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Opinion – the concept of ‘clean’ beauty is a myth

The ‘clean beauty’ industry has boomed in the past few years, and continues to rise as consumers prioritise ‘non-toxic’ and ‘chemical-free’ formulas. But if our bodies are composed of chemicals, why do we avoid them in our skincare?

Nowadays, the words ‘clean’ and ‘beauty’ seem entirely synonymous with one another.

TikTok has seen the rise of the ‘clean girl’ trend, whose proprietors are slicking back their hair, combing their brows, and wearing minimal makeup atop flawless skin. Consumers are placing more emphasis on their appearance as part of the wellness craze, complete with kale smoothies and Tik-Tok-style house-cleaning routines.

The ‘clean’ phenomenon has done to the beauty industry what veganism did for diet trends. Everyone is cracking down on the ingredients inside their skincare products, calling out ‘toxic chemicals’ as the cause of everything from acne to gut inflammation.

This narrative has seen certain brands thrive, those using scientific wording in their marketing touch-points draw in hundreds of thousands of consumers year-on-year. ‘Drunk Elephant’ is one such example, basing their entire brand identity around avoidance of the ‘suspicious six’, a selection of six supposedly ‘toxic’ ingredients such as chemical sunscreens and SLS.

But the definition of ‘clean’ in this context has remained ambiguous, triggering criticism from skincare experts and beauty influencers alike.

The problem is that there’s no scientific data to back up these claims, despite what many brands will have you believe. ‘Clean beauty’ has a misinformation strategy that stems from the word ‘clean’ itself. As Anita Bhagwandas has pointed out, this terminology implies that anything not dubbing itself ‘clean’ must be dirty and even dangerous to our health.

Such connotation has driven hundreds of brands to adopt the ‘clean’ catchphrase in an effort to retain customers, making the concept more ubiquitous and thus more meaningless.

Hollywood A-listers have been a large factor in ‘clean beauty’s success. Gwyneth Paltrow – known for her health-obsessed wellness platform ‘Goop’, caused controversy last year after a video of her applying sunscreen went viral.

The actress, known for her stringent views on chemical sunscreens and other supposedly ‘toxic’ skincare ingredients, showed Vogue Online viewers how she placed sunscreen on the tip of her nose and cheeks, ‘the area where the sun really hits’. Medical professionals were quick to slam the advice, deeming it at best misleading, and at worst ‘dangerous’.

The capacity for those with such a huge platform to share grossly inaccurate information comes down to the lack of regulation surrounding skin-care rhetoric. Within the beauty industry, the definition of ‘clean’ products is still hotly debated, and the use of intimidating language like ‘non-toxic’ and ‘harmful chemicals’ has done little for consumer clarification.

What really constitutes ‘harmful chemicals’? It seems nobody truly knows nor cares to elaborate, the words themselves are deemed enough to turn you away from products ostensibly ‘unworthy’ of the ‘clean’ label.

Those citing clean beauty as the fountain of eternal youth – and health – often refer to the EWG (Environmental Working Group). The organisation’s ‘Skin Deep Database’ is an extensive list of beauty products rated from ‘worst’ to ‘EWG Certified’, a badge of honour awarded to products that meet the EWG’s self-proclaimed ‘strictest criteria for transparency and health’.

When searching EWG’s website for more information on what this criteria actually is, you’re met with the same sweeping statements that plague the rest of the industry.

According a video on the company’s website, many beauty products still contain ‘harmful chemicals that were introduced decades ago’ and said chemicals are known to cause ‘cancer and asthma’. But the EWG has no sources to back up these heavyweight statements.

Victoria Buchanan, a marketing analyst at The Future Laboratory, says the ‘clean’ trend is built on distrust:

‘Due to secretive supply chains and unregulated terminology, the beauty sector is facing a backlash from consumers who are seeking honesty, efficacy and simplicity. So as the consumer continues to scrutinise what’s in the products they put on their skin, clean beauty has become a new standard in the industry.’

Like other trends, ‘clean beauty’ has no parameters or governing body to regulate its claims. Netflix documentary ‘Toxic Beauty’ explored the lack of ingredient regulation in the US, where the FDA only prohibits 11 ingredients from being used in beauty products.

‘Toxic Beauty’ suggested that certain chemicals being used in skincare and makeup could be linked to infertility and cancer. But these hypotheses are ultimately scaremongering, causing consumers to right-off chemicals all together.

Ultimately, just because something is labelled ‘clean’ doesn’t mean it’s better for you or your skin. Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto states that many ‘clean beauty’ products don’t have clinical studies like engineered ingredients do, and so products often won’t perform to the standard customers are expecting.

So next time you find yourself reaching for something that says ‘clean’, ‘non-toxic’, or ‘honest’, remember that the brand behind that product may be ‘clean-bombing’ you into spending your money. Do your own research into ingredients you may be worried about – but ensure you cite medical professionals rather than celebrities or influencers.

The language of clean beauty may be attractive, but it remains meaningless in an industry laden with empty words and promises.