The clean beauty movement has taken the personal care industry by storm. Promising chemical-free and nontoxic solutions for your skincare regime, the movement has capitalized both on a greater awareness of health and sustainability, as well as the booming beauty industry.
According to the market research firm Mintel, 92% of women in the UK use a facial cleanser, 66% a day cream and 48% a night cream. The UK beauty industry, which was worth £1.15 billion last year, is expected to grow by 15% in the next five years. This growth will also be affected by the expansion of so-called clean beauty products.
“Within ‘clean beauty’ there are many, many different elements,” says Sarah Meadows, the head buyer at the beauty chain Space NK. “Whether it is about sustainability, whether it is vegan, conscious living, free-from … playing into any of those would make you a clean brand. It can be fairly confusing for the customer.”
As for ingredients that have been cursed as non-clean, there are two that standout – parabens and sodium lauryl sulphate. Parabens are preservatives and sodium lauryl sulphate is a surfactant that removes oils, allowing foams to form and producing a lather similar to that in shampoos and shower gels.
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Dermatologists, however, are at odds with the beauty industry when it comes to labeling ingredients as harmful. Dr. Anjali Mahto says that sodium lauryl sulphate might be problematic for some people, but not everyone. Meanwhile, Richard Guy, an expert in skin barrier function at the University of Bath, also says that sodium lauryl sulphate may be irritating to some, depending on how much is used and where it is applied.
He adds that people with eczema have a weakened skin barrier, making them more vulnerable to absorbing sodium lauryl sulphate and becoming irritated. Also, skin barriers function differently across various parts of the body, for example the eyelids are less well protected.
Meanwhile, parabens, which some clean beauty blogs have linked to cancer, have been deemed relatively harmless by cancer associations. “The UK and the EU tightly regulate how chemicals are used in products, and this includes parabens,” says Katie Patrick, a health information officer at Cancer Research UK. “For most chemicals, what’s important is the dose we’re exposed to. Most things have the potential to cause damage, but only at levels far higher than we’d ever experience in cosmetics or day-to-day life.”
Once an ingredient gets a bad rap, it’s hard to convince consumers that they are safe. Tiffany Masterson, the founder of Drunk Elephant, when asked why she has cut out parabens says, “I don’t think they are bad for you.” So why eliminate them? “Consumers don’t want them.” And perhaps it really is that simple. If we are told that something is bad for us – whether that is backed by evidence or not – as consumers we will try to avoid it.
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Ultimately, Mahto, says “there is absolutely nothing wrong with most” of the ingredients that have been singled out by the clean beauty movement. The problem with associating people’s skin problems with the products they use is that it “completely fails to take into account people’s own hormones and genetics,” she adds. “All I think that does is create guilt among people who can’t afford to buy these products – that they are doing something wrong by not spending all this money on ‘clean’ healthcare, and that is why they have skin issues.”
According to Mahto, people should wash their face in the morning and in the evening to remove dirt and pollution. Also, when the weather is colder, we should moisturize, and when it’s warmer, we should use a sunscreen. She adds, however, that we shouldn’t be layering 20 different products on in the morning.