Ivy Diec has used enough skin care products to know which ingredients irritate her skin. Good: centella asiatica and other botanical ingredients. Bad: alcohol and fragrance.
When her skin reacted poorly to a new brand of witch hazel, she was confused. The product was marketed as “clean” — free of parabens, phthalates and other harmful ingredients — and witch hazel itself is a natural extract.
“Clean” and plant-based products were supposed to be good for her skin. That’s what the beauty industry was telling her, anyway. So why was her skin so inflamed? And what does clean really mean in the first place?
“You’re convincing yourself that because it’s safe and it’s clean, I know that it’s good for me,” says Diec, a skin care enthusiast with an Instagram account devoted to the topic. “When it isn’t always.”
Clean beauty is not new, but it has emerged as a key player in the rapidly growing market for skin care in the past 15 years. The clean label is unavoidable in the beauty sections of stores, from blush palettes to facial toner, and it’s the rallying cry behind cosmetic juggernauts Credo Beauty and Beautycounter.
As the demand for safe skin care grows, so does the murkiness of the label.
There is no formal definition of what types of products can qualify as clean and no governing body to regulate the label. It’s similar to other buzzwords with equally unclear definitions — all-natural, nontoxic or eco-conscious. This means that any brand can stamp the clean label on a product regardless of the ingredients used in its formulas.
The Food and Drug Administration does not approve cosmetics before they hit the market, which means the industry is self-regulated.
“I see clean beauty as a cynical marketing ploy to get consumers to be afraid of conventional products and to spend more money on products that cost more, don’t actually work better and aren’t actually safer for people,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, who runs an online educational site called Chemists Corner.
The allure of clean beauty is that it appeals to people who want to do better for their skin — to use the gentlest and most effective products on the market, says Victoria Fu, a chemist and co-founder of skin care company Chemist Confessions.
But safer doesn’t always mean all-natural or plant-based. In fact, ingredients such as raw shea butter or unrefined oils can damage the skin more than synthetic chemicals, Fu says.
“The most idealistic meaning of clean is defined by the user,” Fu says.
There are very few unsafe ingredients on the market in the first place. Though the FDA doesn’t approve cosmetics, it does require manufacturers to ensure their products are safe for application and properly labeled. The sprawling lists of blacklisted ingredients touted by clean beauty brands are often filled with chemicals that would never be found in cosmetics.
“When we think of clean, we think it should be a solid marriage of synthetic and natural in a good formula that’s stable and meets all the standards of quality,” Fu says.
Skin care is a big business
Skin care is projected to become a $181 billion industry by 2025, according to consumer research firm Euromonitor. Eco-consciousness is a key element in that growth. And clean beauty sits at the nexus of both emerging trends.
Beautycounter, an online marketplace for clean skin care and cosmetics, was valued at $1 billion in April. Beauty retailers Sephora and Ulta have scurried to catch up to the demand; both retailers began placing clean beauty seals on qualifying products in 2018.
In an industry where the competition is fierce and the basic ingredients and formulas are unchanging, the only thing brands can do to set themselves apart is marketing, Romanowski says.
There is an upside to the clean beauty movement. It puts pressure on brands to provide more detailed and transparent information about the ingredients included in their products. Credo Beauty’s online shop now allows users to click on any name in a product’s ingredient list to learn more about it.
“I have a lot of respect for brands who are transparent about their formulation and other parts of the brand,” Diec said.
At the end of the day, consumers shouldn’t worry themselves with ingredient lists while in beauty aisles, even if manufacturers wax poetic about them on product labels, Fu says.
“The one thing that people forget is that they know their skin’s history and their skin type. They know what has worked and what hasn’t,” Fu says. “If your skin’s happy with an ingredient, don’t lose that.”
July 13, 2021
An earlier version of this story implied there is no oversight in the labeling of organic products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the term organic on food labels.
Savannah Sicurella is an intern on NPR’s Business Desk.