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We're going there! This started off as a bit of a rant in my iPhone notes, but I've further researched and refined my points and mellowed it out a bit into a post you can hopefully get something out of. I'm not trying to call out individual brands (hence the ambiguous texture shot of an bunch of products that both are and aren't in this space) but talk about this part of the beauty industry as a whole. We're getting into parabens, fragrance, scare-mongering and more, so sit tight...
There's actually no universal definition of what constitutes as 'clean' beauty, but Goop describe it as 'made without ingredients shown or suspected to cause harm to human health'. It's effectively a marketing term anyone can commandeer. I also wanted to touch briefly on the fact that some see it as ensuring the supply chain is fair to workers, that ingredients are ethically-grown, sustainably sourced and the packaging is as environmentally-friendly (in terms of being biodegradable and having a reduced carbon footprint) as possible. I actually think it's fantastic when beauty retailers point this out and give us proper information on what makes the product better for the environment and I wish the focus was on 'sustainable beauty'. But, this isn't really what we're talking about here because that's all fantastic stuff that we need in this industry and not really rant-worthy. What I'm focusing on in this post are brands that claim their ingredients are 'clean' because they aren't 'chemicals'.
- WTF ARE 'CHEMICALS' AND 'TOXINS'?! -
A chemical is one of those things you find in the periodic table. Water is a chemical. You are a chemical. I am a chemical. A 'toxin' means a poison, and the phrase 'detox' does have a meaning in terms of the low-level (or extreme) poisoning many of us do to our bodies in the form of drugs or alcohol. Whilst most people's bodies can 'detox' themselves after a couple of glasses of wine by the following morning, people with serious dependency issues do need to go on a proper detox programme. However, the whole 'detox' diet and 'detox' juice stuff is total nonsense with no scientific evidence. Unless you have substance abuse issues, your body is detoxing itself constantly without your intervention and if it wasn't; you'd feel it! As with the diet and 'clean' eating industry, claims that certain skincare products contain 'toxins' are just as unfounded. I don't know about you, but if your primary method of marketing your products is to scare people away from other products: that's kind of a problem. Cosmetic ingredients are tested for safety on the skin, though of course we all have our own individual reactions to them. You deciding what you do and don't want to put on your skin based on your own research is entirely your prerogative. Going around telling people they're putting 'toxins' on their skin because their research has led them to a different conclusion is not.
- ARE THERE ANY BENEFITS OF 'NATURAL' INGREDIENTS AS OPPOSED TO 'SYNTHETIC'? -
At the end of the day; I will always maintain that most people's skin will probably be happier with a bit of 'unnatural(!)' CeraVe that's designed to help the skin barrier and is widely recommended by dermatologists than some pure rose petal oil, but that's just me. There are perhaps a couple of scenarios I can think of in which you may want to opt for natural products over 'synthetic'. Firstly, is whilst pregnant or breastfeeding. It's not recommended to use salicylic acid or retinol, and there are a few other ingredients that may or may not cause problem, so you might feel it's a case of 'better safe than sorry'. Obviously, don't panic if you didn't know about this or didn't know you were pregnant (like that large glass of wine you might have had when you were unknowingly a week or two pregnant), just avoid them going forwards. The other area is potentially fragrance, under some circumstances. One of the big hoo-hahs going on around fragrance is that a small minority of people can develop allergies to fragrant ingredients over time. One of the problems with fragrance in skincare is that, unless a product contains known allergens, brands can just group all the fragrant ingredients together and label them 'parfum' or 'fragrance'. There could be hundreds of different components making up that 'fragrance' and you don't really know what's in it, so if you do develop a sensitivity to a specific ingredient, it becomes really difficult to avoid it. And you're also exposing yourself to more ingredients that are potentially sensitising, when keeping it simple reduces the possibility of a reaction. 'Natural' products usually list out the fragrant components: limonene, linaloo, citronelle and essential oils (like lavender, rosemary etc.) which can make it a little easier to figure out what's causing you the problem because if you always react to products containing peppermint oil, for example, you can simply cut it out. Whilst no fragrance is usually the safest road to take, that's not realistic for many people; most people want fragrance in skincare so most products contain it. Many people want skincare to be fun, exciting and colourful (not purely functional), and fragrance is part of that experience.
Ultimately, for me, the vast majority of 'natural' ingredients go through a degree of refinement and processing to make them into skincare products that can be easily and safely applied to the skin and that deliver any purported benefits in the most effective way possible. At what point do they stop being 'natural' and become 'chemicals(!)'? Because most skincare ingredients are derived from something... salicylic acid comes from willow bark, glycolic from sugar cane, retinol from animals or plants. I'm just unsure of where this arbitrary line is drawn and why.
- LET'S TALK A LITTLE MORE ABOUT FRAGRANCE -
My biggest bugbear with 'natural' skincare is that most of the products are crammed full of fragrant essential oils and not a lot else and many of these ingredients have limited research on the benefits they actually deliver to the skin. Don't get me wrong; I can mess with a bit of jasmine flower oil in my ceramide and hyaluronic acid infused super-cream, but when there's not much else in there beyond a fragrant oil, I guess I don't see what the point is. Any essential oil blend for me needs to include something like rosehip oil or squalane or anything else that I see as being an effective skincare ingredient. 100% pure lavender oil is not getting anywhere near my face, though I'd definitely pop a couple of drops on the inside my wrists before bed.
- DEMONISED INGREDIENTS -
This is another minefield that could be several posts in its own right, so I'll keep it brief and strongly encourage you to do your own research and not just go off my word alone any more than you should just believe the claims made by 'clean' beauty companies. There's currently a movement against preservatives in skincare and, whilst this is all very well in theory (oils at least don't really need them), in practice it can actually cause big problems: I found an example featuring a product I actually used and loved! And, after reading about it being recalled following a mould issue (due to the preservative-free formula), I went to have a look at the tiny bit I had left of the moisturiser in my pot and noticed it did look incredibly funky! Whilst I'd kept it a little longer than suggested (having not used it in a while), the recall was obviously put in place for a reason and it can't have been lasting the advertised shelf-life for such drastic (and embarrassing, for the brand) action to be taken. The product still hasn't reemerged at any of the usual stockist of this brand either. Parabens are one of the most demonised ingredients out there, but based on my own personal research; I'm comfortable with them as one of the most well-researched preservative options out there. A lot of things are 'toxic' in high doses; if you ate enough bananas you'd be exposed to as much radioactivity than you have been in Chernobyl at the end of 1986. But no one is eating hundreds of bananas on the daily, so I'm perfectly happy sticking one in my breakfast smoothie every morning. That's my choice. I'd also rather have parabens in my skincare than mould, but - again - that's just my personal preference... There are others, but the other biggies are SLS-based haircare and sulphates in cleansers. Again, they aren't 'toxic', they're just quite drying for a lot of people to use on the daily.
- YOU DO YOU, JUST DON'T FEED INTO SCAREMONGERING -
There are a whole host of reasons why 'natural' products might appeal to someone. If you feel connected to plants and flowers, you might want to incorporate that interest into your beauty routine, just like you do in your decor (with lots of flowers or house plants) and your eating habits (perhaps a vegan diet). If it's something you enjoy; continue to enjoy it. If you like essential oils (as long as we're not making medical claims about them beyond 'lavender can make you feel a bit more relaxed') and you get something meaningful out of the sensory experience of using products containing them; keep doing what you're doing. I work with many brands in the 'natural' space who are just passionate about their ingredients and the feast for the senses that they create. That's all good with me. The important point (from my perspective) is not demonising skincare that's scientifically-backed with numerous studies over many years.
- IN CONCLUSION -
Ultimately, I still use many brands that position themselves within this 'clean' or 'natural' space (particularly when it comes to makeup - which I've not really gone into here - because these brands often fit with my low-maintenance vibe), not because I'm scared of using products that don't fall under this umbrella, but because I think they have great formulas and products I truly enjoy using. And that's really where the focus should be; creating great products that work. Whilst Microsoft obsesses over what Apple are doing and how to beat them, Apple are thinking about how they can innovate their product range and come up with ideas that could change the world. Likewise, I just think it's bad form when your marketing strategy and business plan centres around trying to prove you're better than some other company or category of companies. Just rise above that sort of pettiness, create great products and keep an eye on your competition but don't try to tear them down using malicious tactics. No great brand came out of putting down another brand. The formulas should speak for themselves!
Hopefully I've been fair and eloquent enough in how I've expressed my thoughts on this topic - please sound off in the comments. How do you feel about 'natural' and 'clean' beauty products?