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If you’ve glanced at a beauty blog or your favorite YouTube beauty guru in the last couple of months, we’re sure you’ve noticed the prevalence of so-called natural or green beauty brands. The trend of clean beauty is easy to get behind, but a lot more goes into it than you may think.
What is clean beauty?
The clean beauty movement’s defining feature is a commitment to being more discerning about the many products you put on your skin every day. It usually assumes that natural (in this case meaning not lab-made or synthetic) ingredients are better for you and that you should put in the research to find out what you’re buying and using, steering clear of the synthetic stuff. Ideally, clean beauty products exclude any known and potential toxins—providing you with options that pose the least possible safety risk. Still, there’s no one concrete definition of clean beauty. You can find brands across the board that use vague terms that are more clean-beauty marketing than offering the healthiest product. Frustrating, we know! Clean beauty can also mean different things to different people, making it hard to pin down and adhere to a single interpretation.
Clean Beauty and Marketing
The use of certain words in describing products sold in the United States is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the FDA doesn’t have a definition for every word out there, and it can’t enforce standards in certain cases. For example, for the word “organic” to be used in a product description, the product must comply with both U.S. Department of Agriculture organic regulations and FDA labeling requirements. Use of the word “natural,” however, does not have to adhere to any regulations. Using words and phrases that aren’t regulated and generally making any old product seem like the best, greenest pick is called greenwashing. The best way to avoid greenwashing is by getting your hands dirty and researching both the company and the individual product before you make a purchase. In short—learning to read labels is key to a successful clean beauty routine.
Ingredients You’ll Want to Avoid
Getting into the green beauty scene means you’re going to need to get comfortable reading labels and searching out scientific names. It’s a bit complicated if you aren’t used to it, but after a while you’ll get the hang of things. These are four heavy-hitter ingredients you may want may want to banish from your beauty routine.
Parabens are used to preserve cosmetics and other products we come in contact with every day. These chemical substances are used in cosmetics to decrease the chance that your favorite liquid lipstick, for example, will become moldy in the tube. There is quite a lot of debate around whether parabens or other preservatives are safe for human contact and consumption. The FDA allows paraben use in cosmetics because there have not been any large-scale studies that prove they are harmful to human health. Regardless, many people still choose to avoid parabens because some studies have found them in breast tumors. Fortunately, parabens are pretty easy to suss out of ingredient lists. Paraben ingredients’ names can start with many prefixes, but will always end in “paraben.” For example, methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben are all parabens you can opt to avoid.
Petroleum jelly (or petrolatum) can be purchased as a stand-alone product and is also an ingredient in many cosmetics. It’s used to seal moisture into the skin because of its occlusive properties—which means it prevents water or moisture loss. Unfortunately, use of petroleum jelly is considered a threat to the environment and the human endocrine system. Petroleum is a byproduct of the petroleum—or oil— industry, meaning it’s a nonrenewable resource. Instead of opting for petroleum-based hydration, reach for a renewable plant oil instead. Think of oils like coconut, jojoba, olive, and even shea butter. All of these come from plants that can continue to grow and produce more of the fruit or nut that contains the oil. They will all work to hydrate your skin, and the best part is you can pick and choose different oils for different levels of hydration. If you’re looking for a direct replacement for petroleum jelly, try plain old shea butter. It remains solid at room temperature and will melt into your skin as you use it, similar to petroleum jelly.
Shockingly, a 2015 study found that formaldehyde may be found in your beauty products even when it isn’t listed as an ingredient. This is an issue because formaldehyde is widely recognized as a sensitizer, meaning products containing formaldehyde can cause uncomfortable cases of contact dermatitis. You’re most likely to see formaldehyde (or formalin) in nail polish. Fortunately, nail products labeled “three free” do not contain any of the big three potential toxins or allergens commonly used in polishes, which makes purchasing safe alternatives easier.
Microbeads (also known as polyethylene or PEGs) are a problem for pollution, which in turn affects the environment and eventually human health. Although microbeads aren’t used as often in skincare and cosmetics as they once were, products that contain them are still on the market in some areas. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 will prevent companies from introducing products containing microbeads starting in July 2019, but until then, check the label to see if a product you’re using or considering contains microbeads. According to the 5 Gyres Institute—a nonprofit that has special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and is spearheading microbead research and corrective initiatives with Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, and Unilever—if you do own products that contain microbeads, do not flush them or rinse them down a drain. Companies and consumers need to make concerted efforts to keep microbeads out of water sources. If you still want to get some use out of a product that contains microbeads, strain it through a coffee filter or cheesecloth before use, then throw the filter and microbeads away in the trash. Or if you’re done with the product altogether, squeeze it into the trash and recycle the container.
Clean Beauty and the Personal Care Act
In 2015, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the Personal Care Act, but the original bill was not enacted by Congress. In May of 2017, Feinstein introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act. The goal of this act is to give the FDA more power to regulate ingredients used in cosmetics. It also requires the FDA to review five cosmetic ingredients every year to consider their potential toxicity and determine whether a concentration restriction should be implemented. This legislation could fill a gap in protection that U.S. consumers have faced for decades. If this act is made into law, we’re likely to see a shift in the ingredients used in beauty products. Right now, though, the oversight of cosmetics is still fairly low in the United States compared to Canada and the EU, where regulation of ingredients in personal care items is much more stringent.
Clean Beauty Benefits
When you make the shift to using more (or only!) clean beauty products, you’ll not only gain insight into the ingredients that make up your products—you’ll also commit to taking control of what you’re putting on your skin. Knowledge is power, y’all, and even though we in the United States don’t have as much government oversight on cosmetics as we might like, we can choose to use products that feel safe for our health and our beauty games.
Where to Find Clean Beauty
Finding a brand that you trust is one of the first steps into the clean beauty scene. Depending on what products you’re looking for, you’ll need to check out different ingredients. To make your life a million times easier, the Environmental Working Group has a cosmetic ingredient database that can help you learn whether a given ingredient is safe or not. They do all the heavy lifting for you! We have a few cult favorite clean beauty products that can get you started. For a natural looking base, try Juice Beauty’s Stem Cellular CC Cream. It comes in multiple shades to match your skin tone and has SPF 30. It will help even out skin tone and texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, all while protecting your face from the sun’s harmful rays. RMS Living Luminizer is another favorite. It’s a super sheer, wet-looking highlighter that’s perfect for accenting your cheekbones on a good skin day. Kjaer Weis is known for their ultra luxurious products, and dreamy (refillable!) packaging. We suggest starting with their Magnetic Eyeshadow since it’s a shade that will suit all eye colors. Taking charge of the products you use can be empowering! Clean beauty should put your mind at ease, and since the trend is really taking off, it will be easier than ever to find products and brands you trust in 2018. Welcome to the clean beauty crew!