A Case Against "Clean Beauty"

I recently asked my aesthetician her opinion about clean beauty, thinking I’d hear glowing and unadulterated praise for the trend that has seemingly taken over the skin care and beauty space. Instead, she looked at me, confused, and responded: “What do you mean by ‘clean’ beauty?”.  Therein lies the biggest problem with clean beauty. For something that has taken the cosmetic industry by a storm and is projected to value a staggering 11.6 billion USD by 2027 (5), it isn’t a clearly defined and we still don’t have a clear idea of what it even is. Despite its fuzzy definition, a “clean” product is normally described as one that is “safe” free of any “toxic” or “dangerous” ingredients. While we can all agree that we do not wish to put dangerous ingredients on our skin, an argument can be made that the clean beauty movement has gone about promoting itself in the wrong manner, and has not managed to give us safer products.   


What is Clean, anyways?

We hear terms like “clean” or “natural” and immediately associate these as ingredients that are good and safe. However, these standards are not set or regulated by the FDA. What one brand describes as “clean” can be completely different from what another brand considers “clean”. On the flipside, the list of “toxic” ingredients is also arbitrary and differs between brands, resulting in an environment where everybody is just making up their own rules. Labeling products as “clean” and “natural” for the sake of marketing can lead to misinformation— what’s more, avoiding safer and less allergen-prone products can cause more cases of allergic reactions or irritated or inflamed skin (1).


Dosage Matters!  

The dosage and the way that an ingredient is used in a product makes all the difference when it comes to its safety and stability. Even if an ingredient has the hazard of being potentially problematic, used correctly in a formula, it does not necessarily pose any risks to the consumer. We cannot simply divide ingredients into lists of “good” and “bad,” since this will only consider the potential hazards of an ingredient, regardless of concentration and use, and ignore the exposure and the actual risk that an ingredient could pose in a highly-tested formulation (1,6). For instance, most people are familiar with the benefits of using vitamin C in skincare products, however, too much is likely to cause irritation. This is actually the case for many “good” ingredients. Our skin is actually mildly acidic and therefor small amounts of beneficial acids often do a lot of good. However, too much can be absolutely terrible and sensitize our skin by messing with its pH balance.


Natural = good, right?

The short answer is no. botanical extracts and essential oils are among the most beloved and overly used group of ingredients that “clean” manufacturers incorporate into their products. The truth is that botanical extracts and essential oils are among the leading causes of skin sensitivity, contact dermatitis and allergic reactions (2,3,4). Do any of these sound familiar? Tea tree oil, peppermint, lavender, lichens and henna are all culprits in causing irritation and reactions when used on skin. That is not to say that one should avoid natural ingredients, rather the context in which any ingredient is used should be taken into account. When it comes to natural ingredients the individual sensitivities will play a greater role in tolerance and activity. We think the best approach is to use products with a more minimal ingredient list that is primarily comprised of familiar ingredients. This way if you do have a reaction, you can easily pinpoint the culprit and avoid all future exposures.


Ultimately, we aren’t convinced that "clean" beauty is the best or safest choice for consumers. We believe an ingredient list should be minimal and recognizable. We want consumers to be able to understand their skincare products without having to look up each and every ingredient. Ingredients should be recognizable enough that if there is a personal sensitivity to one of them, they should be easily recognized and avoided. Understandably, there will always be a few ingredients in a list that may be less recognizable, but then their safety profile and the purpose behind their inclusion in a formula should be easily accessible.




  1. Rubin, C. B., & Brod, B. (2019). Natural Does Not Mean Safe-The Dirt on Clean Beauty Products. JAMA dermatology, 10.1001/jamadermatol.2019.2724. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamadermatol.2019.2724
  2. Kiken, D. A., & Cohen, D. E. (2002). Contact dermatitis to botanical extracts. American journal of contact dermatitis : official journal of the American Contact Dermatitis Society13(3), 148–152.
  3. Jack, A. R., Norris, P. L., & Storrs, F. J. (2013). Allergic contact dermatitis to plant extracts in cosmetics. Seminars in cutaneous medicine and surgery32(3), 140–146. https://doi.org/10.12788/j.sder.0019
  4. Lovell C., Paulsen E., Lepoittevin JP. (2020) Adverse Skin Reactions to Plants and Plant Products. In: Johansen J., Mahler V., Lepoittevin JP., Frosch P. (eds) Contact Dermatitis. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-72451-5_88-2
  5. Clean beauty market size by product Type (Hair care, Face PRODUCTS, skin care, hair CARE, Oral Care, Makeup, wrinkle Care PRODUCTS), by distribution Channel (online SALE, Retail Sale, OTHERS) forecast to 2027. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://brandessenceresearch.com/consumer-goods/clean-beauty-market-size
  6. Williams, F. M., Rothe, H., Barrett, G., Chiodini, A., Whyte, J., Cronin, M. T., Monteiro-Riviere, N. A., Plautz, J., Roper, C., Westerhout, J., Yang, C., & Guy, R. H. (2016). Assessing the safety of cosmetic chemicals: Consideration of a flux

 Article By: Nazli Azodi


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