausheen Qureshi. “It could even make them more sensitive if the formulator isn’t an expert.” Dr Mahto adds: “Most so-called ‘clean beauty’ products don’t have the clinical studies that engineered ingredients do, so you might spend money on something that doesn’t deliver the results you’re looking for.”
Another reason you might want to avoid going all-in with natural ingredients is that it could actually be detrimental to the environment. “If we switched fully to plant extracts for all our skincare, the burden on the planet to produce those huge quantities would cause production problems, increased costs and shortages,” cautions Nausheen. We’ve already seen that with Indian sandalwood, which has become over-harvested and can be traded illegally due to its high demand in perfumery.
So what do you do? “Learn about the ingredients from an unbiased expert [doctors and cosmetic scientists like Dr Mahto and Sam are on Insta] and then make an informed choice that doesn’t have anything to do with fear,” says Dr Mahto.
Parabens are going to kill you
Trump, people with backpacks on public transport and parabens – they’re on everyone’s shit-list. The latter were introduced in the 1950s as a preservative to extend the product shelf life. They go by the names methylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben, and are in pretty much every mass beauty or household product. So, what’s the problem? The controversy came when a widely cited study by Reading University in 2004 found traces of parabens in the breast tissue of 40 women who had mastectomies. The study proved parabens were potentially able to penetrate the skin. That they had caused cancer was unproven – but the big jump was made regardless by the tabloids. Many scientists and Cancer Research have discredited the study – pointing out no healthy tissue was examined. But because of the panic, NHS Direct wrote on its website: “As the researchers themselves concluded, the fact that parabens are present in breast tissue samples taken from women with breast cancer does not mean that parabens caused the cancer. Breast cancer is known to have many risk factors, and it is unlikely that any single chemical would be a dominant risk factor.” Mic drop.
Chemicals will make me infertile
Parabens get the blame here again. That’s because they can slightly mimic the behaviour of our body’s oestrogen hormones by binding to our oestrogen receptors, but that doesn’t mean they will. Cancer Research’s website says though parabens have similarities to oestrogen (high levels of which could increase the risk of certain cancers), they are far weaker in beauty products and “any effects are likely to be overwhelmed by the natural oestrogen produced in our body, or similar chemicals found in our diet.” Sam agrees that it isn’t cause for concern: “The doses of parabens used in beauty products are minute.” Luckily, any parabens linked to reproductive problems are currently banned from use in the UK.
Sulphates are toxic
Another much-demonised ingredient: sulphates – known as SLS, or sodium lauryl sulphate, and SLES, sodium laureth ether sulphate. Both are surfactants that help to remove oils and allow foams to form – like the delightful lather we see in shampoos and bubble baths. But despite being used safely since the 1930s, sulphates have a bad rep because they’ve been lumped in with the fear around parabens (them again) and their potential to irritate the skin. “If you suffer with conditions like eczema or psoriasis, or have very dry skin, sulphates can be a little drying,” says Dr Mahto. “But crucially, they’re not toxic. The process of washing strips your skin, so even if you use 100% natural ingredients, your skin will be drier than it was before,” she says. “As scientists, we use sulphates because they are the best cleansers available, help extend shelf life and are a cost-effective ingredient,” adds Nausheen. “However, long-term use can dry out skins that are sensitive and prone to dehydration.” So, to avoid or not to avoid? If you suspect an allergy, don’t self-diagnose. “A dermatologist can identify what it is you’re sensitised to,” Dr Mahto continues. Above all, unless you want to, you don’t need to give up your lather.
Palm oil is the worst of them all
Firstly, many oils have issues. But palm oil seems to be the new ‘F’ word in beauty. That’s because around 90% of the world’s oil palms are grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, and palm oil is in 70% of all beauty products. It’s such an efficient crop that everyone wants a piece of it, causing land grabs, mass deforestation, the loss of habitat for wildlife (such as gorillas and orangutans) and human rights issues for workers. According to Mintel, 56% of shoppers would buy – or boycott – a brand depending on its ethical values, so why are we using it? “We add plant oils to beauty products for efficacy and to help bind and create a texture,” says Sam. “Palm oil has a high yield for a small area, making it a very cost-effective raw ingredient. One acre of palm can yield as much as ten acres of rapeseed. Palm grows for 25 years and is a year-round crop, while rapeseed and sunflower only have one crop a year, and generally need to be replanted yearly. If you look at the energy costs versus other oils, and the soil damage from all the replanting, palm oil is much more environmentally friendly. But there was no regulation – so harvesting was exploited,” he explains.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up to change this and ensure ethical treatment of workers. Dr Inke van der Sluijs, head of EU operations, says, “Using RSPO-certified sustainable oil actually adds to the value of a product as it guarantees a level of sustainability and fairness that people recognise,” she says. Brands including The Body Shop, Dr Hauschka and Bentley Organics use RSPO palm; L’Oréal has pledged to achieve 100% traceability on its palm oil usage, and Estée Lauder has adopted a no-deforestation policy where palm oil suppliers must prove no trees were felled in the process. Bottom line? RSPO palm is fine, you just have to check before you buy. Phew, glad we cleared all that up.
WTF is on the box?
Navigate packaging symbols like a pro
RSPO: Responsibly Sourced Palm Oil – responsible harvesting and ethical treatment along the entire production line.
Vegan: no animal-derived ingredients.
Leaping Bunny or PETA: totally cruelty-free.
FSC: Forest Stewardship Council – paper/cardboard has a sustainable source and no deforestation or illegal felling has occurred.
SA: the Soil Association – no animal testing, GM ingredients, controversial chemicals, parabens, phthalates, synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances or nano particles. And, breathe…
Ecocert Natural: at least 50% plant-based ingredients.
Ecocert Organic: at least 95% plant-based ingredients and 10% organic ingredients.
Cosmos: the supergroup of global eco certifiers attempting to standardise what ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ stand for.