Clean Beauty, Much Ado About Nothing?

by Maje Pérez-Ramos

Just as in the fashion industry, generations Y and Z pose constant challenges for the cosmetics industry; these new consumers are more sensitive to environmental issues and rather buy skincare products with a more “natural” approach (an imprecise term if ever there was one).

In fashion, of course, we know that sustainability is the mantra, the Promised Land where brands want to go without losing the benefits inherent to this consumption-based society of ours. The beauty industry, however, has an extensive catalogue of buzzwords that are used as bait for consumers. Regardless of the many aspects of this industry that actually need to be improved, it is a fact that many cosmetic brands use empty claims to sell their products.

Written from the perspective of a confused consumer navigating this scenario, this article doesn’t aspire to present scientific results or to educate the reader on which brands to choose,  but only to clarify the situation a little in the light of the current European legislation, to which everyone has access to.

According to article 14 of Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic products, the composition of cosmetic products is subject to a number of restrictions which are explained in the subsequent annexes to the Regulation: prohibited substances, concentrations and conditions of use for those ingredients which are allowed, warnings and precautions regarding the labelling… These restrictions, the Regulation adds, are regularly updated in order to adapt them to technical progress. Both for the inclusion of ingredients in the annexes and for their corresponding updates, the opinions of the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) are taken into account.

All of the above means that cosmetics sold in Europe are subjected to quite a strict safety controls, so the differences between “clean” and conventional products could rely mainly in how they are presented to us. We are not talking about science or efficacy here, but about marketing and sales. Let’s see what the hero adjectives of a “natural” beauty product are and whether or not they  add value to it:

Non-toxic: according to article 2 of the aforementioned European Regulation, a “cosmetic product” is considered to be any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the superficial parts of the human body (…) or with the teeth and oral mucous membranes, with the sole or principal purpose of cleaning, perfuming, modifying their appearance, protecting them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours. As mentioned above, European legislation regulates which ingredients have been shown to be safe for cosmetic uses, in which concentrations and for what uses. So, unless you intend to eat them, any cosmetics that you can legally buy, whether they say so or not, are non-toxic.

Cruelty-free: Animal testing in the beauty industry is a shameful practice that all consumers would like to end. The good news is that, according to Article 18 of the Regulation,  marketing cosmetic products whose formulation has been tested on animals is (generally) prohibited. Unfortunately, the situation is not the same everywhere. The Ordinary, for example, states that its products are not sold in China because Chinese law requires animal testing before those products can be registered there. In any case, the bottom line is that claiming that a brand is cruelty-free has little to no merit at all: it is simply complying with the law in order to be able to sell its products.

Clean: the most misleading adjective of all. Clean vaguely refers to the absence of chemicals in the product, assuming that all of them are harmful, which is far from being true. Take the paradigmatic case of parabens, which have been demonised by the cosmetics industry for years even though, to this day, the risks to our health have not been clearly demonstrated, due to the low doses used in beauty products and because they are unlikely to penetrate tissues. Even Tiffany Masterson, founder of the cult clean label Drunk Elephant, stated in an article in The Guardian written by Nicola Davis in 2019, “I don’t think they are dangerous, but consumers don’t want them”, which is why they are not included in their products anymore. At the same time, there are plenty of natural ingredients proved to cause skin problems, such as essential oils, which are avoided by many brands and absolutely forbidden for pregnant women.

Common sense, which as Voltaire said, is the least common of the senses, advises us not to be guided by trends and marketing, but to do our research, identify those brands that truly share our values and invest in products recommended for us by dermatologists and independent professionals. In the words of Charlotte Palermino, CEO of Dieux Skin, “who are you going to believe, the influencers or the doctors?”.

Find out more:

– Charlotte Palermino, the voice crying out in the wilderness (on Instagram, actually): freelance writer, esthetician, Cannabis expert and founder of Dieux Skin. With fantastic skin and a big personality, Charlotte dedicates her IG account to opening her audience’s eyes to the misleading marketing strategies that abounds in the American cosmetic industry.

Image: Unsplash, photo by Oleana Sergienko.



Related Posts

Leave a Comment