Clean beauty came into public discourse in the 1970s with Covergirl’s “Clean Makeup” campaign, which referenced the no-make-up/make-up look we know and love today. But it really got going in the 2000s, along with the rise of organic foods, nitrate-free bacon, and minimalistic ways of life. Along with those things came a multitude of “clean beauty” brands, like Ren, and more recently, Tata Harper, Drunk Elephant, Versed, Kosas, and Goop. But is clean beauty really a thing? Let’s have a look.
The first issue that arises with “clean beauty” is the wording itself. Sounding a little creepy, and perhaps even loosely religiously based (which it is – the Clean eating/beauty movement has its roots in eugenics), “clean” hints at the products being pure and wholesome – like I suppose we should aim to be, in an ideal, pious world. It makes out like the opposite “normal” chemical skincare is “unclean,” and in continuation, that we ourselves are unclean by using it. I guess a delightful way for companies to market you more “clean” skincare.
It also points to ethics. By choosing “clean beauty”, we are choosing products that are supposedly better for us, and in turn, perhaps better for the planet too. Which is a good thing! Brands can’t sell cleansers if the world is on fire and nobody is around to buy them.
But what are the “bad” ingredients? Apparently, anything with silicone, parabens, SLS, fragrances, essential oils, phthalates, or drying alcohols – which in some form or other are found in most beauty products. Drunk Elephant, a pillar brand of the clean beauty movement, calls their version of “nasties” to avoid “The Suspicious Six” and considers some of these to be the root of all skin issues.
However, the most telling argument against clean beauty and its farcical cult (did I give away my conclusion too soon?) comes from one of the pillars herself. Tiffany Masterson, the founder of Drunk Elephant, said in an interview in 2018 that “Parabens are actually a good ingredient,” which goes against everything she supposedly stands for in her brand.
For the average consumer, scientific papers are nigh impossible to read, leaving us with serious doubt on how to form our own opinions, especially considering the amount of contradicting media surrounding scare-mongered ingredients like parabens. Science says it can increase the risk of cancer, but EU and FDA regulations say it’s safe to use due to the small percentage of it in the ingredients list. Just like if you take 2 paracetamols, you’ll be fine, but if you take 50 of them, you probably definitely won’t be. But you don’t see anybody cancelling paracetamol.
Tiffany – who started her brand without any prior formal education or training in the field – goes on to say, “The Suspicious 6 that I avoid are not scary ingredients; some of them are clean. Essential oils, silicones – those are clean ingredients. It’s just that I don’t believe that they allow your skin to function and thrive the way it should.” She also mentions in another interview that one of the only reasons she doesn’t include these in her products are because customers are less likely to buy them if they’re included. Science? No. Marketing? Indeed.
Silicones are another demonised ingredient in clean beauty, for no real reason. Silicones are put into your beauty ingredients for a variety of reasons, but are usually used to make it spreadable. Surely you would rather use silicone than smearing lumps like the consistency of cottage cheese all over your face? I’ve done that once with an old suncream and I do not recommend. Silicone is actually derived from a natural ingredient, the mineral silica, and all forms of silicone have been proven to be non-toxic. So what’s the problem?
The demonisation of chemicals in skincare is something that has gained serious steam over the last few decades, and it’s now considered quasi-cool to follow a “clean” lifestyle (refer back to previous point about eugenics), with people like Gwyneth Paltrow founding Goop, or Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh leading the communal charge encouraging us to buy stupid products on unfounded evidence.
Convincing people to not buy other products and to only buy (their brand) non-toxic products by scaring people into it is not the way to go. The thought that phthalates are toxic for you and encouraging you to throw out your long-loved moisturiser or hair care is ridiculous, and akin to brands saying, “Your grandma is growing heroin in her garden!” while pointing at her bed of poppy flowers. Yes, they are all phthalates, but phthalates are not all the same. Some phthalates are toxic for you, sure, but the ones that are, are not likely to be in your skincare. Regulatory bodies exist, and although the FDA isn’t airtight, it’s highly unlikely to approve something that would be toxic to the general public. Why would you want to damage your customers, right? If it’s going to have harmful results, no one would buy it again, which means the brands make no money. Thumbs down.
While the underlying message of clean skincare is to create products for those with sensitive skin who are partial to more “natural” products, somehow (again, the history of eugenics) the movement has developed an ugly undertone, which uses scaremongering tactics as well as creating an idea that chemical skincare – and those who’s skin they apply it onto – are dirty and unnatural, which of course, is wildly untrue. And for what? To sell product.
Clean beauty is no better for your skin than other types of skincare, as naturally everybody is different, and different skincare works for different people. There is no umbrella skin routine for everybody, or even those in similar skin type groups; what works for your skin, works for your skin – even clean beauty can be irritating sometimes.
In my – and science’s – opinion, clean beauty is a farce. It’s a marketing tactic, and a malicious one at that. Moral of the story is: use what feels natural to you, not what a brand that is trying to sell face creams tells you to. It’s your life, your skin. If you like clean beauty, great! But don’t feel guilty about using your La Roche Posay instead of exorbitantly overpriced Tata Harper… To be honest, one of my cleansers is from Tata Harper and it’s pretty good – but I didn’t buy it so my skincare routine could be “clean”. I use it alongside my £3 Nivea cream from the supermarket and my retinol cream – because I want to, and that’s what works for me. No guilt here.