Clean beauty is big business: in recent years, the claim — along with cousins natural, green, and non-toxic — has popped up on everything from anti-aging serum to acne spot treatment.
But is it worth all the hype — and the heftier price tag? Here, we’re dishing the dirt on the clean beauty trend.
“Clean beauty” has no legal definition
News flash! The clean, green, natural beauty landscape is like the wild west: there are zero regulations that define what any of that even means. So marketers can use it to promote a valid corporate consciousness — or to trick unsuspecting consumers into shelling out extra cash.
We’ve gone over how the FDA regulates skincare before, but let’s recap. Certain ingredients labeled as treating a skin condition (like benzoyl peroxide and sulfur for acne) are considered drugs, and have to follow specific guidelines called a monograph. All other skincare products, however, are considered cosmetics, and receive barely any oversight.
This means that companies can put any number of “cleanwashing” buzzwords on their labels, because there’s nobody double-checking those claims, and there’s not even a consensus on how to define them.
If you’re trying to treat a specific condition — like acne or eczema — says Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), look for skincare that has a Drug Facts label. This means it contains ingredients approved by the FDA to actually treat that condition.
Everything is made of chemicals
The list of trendy adjectives on skincare labels continues to grow: organic, natural, clean, non-synthetic, non-toxic, green, sustainable, cruelty-free, carbon-neutral…and so on. It might look good, but there’s not necessarily any meaning behind it.
But there’s a truth lurking behind all of that confusion: everything in this world — whether it’s created by nature or in a lab — consists of chemicals. You remember the periodic table of the elements from science class, right? Every skincare ingredient is made up of combinations of those atoms, and they’re called chemicals.
Some chemicals are hazardous to your health — and some are essential for life. To complicate matters: whether or not a chemical is “bad” or “good” often depends on how much of it you’re exposed to, and what other chemicals you combine it with. That’s why seeking out trusted, well-reviewed skincare brands is your best bet.
“Natural” doesn’t mean “good” or “bad”
Many modern “miracle” drugs are derived from natural sources and refined in a lab. Sometimes scientists take a substance that’s harmful, even deadly, to humans, and turn it into something that can be positively life-changing (we’re looking at you, Botox).
Many common skincare chemicals originally came from natural sources and were improved upon to make them more potent, or more bioavailable, including salicylic acid (derived from willow tree bark) and kojic acid (a byproduct of fermented rice).
On the other hand, some “natural” substances are downright dangerous when used in DIY skincare. In some cases, organic/non-synthetic ingredients can lead to contact dermatitis (aka rashes and eczema) or even burns. Trends like applying apple cider vinegar straight to your skin, or attempting to make your own coconut oil sunscreen certainly fall into this category.
Dermatologists trust what works
There’s a reason why dermatologists recommend certain skincare ingredients over and over again: there’s data to back up their effectiveness. The gold standard for evaluating an ingredient is a clinical trial, which objectively examines whether that ingredient works for a desired outcome.
According to Dr. Lee, the best ingredient for the job isn’t a question of synthetic or natural. “There are two main things we look out for,” she explains. “Number one, does it work? And number two, is it well-tolerated?”
To that end, most of the ingredients that effectively treat concerns like acne, rosacea and keratosis pilaris are either modified from nature, or completely synthetic, to maximize efficacy and minimize potential side effects.
The bottom line
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting skincare that’s beneficial for you and the environment, but “clean beauty” is marketing hype. If you’re trying to manage a skin concern, find a trusted brand that features healthy-skin formulas that really work.
Dr. Lee's Last Word
As a dermatologist, my focus is on delivering results for my patients. The skincare I recommend doesn’t follow trends — I stick with proven ingredients that are safe and effective.