You could think that beauty products are the new cigarettes if you keep up to date with the news and trends. Natural products sales are booming. It seems everyone wants to have their products to be clean – or are scared of any toxins in their creams. The products need to be good both for your health and for the environment.

What if that’s all just fear-mongering marketing tactics? Wait, let me first get this out of the way: This post here is not to talk trash about clean beauty. Personally, I’m a huge fan of natural and wholistic skin care. And the problem starts here already. Everyone understands something different under natural skin care products, clean, green, or nontoxic beauty.

So what’s clean beauty?

Doesn’t it seem that’s a question just like asking what’s a good movie or good music? Everyone seems to understand but no one can really agree and certainly not come up with an exact definition.

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I’m coming up with my own subjective definition: For me, clean beauty describes a trend where people are choosing products based on what they don’t want in them.

How skewed is the term clean beauty?

Let’s be clear about this. If you say a certain product is clean, it clearly implies others are dirty. Coupled with baseless claims or unscientific research and people are moved to buy certain products. Because fear sells.

Just look a the list of terms that are used on labels but are not regulated. That is according to the FDA , they have no official or legal meaning:

  • Natural
  • Nontoxic
  • Clean
  • Safe
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Cosmeceutical
  • Alcohol-Free
  • Cruelty-Free
  • Not Tested on Animals
  • Organic

All the fear mongering and chemophobia in beauty marketing has led to people thinking “chemicals” are harmful and dangerous. When choosing products, one of the products that seem to draw the most suspicion is preservatives.

Should you be afraid of preservatives?

Frankly, I’d be more worried if my products don’t contain preservatives. In fact, you’d absolutely want them in your products. They’ve 2 important tasks:

They keep many products safe. These can be food, pharmaceuticals and yes cosmetics. Anything that contains water can grow microbes which could lead to mold or the product can even break down. Nasty stuff you don’t want on your skin. And preservatives help prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast, and fungi.

It’s an important task if you consider where people normally store their products – the bathroom cabinet is warm and moist. Perfect breeding ground for microbes.

The second task is to give them a longer shelf life. Otherwise, they’d need to be stored in the fridge. Of course, they also help in the production process. Making a product is a complex process. Contamination could be introduced at any point, especially if the plants are not adhering strictly to the safety standards.

The most commonly used preservatives in the beauty industry are parabens. They’re known to be effective against fungal contamination and some bacterial contamination. Leave them out, and you’re going to see numerous recalls because the products are contaminated.

Why did parabens get the bad rep?

In 1920, parabens were first introduced as preservatives. You can find them in all kinds of pharmaceuticals, beauty, and personal care products such as

  • Deodorants
  • Toothpaste
  • Shampoos
  • Conditioners
  • Makeup
  • Skin care
  • Shaving products
  • Cough suppressants

The most common ones are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.

A study in 2004 found that these types of preservatives can are linked to breast cancer. Even though this study is now disputed, it led to bad press over the years.

Of course, science isn’t static. New information is constantly coming to light. Which means, doubts can arise on older results or long-held beliefs.

Rest assured that parabens are safe, gentle, and efficient preservatives, even in very low percentages. This has repeatedly been confirmed by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). It’s a group of independent scientists based in the EU. They’re responsible for evaluating research done on the safety of ingredients and they advise the EU legislative bodies.

The SCCS is managed by the Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Commission. This directorate corresponds to the FDA in the US, except it’s literally 100x stricter.

Parabens are the preservatives of choice. They are the most effective broad-spectrum preservatives and inexpensive, yet rarely prompt an allergic response.

Is it worth considering the tradeoff shorter shelf-life but natural product with no added preservatives?

On the surface, this tradeoff sounds like a good idea. But doesn’t that mean you need to buy more and hence also have more empties or leftovers to trash?

Then, it’s potentially riskier using a product that’s already gone off than using a product containing a small number of known and safe in terms of the SCCS preservatives.

Also, brands looking to replace parabens started to replace them with other newer chemical preservatives. These haven’t been tested for as long so their health effects are still mostly unknown. They could even be much worse.

The brands could also be using a lot more preservatives or higher concentrations. This means that people who’d don’t get any reaction with the known parabens at lower percentages might get irritated or allergies.

Brands are also starting to use natural preservatives. But these come with their own set of problems. They usually don’t extend the shelf life of a product longer than 6 months. Moreover, they also only suppress a much narrower spectrum of microbes.

In closing

Let me get that off my chest: Ingredients aren’t clean or dirty. Chemicals can be good and bad. The water you drink is a chemical. So is the air you breathe. Plant-derived ingredients are technically chemicals too.

The ingredients that finally make it into the formulation of beauty products are extremely rigorously tested.

So, you can’t just say an ingredient is good or bad without taking into account how it’s used. Too much of a good thing is toxic. Inhaling a bit of water in the form of steam is a whole different story than inhaling a swimming pool.

By now it should be evident that clean beauty has two sides. Some see it as a way to help consumers make more informed decisions. They communicate in a clear, honest, and transparent way.

Others see fear mongering and green washing as a powerful marketing approach to get people who have health and environmental concerns to buy their products. And it works. Isn’t it human nature? When you’re told that something is dangerous, don’t you pay more attention, even become hyper aware of it?

Save Preservatives, Parabens, And Paranoia for later

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