If you use beauty products, it’s impossible to not have heard of clean beauty. It’s a revolution. You want your products to be clean – you don’t want to use dirty products! You want your products to be good for your health and good for the environment. There are beautiful celebrities telling you about how they detoxed and cleaned out their beauty routine, and how much better they feel.
But what if all of this was based on a lie?
Let’s talk about the science – or the lack of science – behind clean beauty.
Here’s the video version on YouTube, keep scrolling for the written version…
What Is Clean Beauty?
Clean beauty is one of those concepts that everyone seems to understand, but no one can really agree on an exact definition (like “good music”).
Generally the idea is:
- You download a list of dirty or nasty ingredients from somewhere, and these are supposedly not good for your health or not good for the environment.
- You check your product’s ingredients against this list.
- If it has any of these ingredients it’s dirty, if it doesn’t then it’s clean.
It’s a pretty straightforward concept – enticingly simple – and like a lot of other enticingly simple concepts, it doesn’t actually work (if it did, I wouldn’t be writing this post).
Firstly, just to clarify:
- I care about my health. I exercise regularly, I eat a balanced diet, I want to use safe and effective products, and I’m not willing to trade my health for nicer skin.
- I also love the environment. I grew up in a semi-rural part of Australia, I love bush walks, I try to recycle, I try to reduce my carbon footprint. I take public transport, I vote for politicians who want to do something about climate change, I donate every year to environmental causes.
What I’m against is:
- Feel-good actions that don’t actually make us more healthy or potentially make us less healthy
- Feel good actions that don’t actually help the environment or even make it worse
- Corporations taking advantage of consumers’ good intentions by marketing their products based on feel-good actions and myths, so you end up buying products that don’t actually do what they promise (and it comes with a big dose of fear-mongering and guilt-tripping on the side)
- People who should really know better, whether they’re scientists or companies that can afford to hire scientific advisors, spreading myths about what does and doesn’t hurt your health and the environment
If you’ve spread any of these myths in the past, don’t feel too bad. We’re all human! I’ve done it before. We just have to be open to new information, try to assess it critically, and do better in the future.
And before anyone calls me a shill, this post isn’t sponsored. There are a lot of companies in my inbox who want to pay me to talk about how clean their products are, but I can’t because that’s completely against how science and reality work.
With all of that out of the way, let’s talk about why clean beauty is BS.
(I’m going to be focusing on the health side of clean beauty because that’s what most brands focus on, and this post is long enough already. There are massive issues with the environmental side of clean beauty as well – I might talk about that in the future.)
Hazard vs Risk
First off, ingredients aren’t clean or dirty.
Clean beauty divides ingredients into clean and dirty, or nice and nasty, or yay and icky, or non-suspicious and suspicious, or non-toxic and toxic, or whatever version the brand’s marketing team wants them to use.
But you can’t say that an ingredient is good or bad without considering how it’s used. Drinking a glass of water is very different from inhaling a glass of water. And the amount of ingredient that you use makes a huge difference as well: inhaling some steam is very different from inhaling a whole river.
In toxicology (the science of how good and bad substances are for you), there’s the concept of a hazard and a risk.
- A hazard is a potential source of harm
- A risk is how likely that harm will actually happen in a given situation
I asked Dr Fred Lebreux to explain these concepts – he’s a chemist with a PhD in medicinal chemistry, and a toxicologist with more than 10 years of experience in evaluating cosmetic products. He’s the CEO of Biorius, a company that specialises in safety assessments and regulatory compliance for cosmetic products.
Fred: “The risk is a product between exposure and hazard, which means that if there is no exposure, even if the hazard is very high, the risk is very low. And when you come to cosmetic products, it just means that a substance by itself is not good or bad – it is more how you are exposed to this substance that is so critical.
To explain I will use a very simple example: the example of a lion.
So the lion is intrinsically dangerous. It has the potential to be very hazardous. But it doesn’t mean automatically that it is risky.
If you go to the zoo and you are behind the bars, there is absolutely no risk. The lion is dangerous of course – it remains dangerous – but there is no risk because there is no exposure to this lion.
If you are in Africa, in a safari, and you are in front of a lion and there are no bars between this lion and yourself, the risk is very high because the hazard is the same, but the exposure is not the same anymore. The exposure is much higher.”
So the fundamental problem with clean beauty is that it makes you rule out ingredients and products based on the hazards – the potential dangers – without considering your exposure, to work out the overall risk of the situation you’re up against. It’s like never drinking water because you’re scared of drowning.
That’s why every brand has a different nasty list – because this approach makes no sense. If you only look at hazards, then every single ingredient can be considered hazardous.
Sometimes clean beauty lists have a token disclaimer saying you have to also consider where and how you use a product, and how much you’re using, so it’s not like they haven’t heard of the idea of risk. But then they go on to completely ignore this by telling you it’s black or white, clean or dirty: if it’s on the list it’s out, regardless of how much exposure you get.
How Scientists Actually Work Out Risk
So how do real toxicologists work out how much of an ingredient is safe to use in cosmetics?
Fred: “Once we have qualified this danger, we have to assess the exposure. What’s the quantity of a given ingredient? What’s the quantity that will end up on the face of a consumer? And it’s not that easy to calculate – it’s a lot of equations, it’s a lot of calculations, but we have to do it. And many parameters are taken into consideration.
So: how many times a consumer is going to use the product on average? What quantity is going to be used? Is it a pea-sized amount, is it more, is it less? Is it a rinse-off product? Is it a leave-on product? So all of that is going to have a great impact.
And once we have a clear exposure scenario, and a very good idea of how much of an ingredient is going to end up on the face of a consumer, we can really compare the hazard and the exposure. As you know the risk is an equation: it’s the product of hazard and exposure.”
This is how the usage limits are set – how much of an ingredient that formulators are meant to use in a product. These limits are based on how much of a product you use, how many times you’ll use it in a day, whether it’s rinse off or leave on, and it’s added up across all the different products that you might reasonably use.
Parabens: personally victimised by clean beauty
Let’s look at one example: parabens. These are really useful preservatives that are found on lots of dirty lists. According to these lists, parabens are linked to hormonal or endocrine disruption, they can increase the risk of breast cancer, and they can be irritating to skin.
All of this is technically true and it sounds really scary – no one wants cancer or endocrine problems! But if you look closely at the actual evidence, and if you have some idea of how to interpret it, you’ll start to see problems.
(Side note: most of these “dirty” lists were not put together by scientists, and certainly not toxicologists. More often than not, they don’t cite any studies to back up what they’re saying.)
Related post: Should You Be Avoiding Parabens? The Science
Not all parabens are the same
First off, there are lots of different parabens, and these all have different hazards and risks. But most clean beauty lists just lump them all together. Some of them talk about them separately… and then lump them together anyway.
Studies aren’t interpreted with nuance
When they actually list the studies, a lot of them are done in vitro on cells, or on animals. Cells and animals behave very differently from living human skin – cells can die with tap water, and dogs can die from chocolate. Animal studies also usually involve really unrealistic situations that have limited relevance to how we use parabens in everyday life – for example, a lot of these involved having rats that ate large amounts of parabens.
Human studies also haven’t found a really clear link to health effects, even though parabens have been used for about a hundred years. Parabens are mildly estrogenic, but compared to a lot of the other estrogens we encounter in everyday life like by eating tofu they are really mild.
You can also see a pattern in how these companies treat natural and synthetic chemicals. Natural chemicals aren’t held up to the same level of scrutiny as synthetic chemicals, even though there are lots of natural ingredients that aren’t good for you. This is the appeal to nature bias which I’ve talked about before.
Related post: Are Natural Beauty Products Better?
More knowledgeable people have already interpreted these studies
On top of this, toxicologists have analysed all of these studies before and published their conclusions – this is how the safe limits of ingredients and cosmetics are set (as part of the hazard assessment part of the safety assessment). They regularly re-review new studies. It’s not like these clean beauty organisations are digging up damning new evidence that no one’s ever thought to look at before.
I’m not saying that we won’t someday find out that parabens or some other “toxic” ingredients are actually bad for our health. New science can come out that changes our perspectives. My point is that on one side, we have scientists with years and years of specialised knowledge and experience in this specific area saying that these levels are safe – and on the other side, we have people who don’t know the very basics of toxicology with a very obvious financial interest saying that we need to avoid them entirely.
Why take any risk at all?
But why take any risk at all? Why not take out any ingredients that could potentially be hazardous?
Firstly, the risk is usually so small that there’s very little difference.
Fred: “…and the goal is not to take any risk. So basically we are going to take the danger, we are going to divide it by the exposure, and we obtain what we call a margin of safety. And this margin of safety is at least 100.
So the idea is we have to be absolutely sure that the exposure to the consumer is much, much lower than the quantity that may lead to an expression of a danger for the consumer.
That’s a very quick summary of what we do on a daily basis: we evaluate the danger, toxicological endpoint by toxicological endpoint, ingredient per ingredient, then we evaluate the exposure of a given cosmetic product and we are going via a complicated equations to mix the hazard and and the exposure to quantify the risk. And this risk cannot be significant. So this is why we talk about a margin of safety, to be sure that the risk that is taken by the consumer is very insignificant.”
So it’s not like the amount of parabens or other ingredients that we use in cosmetics are just below the level where we see an effect or even half that – it’s under 100 times less than that. It’s already a pretty darn precautionary approach.
And it’s important to remember that nothing in life is risk-free – a lot of the time that ingredient has an important function in the product, so getting rid of it or using alternative ingredients isn’t necessarily a less risky choice.
Option 1: Using no preservatives
Preservatives are in products for a very good reason: every time you open a product it comes into contact with air, which has microbes like bacteria, yeast and mold. These can get into the product and start growing, and can reach dangerous levels even if the product still smells and looks OK.
If you then put the contaminated product on your skin, it can cause infections, and if it gets near your eyes you can go blind. A lot of these microbes also produce allergens and irritants that can cause skin reactions. So these are very real health problems that have actually happened, compared to the largely theoretical risks with preservatives.
Preservatives have been a bit of a victim of their own success, just like with vaccines. We don’t usually think of these risks when we use cosmetic products. Preservatives work so well that these problems are quite rare, and we take them for granted.
Unless your product was manufactured under completely sterile conditions, with completely sterile raw ingredients, and you’re only using it in a completely sterile way (like an air-free container that doesn’t suck any air back in), you’ll probably get microbial overgrowth unless you have a good preservative system. This is especially likely if you’re using natural ingredients that can feed microbes – which is often the case with clean beauty products.
Option 2: Alternative Preservatives
Swapping out parabens for other preservatives might seem like an easy solution, but there are problems here as well.
The main one is that we don’t actually know very much about the health effects of newer preservatives. Parabens have been used for about a hundred years by billions of people worldwide. That’s why there have been lots of studies on them. All of this data might seem really scary, but it’s actually partly because we’ve been testing them. That means we also have a pretty good idea of their health effects, which have been minimal.
On the other hand, newer preservatives haven’t been used for as long, and they haven’t been through as much testing, so their health effects are largely unknown – especially their longer term health effects. They could be much worse.
Alternative preservatives also tend to be more problematic shor-term, mostly because they’re not as effective as parabens. One of the main reasons parabens are so popular is that they work really well at very low concentrations.
With the less effective preservatives, especially the ones that natural brands tend to use, you can either end up with a product that’s really easy to contaminate (leading to all of those issues discussed before), or a product that has a lot more preservative.
Preservatives are often quite irritating and allergenic, and so having a higher concentration means that people who wouldn’t have had skin reactions with the lower amounts of parabens might react to these newer preservatives. If you look at the data on preservatives, you’ll see how good parabens are (except, of course, to people who are specifically allergic to parabens).
These are the incidences of allergy from patch test studies in the us and europe the actual incidence of allergy in the general population will be lower
There’s also been more recalls of contaminated products recently, and a lot of this is probably linked to the fact that more and more brands are avoiding parabens because of the clean beauty movement.
So avoiding parabens and switching to products that don’t contain preservatives or contain less effective preservatives is a feel-good action that doesn’t actually make us healthier and can in fact make us less healthy.
In summary, clean beauty and this idea that you can divide ingredients into good and bad is fundamentally flawed from a scientific perspective: it ignores the very basics of toxicology.
Clean beauty is turning a massive profit, even though it’s not making us healthier and it could potentially be making us less healthy.
How did we get here, and how do we get out?
I do think that it’s important to recognise that the beauty industry hasn’t been very transparent in the past, and this might be why we’re so willing to buy into this incorrect science. The beauty industry hasn’t really put in much effort to communicate the actual science behind beauty products.
That’s part of the reason I started my blog back in 2011 – I wanted to know answers, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I was getting, and getting to answers that made sense was incredibly hard. I don’t know if it’s because companies thought that consumers weren’t interested in the real science, or they didn’t think they could break down these complex concepts into something that consumers could understand.
Pseudoscience is generally easier to understand and easier to sell, but it’s not the truth. I find it really disappointing when companies that have scientists on their staff who know better decide to cave into pressure and take the easy route. That was another reason i started my blog, and why I kept going even though I was losing money for the first 6 years – I wanted to give the science a fighting chance.
I think beauty marketing has been gradually changing. I work with brands from time to time on sponsored content, and over the years I’ve seen a big shift from where they wanted me to cut down on the technical details and just post pretty pictures to now, where they tend to tell me to just go as deep into the science as I want.
And I think the fact that my numbers on Instagram, YouTube and this blog continue to grow shows that it’s possible to successfully explain the science accurately, and that people are interested in knowing the whole messy truth. So hopefully that acts as a proof of concept to brands that they can, and should, present the real story instead of giving in to pseudoscience.
Are you also sick of clean beauty? Do you think it’s ever going to go away, or is it a movement that’s just too big to be stopped? Do you think that companies investing in educating their customers is the way to go? (I’m a science educator, so I think that transparency and education is the answer to everything, but obviously I’m massively biased!) Let me know what you think.
(I couldn’t fit everything that Fred said in this video, but it’s all fascinating – I’ve uploaded his clips on the basics of toxicology in cosmetics and how safety assessments are done in their entirety on my second channel if you want to learn more about toxicology basics and how safety assessments are conducted.)