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Wellness > Health

Is Clean Beauty *Really* That Clean?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCSB chapter.

Though the clean beauty trend seems new, the earliest evidence of a cosmetic product marketed as “clean” (no synthetic chemicals, “nontoxic” ingredients, and occasionally cruelty-free, vegan, and ethically sourced) is a 1960’s face powder made from corn silk. There’s even a little jingle that was aired, boasting, “Corn Silk has no artificial color — won’t streak or change color on your face / You’ll feel as innocent as you look” (Duke Repository). Even then, clean beauty was misconstrued as “better” or “healthier” — in hindsight, this Corn Silk Powder ad is laughable because we know face powder won’t discolor your face regardless of where its pigment is derived from. 

Aside from 1960’s Corn Silk Powder and scattered efforts to popularize “natural” and “nontoxic” beauty, the 1970 formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its “Safer Choice Standards” made cleaner cosmetic options even more popular. Furthermore, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review formed in 1976 spurred more demand for clean or eco-friendly alternatives to everyday products. 

Fast forward to today, clean beauty brands like Fenty Beauty, Summer Fridays, Ilia, and Kosas dominate the cosmetics industry. While all these brands have very high quality products (I can’t live without my Summer Fridays Lip Butter Balm or my Tower 28 Jelly Gloss in shade Chestnut), their “clean at Sephora/Ulta/Macy’s” marker means virtually nothing. 

For one, everyone I’ve spoken to who uses mostly clean beauty products cites a fear of parabens as the main reason for supporting clean beauty. Parabens are hormone disruptors that supposedly cause adenocarcinoma, or breast cancer. The fear of parabens spurred from a 2004 study called “Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumors” by Philippa Darbre, who has actually gone on to clarify that she had never mentioned parabens as the cause of breast tumors. Moreover, the FDA notes parabens are safe in low levels and using parabens-containing cosmetics will not alter your health. 

Similarly, clean beauty can mean vastly different things. Some retailers may refer to their beauty products as “clean” because all ingredients are naturally derived. On the other hand, other retailers may call their products “clean” to refer to the fact that their ingredients, while synthetic, are cruelty-free or ethically sourced. Regardless, a cosmetic being “clean” can point to many different aspects and brands take advantage of this, knowing consumers often will not look into why they’re claiming to be “clean” or “nontoxic.”

I use the word “nontoxic” in quotes in the context of “clean” or “natural” beauty because, again, it doesn’t really mean anything. Something made synthetically in a lab is not automatically toxic, the same way something found naturally in nature is not automatically “safe.” For example, botox (made synthetically in a lab via multiple rounds of purification and acid treatment) is not toxic, but it’s made with C. botulinum, A.K.A. a naturally-derived strain of bacteria that causes botulism, a food-borne illness that is almost always fatal. And, many “clean” products contain naturally-derived lavender oil, which has been proven to mimic estrogen in girls, causing premature breast growth (Weaver); yet, it’s only phthalates and parabens (synthetic chemicals) that receive the main brunt of criticism regarding hormone blockers in makeup.

The idea that anything found in nature is automatically safe to ingest and use is a fallacy and wholly unproductive. Instead of using evidence backed by reputable science to prove a product’s efficacy or health benefits, companies are making groundless claims that stress people out and make them scared of products that are, truly, perfectly fine. 

For a while, I was also scared of putting anything artificial or not marked as “clean” on my face. As a vegan, I care a lot about what I consume, especially regarding the health of the planet, people, and animals. More than anything, I want to use products that support my values, including but not limited to paying factory workers, farmers, and chemists fairly and providing humane working conditions, not animal testing, and refraining from using animal-derived ingredients. That being said, I also care deeply about science and companies with integrity that aren’t “milking” being vegan, phthalate-free, or synthetic-free to get people to buy their brand. 

As much as I can talk forever about clean beauty being a mechanism to fear-monger, I would like to leave you, reader, with some great beauty brands to support, clean label aside (after you finish all the skincare, makeup, and fragrance you’re using now of course!). Some ethical, vegan, cruelty-free, genuinely effective brands with integrity and health transparency I love currently are Dieux’s “Angel” skincare line, Appledoll’s True Love blush in Eve (the packaging is SO cute), and Alkemia’s Silken Tent Ultime rollerball.

Stay clean, my friends!

First year Biopsychology major and Mathematics minor at UCSB. When I’m not caught up in 3-hour labs or entangled in tricky U-subs, I’m usually listening to Frank Ocean, spending too much on perfume, or collecting Sonny Angels 👼.