You don’t need the last name Paltrow, a standing gua sha appointment, or a shelf full of powdered mushroom extracts to care about the ingredients in your beauty products. From parabens, phthalates, and sulfates to oxybenzone, triclosan, hydroquinone, and artificial fragrances, these dirty beauty words are fear inducing enough to elicit a Marie Kondo-style purge of your entire bathroom cabinet, even in the most apathetic among us. But what does clean beauty even mean? Can you trust all-natural labels? And are nontoxic products important?
Nearly 50 percent of women are already using clean beauty products, according to a Harper’s BAZAAR poll of more than 1,000 women across all ages, races, and ethnicities, and more than 60 percent of women would be willing to splurge on one. But with more options than ever before—you don’t need to stray far from the drugstore to find a natural version of your favorite skin care, makeup, and hair care products—there comes more opportunity for greenwashing. Not only is the beauty industry self-regulated (meaning anyone can make a “clean beauty” claim with no oversight), but America’s cosmetic regulations for safe products is 81 years old—older than most modern beauty companies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to recall toxic beauty products unless a manufacturer volunteers. And while the European Union has banned more than 1,000 chemicals common in personal care products, the United States has banned just 11. Should you be concerned? And where do you even start on a path to a cleaner beauty routine?
To separate science from science fiction, we spoke with leading beauty experts; pored over studies and data; and swiped, swatched, and spritzed hundreds of clean hair and skin care products to get to the root of what it really means to be clean and natural in the realm of beauty.
Clean Beauty 101
Where Do I Start?
We believe in taking a common sense approach to clean beauty: If a product is intended to stay on your skin all day (like a moisturizer) and/or it’s covering a large surface area (like body lotion), then you should try to switch to a cleaner alternative. Start by finding a natural replacement for your daily sunscreen, hand soap, body lotion/wash, and deodorant. Then slowly graduate to cleaner shampoo, conditioner, skin care, and makeup products. You can find our favorite product picks for each in the corresponding guides above.
Ingredients to Avoid
Clean beauty is a spectrum, but a case can be made that some ingredients should be avoided altogether. Below, the most common beauty ingredients of concern and the reasons why they’re so notorious.
Parabens | Fragrances | Aluminum Compounds | Ethoxylated Agents | Formaldehyde | Refined Petroleum | Hydroquinone | Talc | Triclosan | Silica | Oxybenzone
Parabens are a group of preservatives and antimicrobial chemicals that prevent the growth of nasty things like bad bacteria and mold in your beauty products.
The problem: Studies confirm that parabens mimic estrogen in the human body, with evidence linking them to reproductive organ harm, thyroid disruption, hormone-related cancers, and obesity. Exposure to parabens through beauty products was recently linked to early onset puberty in girls, according to a study published in Human Reproduction. They’re also easily absorbed: Pregnant women who used more personal care products had a greater amount of parabens in their urine, according to a 2014 study published in Reproduction. The authors of the previous study noted that “toxicological risk assessments in humans do not take into account simultaneous exposure,” meaning the risks to the fetus are still unknown. A 2019 study also found a link between paraben exposure and gestational diabetes mellitus.
The European Commission banned several types of parabens for use in personal care products: isopropyl-, isobutyl-, phenyl-, benzyl-, and pentylparabens. All five are still approved for use in the United States. FDA scientists have reopened investigations into parabens and cosmetics several times and continue to monitor new data, but their conclusion remains, “At this time,we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”
Fragrances and Phthalates
The word fragrance is a catchall term that can disguise up to 3,000 synthetic or natural chemicals used to make a beauty product smell delicious. Fragrances are considered a trade secret and, therefore, do not have to be disclosed. On a related note, phthalates, which help fragrances last longer, are a group of chemicals used to keep materials and products (nail polishes, hair sprays, plastics) pliable. You’ll find them on an ingredient list abbreviated as DEP, BBzP, DBP, and DEHP.
The problem: Where there is the vague ingredient fragrance, there are phthalates—most of the time, anyway. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive and hormonal harm in children and men. Some studies have linked phthalate exposure to obesity, type 2 diabetes, reduced sperm count, breast cancers, reproductive malformation, infertility, and cardiovascular events. A study from 2017 found that 70 percent of perfume and cosmetics salespeople had exceeded the cumulative risk of phthalate exposure. Fragrance on its own can also be a trigger for allergies and asthma attacks, since we don’t know exactly what ingredients are being used in both short- and long-term exposure. Cosmetics giants Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have all committed to fragrance transparency in the last several years.
Ethoxylated agents include polyethylene glycols (PEGs), ceteareths, oleth, and sulfates. Sulfates are responsible for the bubbles and lather in cleansers like shampoo. Some sulfates are synthetic, while others are derived from sulfur and petroleum, as well as natural sources like coconut and palm oils. PEG compounds are used as thickeners, solvents, and softeners in hair products, as well as some moisturizers and base products.
The problem: Sodium lauryl sulfate is a harsh cleanser, which is why it gets a bad reputation in the world of hair care. It will strip your hair, but it’s not inherently toxic. To save your hair, sodium lauryl sulfate is sometimes converted into sodium laureth sulfate through a process called ethoxylation. A by-product of this process is 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists as a likely human carcinogen. On the FDA website, it’s noted that the agency “periodically monitors the levels of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics products” and that “changes made in the manufacturing process have resulted in a significant decline over time in the levels of this contaminant in these products.” A 2018 FDA survey of 82 randomly selected personal care products marketed toward children found that only two had levels of 1,4-dioxane above 10 ppm, which is significantly lower than in the surveys conducted from 1981 through 1997. The agency also notes that 1,4-dioxane evaporates quickly, lowering the risk of transdermal absorption “even in products that remain on the skin for hours.” As of July 2019, Sephora is requiring brands to test for the presence of 1,4-dioxane.
The most notorious preservative in history, formaldehyde is commonly found in keratin smoothing treatments that rely on the chemical to lock the hair’s broken disulfide bonds into a straighter position.
The problem: Formaldehyde is recognized globally as a human carcinogen, and that’s why it (and its offspring) have been eliminated from most common cosmetic products, like nail polish. Salon keratin treatments often claim to be free of the f-word too. Except they’re not: What they contain instead are ingredients like methylene glycol, formalin, methanal, and methanediol, which release the carcinogenic compound when mixed with water during the treatment. This presents a risk to you, of course, but it’s most dangerous for the salon technician who styles hair in an enclosed space day in and day out. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists sore throat, nosebleeds, and itchy eyes as common side effects to formaldehyde exposure. The FDA also warns that formulas and products can claim they’re natural, organic, and/or formaldehyde free when that’s not true. The agency encourages consumers to always read the label, ask hair professionals for an ingredient list, and report all negative reactions.
Mineral oil (petrolatum, paraffin) is a widely used moisturizing agent sourced from petroleum and is often found in lip balms and face creams.
The problem: There are about a thousand reasons to avoid petroleum products from an environmental standpoint. But there are health concerns as well: A 2011 study found mineral oil to be the largest contaminant present in the human body due to accumulation over time possibly from cosmetics. A 2016 study called for the reduction of the amount of mineral- and petroleum-based ingredients “in the majority of cosmetic lip products” that are ingested. Untreated or mildly treated mineral oils used in manufacturing (not the cosmetic-grade kind found in your lip balm) are listed as carcinogens by the World Health Organization.
A topical bleaching agent, hydroquinone is found in skin-lightening creams and serums, and used in the treatment of hyperpigmentation. It’s sold over the counter in two percent concentrations, but stronger formulas are available by prescription.
The problem: Hydroquinone was approved by the FDA in 1982, but several years later, it was pulled from the market due to safety concerns (it turns out the products in question had mercury in them, so the adverse effects weren’t because of the skin-lightening ingredient). However hydroquinone itself been linked to certain cancers, decreased immune response, abnormal function of the adrenal gland, and a skin condition known as ochronosis. It’s because of the perceived risk that the European Union alongside Japan and Australia have banned the ingredient.
A common ingredient in face powders and eye shadows, talc is a mineral made from magnesium, silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
The problem: Talc that hasn’t been purified can be contaminated with asbestos, a known human carcinogen. In early 2019, eye shadow and contour palettes marketed to girls from Claire’s stores were recalled after the FDA found asbestos contamination during routine talc monitoring. Following the incident, the agency called on Congress to pass reformed cosmetics safety regulations. In December 2018, Reuters published an investigation claiming Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos was detected in its talcum-based baby powder products. Juries have awarded millions of dollars in high-profile cases that linked Johnson & Johnson baby powder products to cases of ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.
An antibacterial and antimicrobial chemical, triclosan can be found in sanitizing hand and body soaps, mascara, and formerly in toothpaste.
The problem: Triclosan hasn’t just been linked to liver fibrosis, skin cancer, hormone disruption, and the development of bacterial superbugs, it’s also just not any more effective than soap and water. In April 2019, the FDA issued a final rule banning OTC hand sanitizers from using triclosan. “In today’s final regulation we finalized the FDA’s previous determination that 28 active ingredients, including triclosan and benzethonium chloride, are not eligible for evaluation under the FDA’s OTC Drug Review for use in consumer antiseptic rubs,” Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a release at the time. The agency added, “FDA has not received evidence that triclosan provides a benefit to human health. At this time, FDA doesn’t have evidence that triclosan in OTC consumer antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.”
Also known as silicon dioxide, silica is used as an absorbent, anticaking, and abrasive agent in everything from oral care products to foundation. Silica is naturally occurring, but the kind approved for use in cosmetics is amorphous silica, not crystalline silica (also known as quartz dust).
The problem: The science concerning silica is confusing, to say the least. Only one kind of silica is approved for use in cosmetic formulations: amorphous silica. So why is crystalline silica, a known human carcinogen, popping up in particles of respirable size in laboratory tests of various bath products and cosmetics? Some studies suggest that amorphous silica can be contaminated with the crystalline kind, which would help explain why it’s still detectable in beauty products. There are environmental concerns as well, particularly with the slippery silica by-product found in every beloved face primer: silicone. Refined silicones are not biodegradable.
The Buzz on Buzzwords
Clean, organic, cruelty-free—when it comes to beauty products, the FDA has yet to regulate how brands can use these words. Definitions are subjective and often change from company to company, package to package, making it nearly impossible to navigate—or decipher—the truth from greenwashing. Here, we break down the most common buzzwords for some much-needed clarity.
WHAT DOES CLEAN MEAN?
Safe for people and the planet, clean means that a beauty product should have considered human and environmental health, using a nontoxic element as a baseline and plant-based ingredients for active results. Much like eating clean rejects the idea of processed foods and focuses on nourishing, plant-based produce that delivers all the vitamins and antioxidants needed for a healthy immune and digestive system, the same is true for clean skin care.
WHAT DOES GREEN MEAN?
The word green should mean that the product does no harm to the environment. For instance, a reef-safe sunscreen with biodegradable packaging would be labeled green. However, this is a wishy-washy term with no true definition and is usually used as an umbrella for any product that claims to protect the planet’s resources.
WHAT DOES ORGANIC MEAN?
Personal care products that are certified to be at least 95 percent organic will bear an official USDA Organic Seal. Products bearing the USDA Organic Seal must also comply with handling and manufacturing specifications, and the use of genetically modified organisms is prohibited. In an effort to avoid pesticides, the clean beauty industry has begun to use organic, plant-based ingredients in products wherever possible. However, the certification is expensive, so many smaller brands will independently label ingredients that are organic on packaging, despite not carrying an official seal.
WHAT DOES NONTOXIC MEAN?
Water and oxygen can be toxic in the wrong dose. So when a beauty product is labeled nontoxic, it likely means that the ingredients have not been shown to cause adverse health effects at the levels found inside the formula and for the intended use. This is true of every beauty product currently sold in the United States. In the clean beauty space, nontoxic means that a product shouldn’t include any ingredient that’s been deemed toxic at any dose by a third-party resource like the European Union or Environmental Working Group.
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE MEAN?
Sustainable goes hand in hand with green. It means that the ingredients on the inside of the package—including how those ingredients were sourced—and the packaging itself should not be harmful to the planet. When you use any product, the ingredients go down the drain and into the water system, which, thanks to exfoliating microbeads and preservatives like BHA, is causing a marine environment health crisis. Likewise, many conventional beauty products are made from petroleum jelly and are packaged in plastic, both created from the oil industry. Truly sustainable ingredients are those that are ethically sourced and proven to be safe for the environment, with sustainable or no-waste packaging being defined as glass packaging, biodegradable packaging, post-consumer recycled packaging, or the ability to recycle empty bottles appropriately through a TerraCycle program.
WHAT DOES VEGAN MEAN?
A beauty product is vegan if it doesn’t contain any animal by-products or ingredients sourced from animals. Common non-vegan ingredients found in clean beauty products include beeswax, honey, lanolin, and tallow. Many people associate vegan with clean, but this is not the case. A product can be vegan and still contain chemical ingredients of concern.
WHAT DOES CRUELTY-FREE MEAN?
A beauty product is cruelty free if it has not been tested on animals anywhere along the manufacturing line or before being sold. It can also mean that any animal-derived ingredients were not extracted at the expense of an animal’s welfare (like natural-fiber makeup brushes). A beauty product can be cruelty-free but not vegan, and vice versa.
Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Better
For you or the environment.
Essential oils are extremely potent plant compounds, often used as pharmaceutical-grade natural remedies, and they are not regulated by the FDA. Considering that one drop of undiluted peppermint essential oil is equivalent to about 28 cups of peppermint tea, this can be extremely problematic when it comes to skincare.
“People just throw together a few essential oils with a carrier oil and call it their daily moisturizer, but essential oils are crazy-strong plants,” says holistic aesthetician Britta Plug. “Putting that on every day [without the proper formulation] is going to mess up your skin barrier.” This could mean anything from experiencing mild skin irritation to suffering from an allergic reaction to dealing with breakouts.
In addition, essential oils from disreputable sources may be ‘cut’ with fillers, processed with chemicals, unethically sourced, or grown using pesticides. Greenwashing is also a problem. A 2008 study by the Organic Consumers Association found undisclosed carcinogenic petrochemical ingredients in more than 40 percent of products tested that claimed to be natural. And in 2016, the Federal Trade Commission filed complaints against four companies that marketed their personal care products as “all natural” or “100 percent natural” when the products contained a number of synthetic ingredients.
Synthetic Ingredients Can Actually Be Safer—And More Effective
There are the obvious natural culprits to steer clear of, like talc (see Ingredients to Avoid), and then there are products to be wary of, like clay, which may be contaminated with toxic heavy metals. But aesthetician Kristina Holey says it’s also imperative to look at the processing and sourcing of natural ingredients to ensure that they will be received by the body without a negative impact. Your expectation of a natural product may not always match the manufacturers’ use of the term, and with essential oils like lavender and tea tree, which have been linked to possible endocrine disruption, sometimes it can be more beneficial to opt for a safe synthetic ingredient.
“When it comes to synthetics versus natural, there are certain cases where a synthetic will not only prove to be ‘cleaner,’ but provide results in a more effective way than a non-isolated natural compound that is not 100 percent pure,” explains Holey, who uses the synthetically derived form of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid, as an example. But it’s important that any synthetic ingredient is being formulated by people who are knowledgeable in quality control and the whole chain of sourcing, she says, “to really ensure that whatever is going into your product is healthy. And if there are synthetics used in a product, they need to have a purpose for the skin.” (Rather than act as fillers, stabilizers, or preservatives.)
Aesthetician Britta Plug adds that when it comes to the efficacy of all-natural products, it’s also important to know when the ingredients were bottled. An expiry date of six to 18 months after opening is something to strive for when shopping for natural products. “Even if something is natural, oftentimes it’s made with ingredients that have been sitting on the shelf for years—like, actual years,” Plug explains. “[It could be made from] dried herbs that have been hanging out in a lab and no longer have that nutrient density.” Translation: It won’t actually work.
Consider the Environmental Impact
The perils of palm oil are a great example. Palm oil, used in everything from lipstick to shampoo, is a natural ingredient that comes from the fruit on tropical oil palm trees. However, producing palm oil wreaks havoc on the environment. To build palm oil plantations, trees are often cleared in tropical rain forests, causing deforestation and loss of animal habitats. According to the World Wildlife Fund, areas the size of approximately 300 football fields are cleared each hour for palm oil production, with orangutans and Sumatran tigers at risk of extinction.
But boycotting palm oil isn’t necessarily the solution. As with any natural resource, palm oil can be produced responsibly, and exchanging palm oil—the highest-yielding vegetable oil—with other vegetable-based carrier oils could actually worsen environmental problems. For instance, soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower oils require significantly more land to produce the same volume, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, which could cause greater impact to habitats, biodiversity, and the environment.
The answer? Certification (by the likes of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO) and strong governmental regulations play an important role in ending irresponsible production of palm oil, and other natural ingredients used by the beauty industry. (It takes 256 pounds of peppermint leaf to make one pound of peppermint essential oil, for example.)
“Anything can lead to deforestation,” says Tara Foley, founder of Follain, “we have to just approach it in a more sustainable, thoughtful way.” Foley notes that sandalwood is another natural ingredient currently being depleted by the beauty industry, but brands committed to the definition of clean beauty (safe for people and the planet) will simply use something else. “Right now, there’s limited resources for sandalwood…It’s basically getting a little depleted. But it’s the same thing: We need to figure out a way to do it in a more sustainable fashion. Until then, the clean brands are just going to use it less.” And it’s important to note, adds Foley, that the alternatives for plant-based ingredients are usually petroleum-based products—which is the “core of so much conventional beauty … and is not good on any level.”
Photographed by Daniel Thomas Smith | Styling by Aya Kanai | Hair by Luke Chamberlain | Makeup by Chiao-Li | Manicurist, Geraldine Holford | Modeled by Nissa Pouncey and Babette Strijbos | Executive Editorial Director, Joyann King | Visual Content Director, Alix Campbell | Design Director, Perri Tomkiewicz | Designer, Ingrid Frahm