Is Clean Beauty Still Relevant?

As the notion of “clean” has solidified its place in mainstream beauty marketing — July 15 is officially “National Clean Beauty Day” — the backlash against it is becoming louder, too.

For one, content creators — influencers, young brand owners and skin care experts with a loyal following online — have been questioning the meaning of the term.

“‘Clean’ means absolutely nothing,” said Dr. Shereene Idriss in a statement to WWD. (The New York City-based dermatologist — who is often dismantling misinformation in beauty on social media through her conversational #Pillowtalkderm sessions — had lost her voice, ironically, and was unable to chat on the phone.)

“If you ever tried to take a step back to find a regulated, uniform, data-backed and cohesive definition of what ‘clean beauty’ means, you would quickly realize that it does not exist,” she went on. “The definition varies from brand to brand, retailer to retailer, ‘expert’ to ‘expert,’ and therefore it is merely a subjective opinion imposed on consumers as ‘facts.’ ‘Facts’ that no longer get questioned because they are perpetually repeated, eventually turning into an indoctrination of sort. ‘Facts’ delivered to the consumer through a veil of fear, in order to coerce the consumer to buy into ‘their’ narrative.”

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The critique began emerging pre-pandemic but has gained traction.

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“Clean beauty is merely a marketing tactic to sell you products,” proclaimed dermatologist Dr. Andrea Suarez, known as Dr. Dray to her 1.26 million YouTube subscribers, in a video posted in January of last year. The attention-grabbing clip is titled “CLEAN BEAUTY NEEDS TO DIE IN 2020.”

“The underpinnings behind it are not rooted in science or anything of true value or merit to your skin,” she said.

Four months later, Gen Z skin care influencer Hyram Yarbro uploaded a video of his own addressing the topic: “The Problem With ‘Clean Beauty.’”

“If you’ve been in the skin care community over the last year, you will have known that a certain term has come up and been really popular. It’s the term clean beauty,” he told his followers. He currently has more than 4.5 million subscribers on the platform (and 6.7 million on TikTok).

“I’ve had so many comments and clients approach me in the past saying, ‘I only shop for clean beauty,’” he continued. “And I’m like, ‘What does that mean?’”

These videos get thousands, sometimes millions, of views.

“Whenever we do debunking myth series, they get received really, really well by people,” said Krave Beauty founder Liah Yoo, who has also been discussing the subject online, particularly on her YouTube channel where she has more than a million followers.

The audience is engaged, often commenting on the posts, videos and direct messaging the influencers.

“What I get a lot of is people being, like, ‘I felt like I was down this clean beauty rabbit hole,’” said Charlotte Palermino, aesthetician and cofounder of Dieux. She frequently expresses her views on Instagram Stories, sharing what she believes are false or misleading statements fueled by certain brands and retailers in the “clean” movement — a billion-dollar business today.

“They say, ‘I feel very stupid, but I’m very glad that you’re here because you’re not making me feel bad about it,’” Palermino continued. “And I think that’s the ultimate thing, that nobody should feel bad about being taken in by some brilliant marketing.”

All brand creators are marketers, she said: “We’re all selling a product. Let’s be really honest about what your product does, what safety testing actually goes into it and not focus on these lists that actually don’t make us safer. They’re just really great p.r. They’re really great p.r. moments. That’s truly what they are.”

“Free from” lists — records of potentially harmful ingredients not used in formulations — are not constructive, she added. “It’s not creating better products. We’re not creating an industry where people are curious about what’s in their products. We’re creating a negative industry, literally where we’re calling things dirty.”

Gregg Renfrew, founder and chief executive officer of Beautycounter, said “clean” goes far beyond the lists.

“We aim to educate,” Renfrew said. “We do not believe in fear-mongering at all. And we know that companies do that….We use commerce as an engine for change. We believe that as consumers, we can vote with our dollars.”

Renfrew is active on Capitol Hill, working to pass laws that help protect the health of shoppers. (The latest is The Personal Care Products Safety Act, a legislation for the FDA to review ingredients, provide companies with guidance and issue recalls on products likely to cause “significant” harm.)

“There’s been a lot of chatter on, ‘Oh, clean is not defined,’ which is actually something we’ve been saying since we launched,” added Lindsay Dahl, senior vice president of social mission at Beautycounter. “We go to great lengths to define what clean means to Beautycounter for consumers, because right now it’s a complicated marketplace for consumers to navigate.”

“I do believe that all clean is not created equal,” Renfrew said.

“We’ve said from the beginning, ‘Natural does not mean safe. Not all preservatives are toxic,’” Dahl said. “We welcome the conversation, because the science around this is very complex. We live in a world where people want things to be black and white, and the science isn’t black and white.”

Palermino echoed similar sentiments.

“There’s so much nuance,” she said. “All this criticism I have right now is reserved for the brands that actively scare people about ingredients, or that tell them to swap out their beauty products, or are talking about ‘nontoxic,’ because it doesn’t mean anything. Anything can be toxic.”

When the “clean” movement started, it was well intentioned, critics emphasized. But in some cases, the campaigns took a turn for the worse.

“[It] was rooted in trying to do better for the consumer,” Idriss said. “But the current state of ‘clean beauty’ is a mockery of human intelligence: leading through marketing, fear and prying off of insecurities.”

Yoo agreed: “It was to provide safer products. But I think the evidence that they collected was to fit the narrative. To abide to the clean beauty standard was to really sell more. It was flawed, because they were collecting a lot of misinformation instead of factual evidence.”

There’s been a “demonizing” of certain ingredients, noted Suarez in her video, even “something as benign as petrolatum,” she said. “They claim that it’s toxic and carcinogenic….This is absolutely not true. For a dermatologist, this is one of the best ingredients. It’s a superior humectant, and it works very well in terms of addressing problems with the skin barrier, dry skin conditions. And also, it’s non-allergenic, meaning of all the stuff you could be putting on your skin, petrolatum is probably one of the safest things you can put on your skin.”

Used as an ointment and found in products like Vaseline, petrolatum is a jelly-like substance made with a mix of hydrocarbons.

The problem, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (launched by the nonprofit Breast Cancer Prevention Partners), is that when petrolatum is not refined, it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. “When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns,” states the organization.

“I hate it when people make me defend the FDA,” Palermino said. “There’s a lot of things that I’m not a fan about with the FDA. But the idea that this is a self-regulated industry — the fact that media publications have published that without fact-checking it. This is not a self-regulated industry. What are you talking about? There are so many regulations when you make skin care by the law. The problem is that the enforcement isn’t great. So, do you have some people making skin care in their bathtubs? Yes. Should they be? Probably not. But it doesn’t mean that these large multinational corporations are throwing toxins in your skin care. It’s just not the reality.”

“I don’t think you’ll ever get anyone to disagree, whether you’re talking to me or Sephora, or Ulta [Beauty] or anyone else for that matter, that clean is really about safety and sourcing, sustainability and ethics and being really transparent about all that,” said Credo Clean Beauty cofounder and chief operating officer Annie Jackson. “It was hugely disappointing to see some brands in our store, in our ecosystem kind of the ringleaders of the backlash against clean.”

Alongside her team, she’s created “The Dirty List” as part of the retailer’s “Credo Clean Standard” — a detailed explanation of “what clean beauty means to Credo.” It’s the gold standard in “clean.”

“It’s an industry where there’s 12,500 chemicals that are approved for use in beauty, but then the vast majority of those have not been assessed for safety by any regulatory body,” Jackson said. “We don’t fear chemicals, and we don’t encourage our customers to fear chemicals.”

She noted the release of a recent study published on June 15 by the Environmental Science and Technology Letters (via nonprofit scientific organization American Chemical Society). Researchers found that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — man-made chemicals that, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, are linked to “adverse health outcomes in humans” — were in cosmetics products like foundations, mascaras and lipsticks purchased in the U.S. and Canada (to increase their durability and water resistance).

The paper states: “The manufacture, use and disposal of cosmetics containing PFAS are all potential opportunities for health and ecosystem harm.”

“No one has all the answers,” Renfrew said. “But it is safe to say that there is scientific evidence that points to certain chemicals of concern. And I think we can all agree that there are certain chemicals that are linked to cancer reproductive toxicity or endocrine disrupting chemicals that we don’t want on our bodies.”

“Clean, you know, maybe this term will evolve into something different, but it is a way to distinguish these brands going to painstaking work to not buy chemicals that could potentially be harmful,” Jackson said. “To not acknowledge them amongst the sea of other brands that aren’t doing any of that is just unfair.”

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