The rise of the clean beauty movement exposes the toxins present in everyday products. But are some harmful ingredients slipping through the cracks?

Recent articles in British Vogue, Forbes and Good Housekeeping have brought the clean beauty trend to the forefront of our minds. This movement champions the absence of harmful chemicals in beauty products, but while this used to be a fringe practice, brands like Lush and Goop have pushed this movement into the mainstream.

These brands have embraced social movements and stylish packaging to emerge on top of the industry. But for many of us, the flip side of socially-conscious brands is a non-wallet conscious price tag. Just how essential are “clean” beauty products, and what do they miss?

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The changing consumer landscape

Information accessibility in the digital age has made us care more about what goes into the products we buy, whether that’s food, pet toys or cosmetics. A survey by Label Insight indicates that millennials are perhaps the smartest consumers among us, with 56% reporting that they seek out additional product information before purchasing in-store.

Since 81% also expect companies to make public commitments to good citizenship and charitable causes, being a corporation with a heart of gold may be the way of the future. But just because companies are aware of the clean beauty trend doesn’t mean they’re meeting everyone’s goals for the movement.

What does “clean” beauty mean?

Cosmetics brand Beautycounter’s most well-known product isn’t their sheer lipstick or velvet eyeshadow, it’s their Never List. The Never List features around 1,500 potentially harmful products that the company deems should never be used in beauty products. These ingredients include 1,400 chemicals banned by the European Union, as well as other suspicious chemicals that aren’t necessarily illegal but aren’t healthy either.

Since clean beauty products are essentially unregulated, it’s difficult to pin down what “clean” means, and this may vary from company to company.

Yet even this semi-exhaustive list fails to include some harmful ingredients. Questionable ingredients like talc and palm oil don’t appear on the list, which makes policing products that are self-proclaimed “clean” difficult for buyers.

Since clean beauty products are essentially unregulated, it’s difficult to pin down what “clean” means, and this may vary from company to company. A product might include only healthy ingredients on its label, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients listed were sustainably sourced or that the products weren’t tested on animals.

Toxic beauty scandals

Household name companies are finding themselves in trouble with outdated sourcing practices. Claire’s, a retailer of tween accessories and makeup, has had two contaminated product scandals in the last year. Both of these centered around the presence of asbestos fibers in makeup products. Most recently, a collaboration between teen Youtuber Jojo Siwa and Claire’s was found to contain the carcinogenic material. These claims of asbestos contamination were corroborated by the FDA.

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Johnson & Johnson has also found itself in hot water over the last several years for contaminated products. According to quarterly legal filings submitted to the SEC, J&J faces 15,000 upcoming cases alleging harm from talc-containing products. Talc and asbestos often co-occur in the natural environment, and mass mining or incomplete testing can lead to asbestos being present in the final product.

Plaintiffs allege that the presence of this mineral has caused their mesothelioma or ovarian cancers. Finding out that a common product like baby powder could contain toxins is scary and leaves us wondering where to turn and what’s safe.

It’s important to note that asbestos isn’t included on any “never lists,” and that talc-containing products rarely, if ever, come with a warning label. More commonly known toxins are chemicals like formaldehyde, toluene, phthalates and parabens. These common ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products can be linked to neurotoxicity, birth defects, endocrine disruptions and hormone disturbances.

The loopholes of clean beauty

We aren’t the only ones in danger. Environmental repercussions come in the form of depleting natural resources as well as harmful runoff from manufacturing. While ingredients like palm oil aren’t actually bad for our health, the devastating effect they have on the environment should ring alarm bells.

Brands are most likely to jump on the humane testing and nontoxic chemical trains, but leave out the important issue of environmental sustainability.

The idea of a holistically “clean” brand is one we’d all like to believe in, but rolling environmental responsibility, humane testing, and organic or nontoxic ingredients into one is no easy feat. Beauty brands are most likely to jump on the humane testing and nontoxic chemical trains, but leave out the important issue of environmental sustainability. For busy people going about our normal lives, the decision to purchase a “clean” product may come at the expense of both our time and money.

Companies that promote clean ingredients and sustainability are often unpoliced by governing bodies or medical sources. Goop, a wellness brand by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, has faced several backlashes for unfounded and dangerous recommendations. In September 2018 the company was fined $145,000 for “unsubstantiated health claims” but continued to sell the product that triggered the civil penalties in the first place.

What you can do to protect yourself

It can be hard to know which companies to trust and which to kick to the curb. However, the very nature of the busy market means that there’s readily available information on nearly every company and product. To start, look at consumer watchdog sites that track penalties and suits brought against corporations. We suggest doing your research beforehand so you don’t feel confused or overwhelmed in a store. Here are some good places to start:

Environmental Working Group: Skindeep Cosmetics Database
The EWG’s database includes more than 75,000 products rated for safety on a scale of 0-10. They also have an app that you can use while you shop.

Detox Me App
Silent Spring’s Detox Me app is designed to help reduce exposure to toxic chemicals where you live, work, and play. You can use the Buying Guide to decode product labels and scan barcodes for tips and information.

A quick search on Google and Twitter will also let you know of any recently covered scandals and can further allow you to sort out which brands you wish to associate with. Remember to always examine labels for mentions of animal-cruelty free testing, sustainable sourcing and ingredients you know the origin of or can pronounce.

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