Understanding what clean beauty means
Understanding what clean beauty means is not an easy endeavor. I started including more clean beauty content on the blog because I think it’s important to provide evidence-based data so you as a consumer can educate yourself, recognize potentially toxic ingredients and decide how to incorporate clean beauty in your own life. If you do, the question becomes how does one make sense of clean beauty with all the misinformation and fear mongering present in the market?
My “clean” journey started with swapping out the home brands I was accustomed to using with nontoxic alternatives. For instance, hand soap, surface cleaners, and dishwashing soap. When I was pregnant with my first baby in 2015, I started paying attention to the skincare and beauty products I was using on my body. The idea that the products my family and I had been using for years could be linked to detrimental health effects did not sit right with me.
But what is detrimental to your health? What does it mean when an ingredient is possibly linked to cancer or is known as an endocrine disruptor? Is the data definitive? Companies say certain products are “full of chemicals” with a negative connotation or “free of chemicals” as a benefit. To be clear, everything has chemicals. Some companies use marketing claims like “chemical-free” and “natural” to appeal to health-conscious consumers. It’s getting harder to tell what is evidence-based and what are misleading marketing claims. As a pregnant mother of two and a Pharmacist, I find it confusing myself. So, the first place I turn to is the data. What do we see from clinical trials?
An unregulated industry
When companies make marketing claims about prescription medications, they are restricted in what they can and cannot say. Every claim needs to be backed up by data. The pharmaceutical industry is incredibly regulated, as it should be. Unfortunately, the beauty industry is not. Cosmetic companies can use misleading claims like “natural” and “clean” and “chemical-free” but what does that actually mean? Are these claims backed up by data? No. Are they even accurate? Often times, no. There are many unknowns when it comes to the beauty industry.
Furthermore, cosmetic companies are not required to report health problems from their products to the FDA like pharmaceutical companies are. They also have no requirements for pre-market approval. Lastly, there is no regulatory process for assessing claims made on products, thus making the issue very confusing. In a research article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, there were 5,144 health-related complains submitted to the FDA due to cosmetic products from 2004 to 2016, with an average of 396 events per year. The three most commonly implicated product categories were hair care, skin care and tattoos. Of note, reporting is voluntary so these numbers most likely do not show the entire picture.
Fortunately, consumers and physicians can report adverse events to the FDA’s database, the CFSAN Adverse Event Reporting System (CAERS), which contains publicly accessible information on adverse events and product complaint reports submitted to the FDA for cosmetics, food and dietary supplements.
understanding clean beauty
This information isn’t meant to be alarmist. Looking at clinical trials, there isn’t always a clear causal relationship between an ingredient and its health effects. Sometimes the data is preliminary, limited to animals, in-vitro, or lacking long-term exposure. The gold standard of clinical research is the randomized, controlled study, which is not always a possibility. Nonetheless, the science is evolving and as consumers, we need to stay informed. Below are initial steps you can take if you’re trying to understand what all these “nontoxic” marketing cleans mean.
Step 1: Educate yourself
Understanding what terms like “clean,” “natural”, “green” and “nontoxic” mean is not easy. There are no guidelines or definitions provided by regulatory bodies. To further complicate things, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is better. Reading ingredient labels and educating yourself on the risk benefit profiles of each ingredient is key. Sources like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are great resources for identifying potentially toxic ingredients. The EWG has a database called Skin Deep that is incredibly helpful for researching products. I also use the Think Dirty app to look up products as I shop. The data is evolving and new research is continuously coming out. If you’re interested in a clean beauty deep dive, Not Just a Pretty Face by Stacy Malkan is a great read.
Step 2: Replace products as you run out
Replacing your entire beauty and skincare regimen is both unrealistic and expensive. Start with products you use most often and that affect the largest surface area on your body. I replaced all of our hand soap a few years ago to a cleaner alternative since we use it multiple times per day. Body wash was one of the most difficult replacements I made. I started using Raw Sugar (found at Target) based on a recommendation from a reader and so far I am really happy with it. I also recommend replacing lip balm early on since you’re possibly ingesting it throughout the day.
Hand soap ♥ Body wash ♥ Antiperspirants ♥ Lip balm ♥ Sunscreen
Also, antiperspirants. Some research has suggested a connection between antiperspirants containing aluminum and breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the American Cancer Society, no clear link has been established between antiperspirants containing aluminum and breast cancer and there was a published systemic review that did not find clear evidence of aluminum being a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Of note, antiperspirants are different than deodorants. Antiperspirants contain aluminum, which blocks sweat glands to prevent sweat from getting to the skin’s surface while deodorant masks body odor. Since the original study came out in 2013, I stopped using antiperspirants and have been experimenting with natural deodorant. There was also a period of time that I stopped using deodorant completely and for that, I apologize to my friends and family. There are so many great natural deodorant options available now that I don’t have any desire to go back to antiperspirants.
Step 3: Consider if you really need all the products you’re using
As a beauty enthusiast, I understand the appeal of experimenting with different products. However, most often they end up sitting on my shelf and collecting dust. Simplifying my routine while pregnant has taught me that I don’t need as many products as I thought I did. I’m selective with any additions and have kept my skin routine minimal these past few months.
Step 4: Report adverse events to the FDA
If you experience an adverse event from a cosmetic product, you can report it to the FDA here. The issue with voluntary consumer reporting is that the numbers are most likely underestimated. However, if both consumers and companies are diligent about reporting reactions, we will have a more comprehensive review of the data and better understand the safety behind the products we use on a daily basis. My hope is that we get to the point that cosmetic companies are required to report adverse events to the FDA so we can have an accurate understanding of the efficacy and safety of our beauty products. A girl can dream.
For more beauty articles, I wrote about my Winter skincare favorites here and lipstick here.