Five months ago, I felt excited as I was finally making the switch to using “clean/non-toxic/natural” skincare products. I was doing something good for the planet, I was doing something good for my body. What could go wrong? As it turns out, a whole lot.
Imagine: A woman in her late thirties who has had clear skin her entire life suddenly throws out the “toxic,” paraben-laced products she’s been using for decades and her skin goes into freak out mode. After trying a whole host of different products, my face was still red and blotchy and I had a constellation of zits plastered across my forehead. I couldn’t seem to get rid of them. On the contrary, when I thought back to where I was five months ago – using the products everyone swore were terrible – my skin was so much happier. So, what gives? I figured that I couldn’t be the only person who was having this problem, so I started doing some research. Here’s what I have learned, what I wish I had known from the beginning, and why I have concluded that the clean skincare movement isn’t for me.
Takeaway #1: The Natural Skincare business is booming.
Bloomberg Business estimates that by 2025, the clean/natural skincare industry will be worth $48 billion worldwide. Target, Sephora, and Nordstrom now have entire shelves dedicated to selling clean products and the demand is ever-growing. But how did we get here?
In many ways, the recent disruption and evolution of the skincare industry follows a similar path that other major industries have undergone. From the rise and fall of fast fashion to the demand for organic foods, we live in a time where consumers are urged to vote with their wallets and effect positive change. One of the leading celebrity advocates for this cause was Gwyneth Paltrow. In 2016, she launched her own skincare line and told Jimmy Fallon that using chemical-free products on her body was “an extension of trying to eat well.”
In 2018, Kourtney Kardashian and her sister Kylie Jenner joined the cause when they collaborated on the creation of a clean makeup line. Part of their PR push was drawing lots of attention to one important issue: FDA regulations and the lack thereof. It turns out that many chemically altered, manmade cosmetic ingredients (otherwise known as synthetic ingredients) that are banned in Europe can still be used here in the US. Kardashian called for tighter regulations and promised, just as Paltrow did, that her product line was trustworthy because the ingredients they used were “clean.” Soon, an overarching narrative developed throughout the beauty industry:
Natural Ingredients = Good
Synthetic Ingredients = Bad
This was the tipping point. Consumer demand shifted in a major way and it opened up the floodgates for companies, big and small, to develop new products labeled “clean/natural/non-toxic.” The problem? These new products aren’t regulated either.
Takeaway #2: Just because a product is labeled Clean, Natural, Non-Toxic, or Paraben-Free does not always mean that it is safer to use or that its ingredients are superior.
In a 2018 article by Vox, beauty journalist Cheryl Wischhover writes, “because the terminology isn’t regulated by an agency or governing body like the Federal Trade Commission or the FDA, they’re all essentially meaningless words when they appear on cosmetics and personal care products . . . So any company can call a product ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ and define that term any way it wants. And companies don’t hesitate to slap on that label, because shoppers respond to it.”
This could explain why two dermatologists who work and teach at Penn State reported an uptick in patients who are using natural products and having serious allergic reactions to things like undiluted essential oils and other unregulated ingredients. In a recent podcast interview and oped they co-authored for JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), they explained how some patients are even getting contact dermatitis because of certain natural products that don’t have any preservatives in them (i.e. parabens), which leaves them open to bacteria developing. Then they are putting bacteria-ridden products straight onto their faces.
Joe Schwartz, Ph.D., an award-winning scientist and professor of Chemistry at McGill University in Canada, puts it this way: “the safety and efficacy of a chemical does not depend on whether it was made by a chemist in a lab, or by Mother Nature in a bush. Its chemical and biological properties depend on its molecular structure and the only way to evaluate these is through appropriate experiments.” He notes that even water is a chemical and that toxic substances such as cyanide can be found in nature. He urges consumers to take a more nuanced approach when deciding which skincare products to buy because not everything made in a lab is harmful, just as not everything natural is automatically good for you.
Caroline Hirons, an esthetician and leading skincare consultant in the UK, agrees. She told Refinery29 that the push for natural, clean skincare products has been going on for the last two decades in the UK and they have learned a lot. She comments, “While us Brits are back to using chemicals in beauty, the US have gone to the other extreme and are terrified of them.”
Why are we so terrified? A lot of it has to do with the messaging we receive.
Takeaway #3: Some of the terminology we use to describe skincare can cause unnecessary fear and guilt.
To return to my own story for a moment, after spending five months trying all sorts of clean products, I had a feeling in my gut that if I conducted an experiment – if I spent a week using my old-school cleanser and moisturizer – my irritated and acne-prone skin would clear right up. But the other part of me felt guilty for even considering it. Weren’t those old products toxic? And what did toxic even mean?
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of toxic is either “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation.” Yikes! And also, doesn’t that seem a bit inaccurate? After all, I had used these products for decades and I was still alive. I hadn’t been poisoned or debilitated from them. Bonnie Garner, a beauty blogger who formerly worked as a cosmetics marketer in France writes, “‘Non-toxic’ is a very problematic terminology because it implies that other cosmetics on the market are toxic, which is false and deprecating. And it’s also a term, in France, that is not allowed. Precisely because of its implication.” So why are we categorizing products as toxic or non-toxic to begin with? Some of it may have to do with the hotly debated ingredient we mentioned earlier: parabens.
Takeaway #4: A new study shows that the small percentage of parabens in topically applied skincare products poses little risk.
One of the primary reasons I was excited about trying out clean skincare was because I had heard from these companies that parabens were “endocrine and hormone disrupters.” I was and still am trying to get pregnant, so it seemed that it made total sense for me to eliminate any type of products that could mess with my body and lower my chances. Yet, a new scientific study on the usage of parabens in skincare and cosmetics products was just released in October 2019. It’s over 100 pages and it contradicts the previous studies.
What they found is twofold. First, skincare products typically only contain 0.8% parabens in them – an amount so small it doesn’t make an impact when applied topically because our skin has a natural barrier designed to keep toxins out. Second, as Garner mentioned, the new preservatives being used in its place can actually be more harmful than parabens because they are less effective at keeping out bacteria and also have higher rates of causing allergic reactions. All of this brings me to my final point.
Takeaway #5: Listen to your skin and let your body be your guide.
I finally did conduct my experiment. I drove to the drugstore, repurchased my old products, and started using them again exclusively. The result? My skin started to clear up within 24 hours. One week later and it is nearly back to normal.
In sharing all this, I am by no means trying to bash the clean beauty industry. It has helped push many important issues to light and taught us to pay attention – not just to what we are putting in our bodies, but what we are putting on them as well. But if you are someone with clear skin who has been using mainstream products you love for years, my suggestion would be to do your research before you start experimenting with clean products. Consult a dermatologist, and above all else, listen to your skin. If like me, you find that what it needs is synthetic products, then I truly believe there is no shame in that. Listening to your body is wisdom. May it speak louder than all the other movements and marketing materials.