Why clean beauty isn't as "clean" as you might think

Why clean beauty isn't as "clean" as you might think

9 minute read

You've invested in a hydro-flask, choose organic when you can, and you're trying to make a better investment into clean skincare now too. You've heard it's good for you, and we're all trying to do things daily that help us feel and look great in the long-run. Unfortunately, clean beauty or skincare has no official definition, especially from the FDA. 

So, without a definition, what is clean skincare, and are any ingredients really clean?

Clean skincare has been defined as anything from avoiding a laundry list of ingredients to products that are zero waste to products that are “nontoxic”. Usually, it means that a company is applying a very broad and fairly subjective definition to a term that makes their product sound better to the consumer — and it’s something you should watch out for. 


It’s important to understand that the FDA has yet to regulate any of the most common beauty buzzwords or define explicit criteria for who gets to tout these words and who doesn’t — basically, just because it says “clean” on the label, doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be better for you or the environment. 


However, the idea behind “clean” skincare is that the product avoids processed, chemical ingredients and instead uses plant-based, nontoxic ingredients to nourish and treat the skin. Clean skincare should be clear of hormone disruptors and carcinogens. Wait- what? Shouldn’t all skin care be free of cancer-linked ingredients? We think yes, but that’s just not the case. There are definitely skincare products that contain carcinogens. In fact, many popular sunscreen products have recently been found to contain benzene, a known human carcinogen. Doesn’t feel so great to think about that one.

Clean Beauty Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

There are even ingredients from the “bad” category that can help!

However, the clean beauty movement goes deeper than just a push to avoid known carcinogens in skincare. There is a whole list of ingredients rejected by the clean beauty movement that aren’t as deleterious as many of these clean beauty leaders make them out to be. In fact, the avoidance of these ingredients began from the purported idea that there was a risk of endocrine disruption, and yes, cancer, when in actuality there has been no scientific evidence of a legitimate connection.

In fact, safe preservatives like parabens and formaldehyde releasers (the same ones you might find on a “toxic” ingredient list have been necessary to prevent severe infections and complications like the corneal ulcers that resulted from bacteria in insufficiently preserved mascara in the 1970’s. 

Vitamin A/retinyl palmitate has been listed by many groups as an unsafe ingredient. There has been extensive documentation that these concerns are actually not based on scientific evidence.

With the rise of so many sites quickly labeling ingredients as irritants, carcinogens, and toxic, it can be difficult to determine what is legitimate and what has become muddied by a powerful, worldwide marketing campaign. 

However, “Clean” skincare isn’t always misleading...

But this isn’t to say that the clean beauty movement is entirely about profit or based on completely theoretical premises — like most things, there is some truth amidst the chatter, truth that we all stand to benefit from. While we don’t recommend that you begin shelling out your life savings to replace every product you own, there is some good in being mindful of what companies you purchase from, what ingredients they use, how they manufacture, and what research they’ve done to back their claims. 

We aren’t looking to disparage the clean beauty movement or the desire for safer, more sustainable products, we just want to encourage consumers to not take what they are reading on the internet as an inviolable gospel.

So how do I know if a product is actually “clean”?

The label on a bottle marketing itself as “clean” should be transparent and accountable for every single ingredient — no surprises. Armed with this information, if you know that a product is irritating to your skin, even if it is not something objectively harmful, steer clear. Additionally, look for explanations of the ingredients that will help you to understand their purposes and origins, like ours here at Get Mr. If you still aren’t sure about a product, ask your dermatologist.

“Botanical” skincare or All Natural does not equal safe

Clean Beauty Photo by Carolyn Delacorte on UnsplashPhoto by Carolyn Delacorte on Unsplash

Botanical skincare is another common term used by companies branding or rebranding as “natural”. While “clean” and “natural” beauty can serve as more of a general blanket term, “botanical” is specifically referring to ingredients derived from plants. However, just because a product is labeled “botanical” does not mean that every ingredient is derived from a plant or even that every ingredient is “clean” or “natural”.

A company could be calling its products botanical when in reality only one ingredient is a botanical extract (an oil derived from a plant) or has a plant-based ingredient. It’s also important to remember that just because something grows in the ground or comes from a plant, doesn’t mean it’s good for you or your face. Poison Ivy is as natural as it gets, but you certainly don’t want it in your skincare. 

When it comes to botanical products, you’ll still have to do your research to ensure that the ingredients are safe and effective, as this term can be another feel-good, marketable claim to drive sales rather than a rock-solid go-to. 

Plant-based ingredients and botanical extracts can provide wonderful benefits to the skin, but be sure to watch out that you aren’t allergic to any of the ingredients in a plant-based formula — natural or botanical doesn’t automatically equate to safe. 

“Sustainable” skincare

You are probably familiar with the term sustainable referring to a lot of new products, from food to beverages to clothing, and now, of course, to beauty products. Sustainable, like the aforementioned labels, is also an unregulated term that has implications for what it should mean, but no hard guidelines enforced by a third party (noticing a trend?). 

The idea behind sustainable skincare is similar to the idea behind sustainability in any product: the ingredients, manufacturing, and packaging should do as little damage to the environment as possible, or none at all. The ingredients in your skincare end up in our oceans and water systems when you rinse it off of your face or body, and that means that it has the potential to harm marine life and ecosystems. The packaging of the product should also either be recyclable, made from recycled materials, biodegradable, glass, or another form of material that does not harm the planet. 

Just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it is sustainable

It is important to not conflate these terms or assume that just because a product is natural, it is sustainable, or because it is sustainable, that it is clean. While some terms might naturally become interchangeable as we understand more of what ingredients are safe both for ourselves and the planet, the sourcing of natural and clean ingredients can count as “sustainable” out of the question, even if the ingredient itself isn’t harmful to people, animals, or ecosystems. 

In fact, sometimes synthetic ingredients that come from a lab can be the most environmentally safe. While natural ingredients can be good, they also have to come from somewhere — and there is likely a limited quantity. Essentially, this just means that natural doesn’t always equate to sustainable, and synthetic doesn’t always equate to “bad”. Turns out, like most other aspects of life, what “good” means when it comes to skincare isn’t always black and white. 

The Bottom Line on Clean, Botanical, or Natural Skincare

Ultimately, without a third party regulator like the FDA, a lot of the work on determining what claims made by skincare companies are legitimate and which are not falls on you, the consumer. That might sound a bit exhausting! We know you don’t want to spend hours obsessing over what ingredients mean what, where they came from, who they are or aren’t harming — oh, the list goes on. Thankfully, we at GetMr., among other skincare brands, aren’t expecting you to. No guilt trip here!

While there is a level of responsibility the consumer will always have to do a bit of homework on the subject (like reading blogs like this — see, you’re already halfway there!) and checking that ingredient label, a good skincare brand should also be making that work easier. If a skincare company really is producing clean, natural skincare that’s good for you and the planet, they probably aren’t being shady about it! Look for a breakdown of the ingredients on their website, clear and defined explanations of why they consider themselves clean, nontoxic, or sustainable, and explanations for how they formulate their products. 

A site like the Consumer Ingredient Review can also help, and in fact, is one of the few research-backed, dermatologist supported resources out there. To use it, just plug in the ingredients in your skin care to find a breakdown for what they are and what you should know about them. If it feels overwhelming at times, just remember: any progress towards better skincare is good progress, and an overhaul of your products might not happen overnight (and no one is expecting it to!). 

If you’re in the market for a new daily face sunscreen, we recommend dermatologist created The Daily by GetMr. We can vouch for it — in every step of its formulation, we kept you, the planet, and your skin health in mind. Nothing shady going on here; we’re completely transparent with our ingredient list and why we hand-picked each one. It’ll be a purchase you can feel good about, and not just because of a fancy label. 

Featured Image by Sarah Dorweiler oUnsplash

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