Finding Clean Beauty Products Just Got Easier

Thanks, Sephora! Here’s everything you need to know about beauty's biggest trend.

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We live in a world of buzzwords when it comes to beauty, health, and wellness, and there are a few that tend to stand out. Organic and natural, for example, have been mainstays in our wellness dialogue for quite some time, but a new word is taking the world by storm: clean.

Clean eating is one of the simplest and healthiest approaches to eating. It focuses on whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains. There is also an element of social responsibility and environmental impact when it comes to eating clean. But clean is no longer a buzzword that’s limited to just your diet. Beauty products can also carry the clean seal of approval.

For a beauty product to be considered clean, it often requires third-party testing to ensure the safety of the ingredient list; the products are also sustainable and unlikely to have a negative impact on the environment. And, so the logic goes, if they aren’t harming the environment, they likely are okay for your body as well.

Shopping for clean beauty products is becoming increasingly easier, as many beauty brands are coming out with dedicated clean lines.

In one of the biggest moves yet for the clean beauty industry, Sephora recently released its Clean Beauty Seal, which offers a whole range of products, including skincare, haircare, makeup, and fragrance, that they’ve deemed toxin-free. Sephora has investigated each brand under its Clean seal to ensure that they contain no synthetic ingredients and are free of “toxic” ingredients.

Clean at Sephora products are formulated without ingredients such as sulfates, parabens, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, triclocarban, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing agents, and all synthetic fragrances—so fresh and so clean.

Beyond the Clean seal of approval, you can find clean products within your favorite beauty brands if you know what to look for.

What does clean beauty mean?

To be very clear, “clean” is not a term certified by any governing body, and there is still some debate about what exactly it entails.

The movement toward clean beauty began when people realized that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not required to approve beauty and skincare products. This doesn’t necessarily mean the ones on the shelves are causing harm, but it did begin to raise awareness in the beauty community as to what we are putting on our skin and in our bodies.

There’s no true definition of “clean beauty.” And clean can encompass products that are both natural and artificial. The difference is that clean beauty is considered safe—safe for your body, safe for the environment, and usually free of ingredients like phthalates, parabens, mineral oils, and other controversial ingredients.

“There are many organic products that you would not want to put on your skin. Think about poison ivy. It’s organic, but you wouldn’t want it on you.”

—Arielle Nagler, MD

“When it comes to clean beauty there are a few things that people think about,” Arielle Nagler, MD, dermatologist at NYU Langone Health explains. “Is it environmentally safe? Is it free of toxins for use in people? What was the research that went into developing them? Was there no impact on the environment or on animals?” Asking these questions helps to determine whether the products in your daily beauty regimen are, in fact, clean.

Additionally, Nagler says that people want to use products that have responsible ingredients because of environmental and health concerns. “For example,” she says, “Synthetic sunscreens are bad for the environment. Other ingredients are said to disrupt hormone production, or perhaps even be carcinogenic. Clean beauty [on the other hand] is environmentally friendly, and above all, uses non-toxic ingredients.”

Clean Beauty, Organic Beauty, and Natural Beauty: Understanding Labels

While it is always nice to go organic or go natural, these labels don’t necessarily qualify as clean. So when you see words on the packaging like “all natural,” or “organic,” you might be thinking that you’re getting one thing, when in reality, if you knew the true chemical breakdown or production process, you would feel differently.

Additionally, many clean beauty products have certain stamps on the back, like USDA organic, non-GMO, and EWG. While having these labels doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safer, it does mean they have met certain sets of guidelines.

“Not everything that is natural or organic is necessarily safe,” says Nagler. “There are many organic products that you would not want to put on your skin. Think about poison ivy. It’s organic, but you wouldn’t want it on you,” she says.

Ingredients to Avoid for Clean Beauty

From makeup to skincare to hair and nails—or whatever else is part of your daily routine—when you’re picking out your beauty products, there are key ingredients to look out for that might mean a product is not clean.

Phthalates

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic. And, believe it or not, they are in a lot of the cosmetics we use on a daily basis.

“Phthalates, as key components in plastics, appear in many consumer products,” according to the study Chemical Exposures: The Ugly Side of Beauty Products. “The main phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products are dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hairspray.” They are also found in products with synthetic fragrance.

“The concern with phthalates is that they are thought to disrupt the endocrine system,” says Nagler. (The endocrine system is responsible for sending hormone signals throughout the body.)

“When you’re thinking of things with fragrances, like perfumes, nail polish products, or shaving cream, you’re thinking of things with phthalates,” she explains.

To spot phthalates, look for the following on the label: phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP and synthetic fragrance, or just fragrance in general. If the products are free of these things, you’re typically good to go.

Mineral Oil

Mineral oil is a heavily debated ingredient in the beauty and dermatology community. Mineral oils include ingredients like petroleum or other moisturizers. According to the National Toxicology Program, untreated mineral oil is a known human carcinogen. That said, the ones you find in beauty products are highly refined.

“These products are also thought to be bad for the environment, and overall tend to be very heavy products,” says Nagler.

Plant-based alternatives are thought to be better for the environment and for the body overall; look for coconut oil, jojoba oil, and argan oils, all of which work to seal in moisture.

Retinyl Palmitate

This ingredient is one that we see a lot of in our day-to-day beauty regimens. It is a derivative of vitamin A and is used in many common skincare products, like face and body creams, for its anti-aging properties.

The problem with retinyl palmitate is that it is thought to cause birth defects and can also increase skin sensitivity. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database also suggests that, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.

The problem with retinyl palmitate is that it is thought to cause birth defects and can also increase skin sensitivity.

Oxybenzone

Now that we’re officially in summer mode, it’s time to start slathering on the sunscreen. But most sunscreens today contain oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens.

Many people are allergic to this ingredient, says Nagler. Additionally, when sunscreen comes off our bodies in the ocean, the oxybenzone has been shown to be destructive to coral reefs. And lastly, there have been a number of experimental studies that indicate that several sunscreens might have endocrine disruptive effects.

“There are alternatives to oxybenzone in sunscreens, however,” says Nagler. “Look for ones that are zinc- and titanium-based.”

Coal Tar

Coal tar is an ointment used to treat a variety of skin diseases, like psoriasis and eczema, and it is often found in many dandruff shampoos. While the FDA has deemed it safe and effective for the treatment of dandruff and psoriasis, there are concerns surrounding it as a carcinogen, Nagler says. Studies—many of which have been conducted on animals—show that chronic exposure to coal tar can increase the chances of skin cancer.

Instead of using dandruff shampoos with coal tar, Nagler suggests, “Try [selecting] shampoos or lotions that are anti-fungal based.”

Triclosan and Triclocarban

If you are using any type of antibacterial beauty product like soaps, body washes, and cosmetics, triclosan and/or triclocarban are often key ingredients. These antibacterial agents are designed to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination.

“The problem recently,” says Nagler, “is that people are concerned that triclosan/triclocarban can affect the thyroid as well as reproductive hormones.”

Similarly, studies show that triclosan exposure can increase the chance of cancer, and is a known contaminant to the environment.

Instead, opt for choosing soaps or body washes that have nature-inspired antibacterial ingredients like tea tree oil.

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