Before Gwyneth Paltrow was touting her goop-approved clean beauty routine, you’d have to make the trek to your local health food stores to find wholesome products for your face, body and hair. Today, between a growing number of brands labelled “clean”, big beauty companies prioritizing non-toxic ingredients, and major retailers like Sephora devoting more shelf space to the clean category, “clean beauty” has become a major buzzword—and an unavoidable one at that. It’s forced those with even minimal interest in makeup and skincare to pay close attention to what goes into and onto their bodies. And for moms, it’s raised potential health and safety concerns. So, how the heck do you navigate this trend?
What exactly is clean beauty?
The term “clean beauty” loosely refers to products that don’t contain ingredients that have been deemed sketchy or unsafe by consumers, organizations like EWG and beauty brands. It also refers to products that are easy on the environment, including sustainable packaging and manufacturing practices, and are ethically sourced. That being said, it’s important to note that there’s no legal or universally accepted definition of the word, which means that beauty brands are free to use the word as they please.
Is clean beauty the same as green, natural or organic beauty?
Clean beauty is the present-day evolution of green and natural beauty. While these words are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some key distinguishing factors: “Green” beauty refers to sustainability and environmental responsibility, addressing questions like, what is the company doing to reduce its ecological footprint? Does it source its ingredients ethically? “Natural” beauty refers to a brand whose ingredients are derived from nature rather than a lab, and are usually plant-based. “Organic” usually refers to a product or ingredient made with non-GMO ingredients. While anything can be labeled organic, some brands work with third-party certification companies like COSMOS and ECOCERT to ensure that it meets the required percentages of organic ingredients. However, like clean beauty, the lack of regulation means there’s no accountability for who gets to use these terms or how they’re used.
What makes an ingredient toxic?
How not to look tired: 6 beauty products to awaken your eyesWhat’s deemed toxic depends on who you ask. It varies from brand to brand and some have their own list of ingredients they avoid. For example, Drunk Elephant has its “Suspicious 6”, which includes ingredients like essential oils and chemical sunscreens, whereas Beautycounter has more than 1,500 ingredients on what it calls “The Never List.” An ingredient is considered toxic if it has a negative effect on your health. It could mess with your hormones, be an endocrine disruptor, or cause an allergic reaction, cancer, developmental or neurological issues.
Health Canada has a “Cosmetic Ingredients Hotlist” that lists over 500 prohibited or restricted ingredients. In comparison, the EU has banned more than 1,400 chemicals, while the US has banned just 10.
What ingredients should I watch out for?
While ingredients vary from brand to brand, here are the ones most commonly found on the “no” lists:
Found in antiperspirants, aluminum blocks sweat glands, but there’s also been concern about its toxicity. Studies have found there’s no conclusive evidence that suggests it is linked to Alzheimer’s disease or an increased risk of breast cancer. But if you’re worried, you can rest easier by making the switch to a natural deodorant.
Used as a preservative in cosmetics, hair straightening products and nail polishes. It is considered to be carcinogenic when inhaled in high levels.
This petroleum by-product is used to moisturize skin. Because there’s no way of knowing whether it has been properly refined, there’s risk of potential contamination, which could make it carcinogenic. But, dermatologists believe that cosmetic-grade mineral oil is purified and safe to use.
Preservatives used to prolong a product’s shelf life and keep out bacteria and mould. Parabens were blacklisted based on a 2004 study linking them to breast cancer. The study was later discredited but the demand for paraben-free products increased. The most common parabens are butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben.
Sometimes called plasticizers, they’re used to make plastics more malleable (most commonly used in hairsprays, nail polishes and perfumes). According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the average Canadian is exposed to fairly low levels of phthalates. However, one type of phthalate, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), which is banned in Canada, is recognized as a possible cause of cancer.
A type of silicone, they’re used to smooth and soften. You’ll find them on the ingredient list ending with “-siloxane” or “-methicone.” There’s concern that siloxanes may be endocrine disruptors, along with how environmentally unfriendly they are.
Made up of a group of chemical ingredients that aren’t disclosed and haven’t been tested for toxicity. These can trigger allergies, respiratory problems and in some cases, even be carcinogenic.
A natural mineral commonly used in makeup (like blush and eyeshadow) and baby powder. There’s concern that talc that isn’t purified can be contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen. Long-term exposure to talc has been linked to lung cancer, as well as ovarian cancer with several high-profile cases for the latter against Johnson & Johnson baby powder.
A type of preservative and antimicrobial agent that keeps products fresh. Some studies have shown that triclosan accumulates in bodies over time and is linked to the disruption of thyroid function. Researchers continue to study the effects of the ingredient.
Are natural ingredients safer?
A natural ingredient isn’t necessarily better than a synthetic ingredient, says Julia Carroll, a dermatologist at Compass Dermatology in Toronto. “There are a lot of ingredients from the earth like poison ivy. Just because it comes from a plant doesn’t mean that it’s good for your body.” She adds: “As dermatologists, we see the aftermath of this on a daily basis. We see people reacting to so-called ‘natural’ ingredients. The most common reaction is contact dermatitis, closely followed by acne.” In fact, synthetic ingredients are often safer than natural ones. “They have been tested in labs and can be reliably reproduced. This cannot always be said of natural ingredients, especially in products that are one-offs or from smaller batch productions.”
Carroll also cautions people against seeing essential oils as natural, and therefore cleaner and safer ingredients. “The issue with essential oils is that they tend to be plant-based and we see a lot of allergy and irritation from plant-based ingredients. Lots of people get extreme reactions.” Similarly, she suggests avoiding using essential oils if you’re pregnant. “Our immune systems change when we’re pregnant so you might be more likely to react.”
Bakuchiol is another ingredient that’s emerged in the clean beauty space as a gentler, plant-based alternative to retinol. While retinol is considered the gold standard in the beauty industry for its ability to help with fine lines and wrinkles, and improve skin tone and texture, many clean beauty brands have placed it on their list of toxic ingredients due to concerns of skin cancer and birth defects. While experts advise against using retinol while pregnant, there’s not enough conclusive evidence at this time to determine whether bakuchiol is a safer option, so it’s best to consult your doctor first.
Trusted brands moms can look to
Start with retailers like The Detox Market, which curates clean beauty brands like RMS, Kosas and Tata Harper and take the guesswork out of shopping. It even has a section called ‘Mommy and Baby’ on its e-commerce site. The “Clean at Sephora” initiative also vets products according to some strict criteria (it excludes over 50 ingredients), which are labeled with a clearly identifiable green seal in stores and online. You can also find clean beauty brands at well.ca, which has a ‘Clean Beauty Market’ section featuring brands like Pai Skincare, Coola and Ilia Beauty. Another option is to look for accreditation from trusted third-party certification companies (like Leaping Bunny and ECOCERT) to help guide your beauty purchases.
It’s not easy navigating the world of clean beauty, especially when there’s no global consensus on which ingredients are safe—and what terms like “clean” actually mean—and a whole lot of products vying for your attention. The most important thing you can do is arm yourself with knowledge to be able to make smart and informed decisions for you and your family.