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Clean beauty products: What it means and why brands ban certain ingredients

Find out why people switch to clean beauty and what the science has to say.

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Some people are swapping traditional beauty brands for "clean" versions -- here's why.

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This story is part of Road Trip 2020, CNET's series on how we're preparing now for what could come next.

When I was in college about five years ago, I started doing more research about the ingredients in food and how they can affect your health. I did the Whole30 challenge, which basically forces you to read the label of everything you eat and focuses on eating mainly whole, unprocessed foods for 30 days. I felt really good after the 30 days of nixing processed food, even though I found the program pretty unrealistic for real life. Still I learned a lot and developed a new sense of empowerment about what ingredients I wanted to put in my body. Fast forward a few more years and I started to take the same approach to my skincare and cosmetics and largely started using "clean beauty" products -- those formulated without what are thought to be potentially harmful or toxic ingredients. 

One of the big drivers in my desire to change my products was this one fact: Your skin is the largest organ in your body. And it's largely thought that at least some of the ingredients that you put on it absorb into your bloodstream. Not to mention all of the (increasingly growing) science on how some ingredients in beauty products are endocrine disruptors, which means they can disrupt your hormones. Parabens are linked to hormone or endocrine disruption, for example, which is linked to hormone disorders, thyroid disorders, obesity and even hormone-related cancers. So if ingredients I put on my body can be absorbed and potentially go into my bloodstream, why would I want to eat healthily but not care about the other chemicals coming in? 

For many clean beauty brands, sustainability is a priority -- whether that means using sustainable ingredients or choosing packaging that is biodegradable and better for the environment. The Environmental Working Group is a key civic group known for providing groundbreaking research on how toxic ingredients and other practices can harm people and the environment.

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It didn't make sense for me so I slowly made the switch and changed out all of the products one by one -- I didn't throw everything away, but when something ran out, I would replace it with a "clean" option. When I did this, I learned that even though clean beauty is largely made up of expensive luxury brands, more affordable brands are available now, especially as the demand for clean beauty increases. 

When shopping for these products, I found that the labels in the industry can get really confusing: there's "clean," "natural," "nontoxic," -- I could go on. What do all of these terms actually mean and how do you know what products are worth investing in? The answer is complicated. Which is why I talked to two brands that are leaders in the clean beauty world -- Drunk Elephant, founded in 2012 by Tiffany Masterson, and Beautycounter, founded in 2013 by Gregg Renfrew. 

Keep reading to learn more about what clean beauty means, why Masterson and Renfrew decided to start their brands and how they choose ingredients, plus more on how ingredients are regulated.

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Drunk Elephant is a highly popular clean beauty brand founded by Tiffany Masterson. 

Drunk Elephant

The gray area in clean beauty 

In the United States, the beauty and cosmetics industries are largely unregulated when it comes to what ingredients they can and cannot use, and also how they can market and label products as "clean," "natural" or "nontoxic."

Compared to 40 other nations in the world, in a recent Environmental Working Group report, the US is lagging behind when it comes to enacting measures for safety in ingredients in personal care products. The Food and Drug Administration currently only bans nine ingredients from beauty products for safety reasons, and Congress has not updated laws on personal care and beauty product safety in about 80 years. By contrast, the European Union bans over 1,300 ingredients from personal care products. The FDA also has no standards or guidelines that require personal care and beauty brands to test ingredients for safety before they are sold and marketed. 

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More than 40 nations around the world have tighter restrictions on the ingredients used in personal care products than the US.

Environmental Working Group

Since there is little regulation for ingredients in the US and no standard definition for clean beauty -- then what does it mean? The answer varies depending on each brand.

"Since there is not one industry wide definition of 'clean' beauty, every brand defines it a little differently. To me 'clean' means using only ingredients that are safe and not known or thought to be linked to internal disease or disruption if they are able to get into the bloodstream," Masterson tells CNET. 

But for Masterson, choosing ingredients for her brand isn't just about safety in terms of potential links to endocrine disruption or other health issues, it's also about "respecting and supporting the healthy function of skin. The ingredients in Drunk Elephant products won't cause irritation or congestion and they keep the acid mantle intact -- that's what makes them biocompatible. My mission is to help people by delivering products that work and can improve the quality of their skin when the philosophy is strictly adhered to," Masterson says.

For Beautycounter, "clean beauty" means much more than the list of ingredients that the company bans from its products, which it calls the Never List. "For Beautycounter, it's more than just formulating safe ingredients. It means we look at how we are sourcing the ingredients, and how people are treated along the supply chain and how we select packaging, making sure that we keep sustainability in mind and that we screen all of the packaging materials for potential ingredients that could leach into our clean formulas," says Lindsay Dahl, SVP of social mission at Beautycounter

Why a product labeled 'natural' isn't necessarily safe 

One common misconception in the clean beauty space is just because something is labeled "natural," does not necessarily mean it's totally safe to put on your skin. This is why it's helpful to research ingredients and know a company's standards before buying a product if you're concerned with ingredient safety.

"I've always found it odd that natural is associated with safety, because nature creates some of the most powerful toxins and poisons," Masterson says. "Not all natural ingredients are good for you (poison ivy and arsenic) and not all synthetics are bad. The concept of synthetic gets a bad rap, but your body is synthesizing ingredients all the time from the nutrients you feed it. Vitamin C, for example (as ascorbic acid) is synthesized from citrus fruits. The vitamin C we use in C-Firma and C-Tango is nutritionally identical to the C that comes from an orange, but the synthesis that we use creates a more stable and concentrated version for skin."

Another example of this is the reason why Drunk Elephant does not use essential oils in its products, even though you might deem them relatively harmless. "We believe their purported benefits are far outweighed by their ability to sensitize and inflame the skin. When you can use nonfragrant plant oils and extracts that deliver the same and better benefits, why risk it? For Drunk Elephant it isn't about natural versus synthetic, it's about effectiveness, compatibility and safety," Masterson says.

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Since the US does not ban many ingredients, it can be helpful to read labels before purchasing products if you are concerned with ingredient safety.

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Commonly banned ingredients 

Even though there are over 1,300 ingredients that are commonly banned in clean beauty products, there are a few specific ones that are most commonly called out as harmful and left out of clean products.

Phthalates: Phthalates are commonly used in nail polish, hairspray and perfume to make fragrance stick to the skin. They are linked to endocrine disruption and may cause birth defects

Parabens: Commonly used as preservatives in beauty products like makeup. These mimic estrogens in the body, which is why they are known to disrupt the endocrine system. 

Triclosan: An antimicrobial pesticide that is found in antibacterial products like soap and toothpaste. Triclosan was banned by the FDA in 2016 and companies are not allowed to use it without a premarket review. It is also known as an endocrine disruptor.

Fragrance: Manufacturers don't technically have to say what chemicals are in fragrance since, according to Beautycounter, "Fragrance formulas are protected under federal law's classification of trade secrets and therefore can remain undisclosed." But most clean brands ban fragrance since they can contain allergens or other chemicals that disrupt hormones. 

Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in some personal care products like body wash. It's a carcinogen, meaning it's known to cause cancer, and also linked to other health problems like asthma and neurotoxicity. Formaldehyde-releasers can also be found in some products, and sometimes they are not labeled on the ingredient list.

Sodium lauryl sulfate: SLS is a surfactant or cleansing agent found in products like shampoos. It's known to be irritating to the skin and harsh, which is why many clean companies remove them. 

Polyethylene glycol: PEGs are commonly used in beauty products for a variety of functions, including to thicken products or as moisture-carriers. According to Beautycounter, depending on how the product is manufactured, the PEGs can be contaminated with known carcinogens.

The intersection of advocacy and clean beauty 

Since there's little regulation in the US beauty industry, many people are working to pass laws that would help take more ingredients off the market that are scientifically linked to adverse health effects like endocrine disruption. It's one of the causes that Beautycounter is most known for. 

"Our ultimate goal as a company is not only providing people safer options today, but to pass legislation to make sure that the entire beauty industry is cleaner and safer," Dahl says. "We know that not everyone is going to have access to find or afford our products, so our ultimate goal is to disrupt the beauty industry once and for all, through passing meaningful legislation."

Beautycounter's CEO Gregg Renfrew testified as an expert witness at a hearing on cosmetic reform in Congress in 2019. 

Final thoughts

Clean beauty is definitely trendy in the wellness space. But the appeal can lose its luster if you're skeptical about the science behind the claims or if the luxury price tags of many brands seems out of reach for your budget. At the end of the day, it's up to you to read labels and make the decision, since there are no official health authorities regulating ingredient safety for you (at least, not yet). Personally, I'd rather clean up my products and not risk the chance that they could lead to problems down the line -- I'd rather use products I don't have to worry about versus potentially problematic ones or ones with controversial ingredients.

Clean beauty has a bad rap for being expensive and inaccessible, but as the trend continues to rise, it's clear that clean beauty is now expected from consumers -- it's not just something only a few people demand. Case in point: Target adopted a clean beauty seal in 2019, and Sephora launched a "Clean at Sephora" category and seal in 2018 to help shoppers decipher which products are formulated without controversial ingredients. The market has room for more affordable and accessible brands for sure, but long gone are the days of clean beauty products solely sitting on a luxury product shelf. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.