Clean Beauty: A Revolution Or Consumer-Driven Craze?

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It’s the end of August and the end of my month-long focus on clean beauty. When I originally cooked up the theme for this month, I thought I would use the book, No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, by Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, as a guideline for my research and posts. I read it well over a year ago, and I was shocked by all the “dirty secrets” of the beauty industry and motivated to completely switch up my beauty and personal care routine. But as I did more reading on the topic, I came to realize that it wasn’t so simple.

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This book is not written by toxicologists, but by journalists who use scare tactics to further their message. They recommend the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and its Skindeep Database as a resource for clean beauty products, which I was led to believe is looking out for my health and safety, but actually uses questionable science to promote products that make them money. The reporting in No More Dirty Looks is important, but it’s certainly not objective, as all good science should be. This left me more confused than ever, and I was at a loss as to how to approach this topic on my blog.

This article from The Guardian was just one reason I began to question what I thought I knew about clean beauty. In it, author Nicola Davis writes that Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant, a skincare brand hyperfocused on the clean beauty ideal, said she doesn’t think parabens (preservatives used in beauty products) are actually bad for you. Drunk Elephant doesn’t include parabens in their beauty products, not because they are considered harmful, but because consumers think they are, and don’t want to buy products that include them. Davis goes on to point out that perhaps the clean beauty movement spawned from the fact that consumers will avoid ingredients we are told are bad for us, whether those claims are backed by science or not.

On the other hand, The Guardian is a UK-based publication, and the cosmetics industry in the United Kingdom and European Union is far more regulated than it is here in the US. In fact, the EU has banned or restricted over 1,300 chemicals for use in cosmetics, where as the US has only banned 11 (source). 

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In the end, I’ve decided it may be best to take the same approach to cosmetics as Michael Pollan suggests for food in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.” In other words, simple is best. A bar of soap doesn’t need to claim to reverse aging, make your skin glow, and solve all your problems, because it’s just a bar of soap (though of course some soaps do make such claims). We know what soap is, we know what it’s for, and we know we need to use it, plain and simple.

That’s not to say I will stop using beauty products or that I will ignore the labels on them. On the contrary, I think it’s extremely important to read the labels on make-up and hygiene products and to understand what the ingredients are and why they are there; just like we should do with food products. In fact, it’s perhaps even more important to read labels on personal care products than it is with food because the cosmetics industry in the US is essentially unregulated. With the exception of color additives, neither cosmetic products nor their ingredients are required to be approved by the FDA before going to market (source). Thus, brands only face backlash after they’ve already harmed people or the environment, like with lead in lipstick and plastic microbeads in face wash.

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So I will continue to avoid ingredients that rigorous scientific testing has demonstrated to be harmful to human health or the environment, including the aforementioned lead and microbeads, as well as aluminum in deodorant, and I will try to select products with as few ingredients as possible. Now, more than ever, I will choose products with minimal packaging for the sake of reducing my environmental impact. I will also prioritize products from small, sustainable brands, rather than large corporations, such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. No matter what the product is, I know I don’t want to support corporations, which almost always have questionable business practices, from fueling the opioid crisis, to contributing to deforestation through their use of palm oil. There are plenty of reasons to be a conscious consumer when it comes to beauty and personal care products, and ingredient concerns are just one of them.

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