Clean Beauty Sounds Nice, But What Is It Really?
Feb 19, 2018
Your health-conscious friend swears by non-toxic makeup. Your buddy who beat that terrible illness made the switch from conventional cosmetics. And you’ve heard the word parabens, sure. You've probably even read about the countless makeup brands that use toxic ingredients thought to contribute to cancer, hormone dysfunction, reproductive issues, and other health problems . Maybe you're interested in this whole clean beauty thing, but you're not 100% sure what it means.
At NakedPoppy, we want to arm you with the facts you need to make the choice that’s right for you. Going clean is a lifestyle choice for people who want to be more conscious about what they’re putting on their bodies, and inevitably in their bodies.
We make it our business to share what you’ve been missing about traditional cosmetics, and to offer clean beauty alternatives if you’re looking to make the transition.
What is “clean beauty?”
“Clean beauty” refers to beauty products formulated without known or suspected toxins. Instead of using materials like phthalates, synthetic fragrances and other potential toxins, clean beauty brands work hard to formulate products with safer alternatives.
Fun fact: clean beauty is one of the fastest-growing categories of cosmetics. This is because awareness is spreading, and more women are opting to make good choices about what they put on their faces, just like they do when selecting healthier foods to put in their bodies.
But isn’t makeup regulated so that I don’t have to worry about it?
While many women assume that cosmetics are well regulated and harmless, that’s not quite the case in the United States.
In the U.S., cosmetics are lightly regulated – but not approved one by one – by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Passed in 1938, the Act contains hundreds of pages of food and drug regulation, while the chapter on cosmetics is a brief two pages. Unlike with pharmaceuticals, it says that cosmetic products don’t need to be reviewed or approved by the FDA before you pick them up at the store .
Now, 80 years later, we’re using lots of new chemicals that didn’t exist in commerce in the ‘30s – thousands of them, in fact. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and other legislation haven’t yet caught up to the present, in which the majority of chemicals haven’t been thoroughly tested for safety . (Keep in mind, testing takes a long time, so it’s easier said than done!)
For many chemicals, we don’t know exactly how much exposure triggers a negative health repercussion, but we do know that some of the ingredients we put on our skin every day are known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and allergens.
How does the U.S. approach beauty products compared to Europe?
As of 2012, the European Union banned 1,342 cosmetics ingredients, including ones legal in the U.S. The U.S. has only restricted 30.
What are some examples of toxic ingredients?
Because there are so many chemicals out there, it’d take a lot of space to list and explain details about every single one. Instead, we’re sharing some common culprits. (For more details, get an overview of potentially harmful ingredients here).
- BHA – found in lipstick and eyeshadow, this compound is a preservative thought to be carcinogenic and an endocrine disruptor, and cause liver, kidney, and thyroid problems 
- Lead – found in lipstick, this heavy metal is shown to be a neurotoxin that contributes to cancer, developmental and reproductive harm, and organ system toxicity 
- Parabens – used in a wide variety of personal care products, these preservatives are thought to contribute to hormone dysfunction, cancer, and reproductive harm 
- Phthalates – found in many products that bear a scent, these plasticizers are thought to cause endocrine disruption and birth defects 
- Synthetic fragrance – used scented lotions, perfume, and scented products, this group of chemicals typically contains dozens to thousands of undisclosed chemical ingredients that can cause skin and respiratory infection, trigger allergies, and contribute to cancer, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and developmental problems 
These chemicals and others are also used in everyday items like furniture, children’s toys, and cleaning products. By reducing your exposure through cosmetics, you’re reducing part of your overall exposure.
How are clean beauty products different?
The clean beauty movement – which emerged to offer safer alternatives to traditional makeup – uses a conservative approach to ingredients.
If an ingredient is toxic, clean beauty companies filter it out and replace it with a safer alternative so you don’t have to worry about it. Since screening ingredients on your own can be time-consuming and confusing, shopping for genuinely clean brands is the simplest way to avoid potentially problematic ingredients.
It’s important to use clean products specifically, not ones branded with other marketing terms like “natural” or “hypoallergenic.” These terms might sound similar, but they have different meanings and some can even be misleading. The term “organic,” for example, isn’t very helpful, because it’s an agricultural term developed for food rather than makeup. If you’re interested, we explain the difference between “clean” and other terms like “organic” in this article.
Do clean beauty products work as well as my favorite brands?
If you’re used to NARS or Chanel, we understand that switching to clean might feel like a big question mark. But you may be excited to hear that the clean beauty industry has been evolving for a couple of decades and now includes some lovely products whose quality rivals conventional brands.
In 2017, we conducted a blind mascara test to see whether women preferred a clean or traditional option. Prior to being told which was the popular conventional brand, more than half the participants chose the clean mascara based on its perceived quality and performance.
Given that clean beauty is the fastest-growing category of makeup, we expect to see even more innovation in the coming years.
Do cosmetics have an environmental impact?
Yes. Conventional cosmetics are actually classified as hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency !
Conventional makeup re-enters the ecosystem when we wash our faces at the sink or in the shower, or when we throw products in the trash. The toxic chemicals permanently contaminate the water supply as the particles are too small to get filtered out . When discarded makeup is thrown in the trash, chemicals end up in the landfill and can seep into the earth.
In contrast, clean products typically include ingredients that aren’t toxic and are significantly less harmful to the environment when they get into the water supply and are disposed of.
As a bonus, many clean beauty companies use product packaging that’s recyclable and find other ways to make production sustainable.
By using clean cosmetics, you help shift demand away from products that pollute the environment.
Do you have any questions about clean beauty? Leave them in the comments below.
This article has been reviewed for accuracy by two scientists: Tim McCraw, PhD, CEO of Skin Science Advisors and a PhD chemist, and Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., neurologist and PhD in Environmental Toxicology.