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Uncovered: the truth behind clean beauty

Curious about clean beauty? Us too. It’s become one of the industry’s most-used terms, but coming up with a standard definition is next to impossible—in part because there’s no universal (or regulatory) agreement on what being “clean” actually entails. And the more our team discussed clean beauty, the more we wanted to know about it.

That curiosity inspired our new feature series, Uncovered. It’s a year-long exploration of the big issues in beauty, from ingredient safety to microplastics. We’ll be approaching beauty with an explorer’s spirit of inquiry and open-mindedness—all with a goal of collectively becoming savvier, better-informed beauty consumers. With that in mind, we’re beginning Uncovered with a look at clean beauty: what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and where it’s going from here.


Burns notes that there’s no regulation around terms such as “clean,” and unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees on which ingredients pose a risk. “I think safety is in the eye of the beholder in some ways,” says John Toner, the director of marketing and innovation at Aprinnova, a manufacturer of sustainably produced and nontoxic cosmetic ingredients in Emeryville, CA. “If you talk to a lot of industry groups, they'll say they’re at the legal standard and the levels that are recommended. Other groups’ perspective is that we need a higher standard.”

That’s where the government could step in. “[Toxicity testing by companies] probably won't happen until there's a push at the regulatory level,” Burns says,” through a federal cosmetics law that requires products to be proven safe before they hit the market.” A Congressional bill, introduced in 2019, would create new regulations to ensure cosmetics safety, prohibiting 12 ingredients (including formaldehyde, triclosan, and the phthalates DBP and DEHP) upon passing.



Until then, the temptation may be to use only natural and organic products. But just because an ingredient is natural or organic, that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for a beauty formulation. Take essential oils, for instance. Tea tree oil can be highly effective at treating blemishes. But other essential oils, such as cold-pressed bergamot, are likely to irritate sensitive skin when exposed to sunlight.

“Natural doesn't necessarily mean safe,” Toner says. “You can have synthetically derived ingredients that are safe—maybe more safe than some natural products.” That’s because nature, in all of its wondrous diversity, is harder to control; the quality of a rose harvest may waver one season after another, which can lead to varying levels of potency in a beauty formula. But lab-developed synthetics are steady and consistent—which means that a benign synthetic can often be safer than, say, a wildcrafted flower extract.


Increasingly, our definition of clean beauty is expanding to consider the impact a product has on the planet. According to a 2019 Deloitte survey, 42 percent of millennials have begun or deepened a "relationship" with a company because they believe it has a positive impact on the environment or society. As with nontoxic ingredients, modern consumers want options that leave a light footprint, or none at all, on the planet. “The EWG doesn’t review or rate for sustainability,” Burns says. “But in reviewing all of the products that are submitted, I’ve seen more companies addressing sustainability and whether packaging is recyclable or compostable.”

Toner agrees. “Sustainability is something that is much more important in the consumer's mind than ever before,” he says. That goes for packaging, but also for ingredient sourcing. He points to squalene, a skin-care ingredient derived from sharks, as an example. “Millions of sharks are being killed each year for cosmetic purposes,” he says. Chemists at Aprinnova developed a synthetic squalane derived from sugarcane. (Ed. note: Yes, the plant version is squalane while the animal version is squalene. Now you know.) ”We're very specific about the type of sugarcane and the way that we harvest it,” he says. “We want to do it all in a socially responsible way.”


In an age where brands like Aether Beauty and Lawless are succeeding because of their attention to formulation and sourcing, products that don’t have clean credibility run the risk of looking passé. And in today’s market, consumers have no shortage of effective, sustainable, and nontoxic products from which to choose. “Today, it's not necessarily that hard to find a beauty product that has healthy ingredients,” Burns says. “Ten years ago, you may have had to go to more niche locations for the product, but now you can find products in big box stores that do contain healthy ingredients.” As for the next 10 years, nobody can perfectly predict the future—but increasingly, clean beauty looks less like a trend and more like the future standard.

—Annie Tomlin

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