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Plenty Of Beauty Companies Claim Their Makeup Is Clean—When It Isn’t. Here’s How To Avoid The Bad Stuff

Jaleh Bisharat

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clean beauty

I recently strolled into a large beauty retailer and asked where I could find the clean (i.e. healthier) makeup. The sales associate pointed me to an area with signs saying things like, “Free of parabens and phthalates” and packaging so earthy-looking that the products had to be better for my health. Right? 

Well, not so fast. 

The truth is that many conventional beauty companies are responding to consumer demand for makeup that’s better for our health. That’s a wonderful thing. Women are increasingly waking up to the fact that clean makeup is to conventional makeup what organic food is to processed food. 

At the same time, have beauty companies completely reformulated their products? Or are they just doing cleanup in order to make a marketing claim? 

How can you be sure the makeup you’re buying truly is clean and free of harmful chemicals? 

Here are five questions to ask:

1. Is the company clean at its core? 

Just like people, every company has its DNA. 

Next time you’re browsing the beauty aisle or the internet, take a look at the various “natural” or “clean” beauty products. Familiarize yourself with brand names, then do a little research on each. 

You’ll notice differences between true clean beauty companies and the ones that are just jumping on a trend. 

Truly clean brands will almost certainly have been founded with the goal of creating only clean products. Many traditional beauty companies, on the other hand, have only recently added “clean” products. Often, they’re doing so to capture some of those health-minded consumer dollars. Chances are they haven’t put in the investment and rigor required to determine whether these products meet the highest standards. 

I’ve even seen webinars on “greenwashing”—a legal, but deceptive marketing tactic to make products seem cleaner and greener than they actually are. Companies will create packaging with imagery associated with green, non-toxic, and clean products, while the potentially (or definitely) harmful ingredients remain.

Of course, some traditional beauty companies do a better job of formulating clean products than others. They might take out some of the junk. But their standards are unlikely to compare to a company with roots in clean beauty. 

2. Does the company invest in vetting, testing and consumer education? 

For truly clean beauty companies, it’s not about jumping on a trend—it’s about creating products that are actually better for you. 

This isn’t quick and easy. It means employing scientists to test products and vet every ingredient. It means researching how to make beauty products safer and healthier. And it means that if an ingredient is discovered to be potentially harmful —even if it was previously thought to be safe—they quickly remove it from formulas, regardless of whether the FDA concerns itself with the ingredient in question. (Hint: It rarely does.)

Good clean beauty companies also invest in consumer education. 

They want to teach consumers why clean beauty matters, which ingredients are of concern, and how to choose wisely. When you visit their website, you should feel like you come away having learned something, not like you’ve been sold to. 

3. What ingredients and manufacturing processes does the company allow?

Of course, it’s the ingredients that matter most. 

Consider this: The European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,300 cosmetic ingredients. Guess how many are restricted in the U.S. by the FDA? 30. 

In fact, the only thing keeping harmful toxins out of U.S.  beauty products is a brief two pages of regulations within the hundreds of pages of this 1938 law. And, of course, many of the chemicals used in cosmetics today didn’t even exist when the act was passed 80 years ago.

To make things more complicated, “safe” doesn’t necessarily equate to “natural.” It’s not like food. If a food is labeled “organic,” you know it was grown with fewer pesticides.  

But with beauty products, certain natural ingredients can be harmful and certain synthetic ingredients are safe. It really depends on each individual compound. 

The manufacturing process is also important. For example, there’s a process called ethoxylation, in which the chemical ethylene oxide is added to create a group of chemicals called surfactants. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen, and this process can also create byproducts such as 1,4-dioxane, which is also a probable carcinogen. 

While you’ll never see 1,4-dioxane or ethylene oxide on the ingredient labels, they may be present in your products as contaminants resulting from the manufacturing process.

The same can be true of other nasties like heavy metals and formaldehyde. Yikes. 

4. Does the company take a stand on the environment?

Clean beauty generally refers to products that are safer for your health. However, if you care about the environment—or believe that a clean environment is better for everyone’s health—you should seek out beauty brands that go out of their way to protect the earth. 

With truly clean makeup, the ingredients and packaging tend to be gentler to the earth once they inevitably get out into the ecosystem.

5. Now for the big one: Does the company go beyond “‘No’ Lists”?

There are 12,500 ingredients permitted in personal care products in the United States. 

So, when a company creates and publicizes a “no” list with a dozen or even 100 ingredients on it, that leaves a lot of room for formulators to avoid one ingredient and substitute another, however inadvertently, that could also be harmful. 

This is why at my company, NakedPoppy, we screen every ingredient in every product we offer. And we probe for details on the manufacturing process, as well as impact on the environment. 

While 12,500 ingredients are available for use in the US, and about 7,000 are allowed in the EU, at NakedPoppy we allow fewer than 700 clean, thoroughly-vetted chemicals. Our scientists monitor new research and adjust as new data comes in. The result: bad ingredients don’t get by us. 

Ten years ago, clean beauty products didn’t always go on … pretty. But that’s changed—the best clean makeup now works just as beautifully as conventional makeup. 

If you want to make the switch, educating yourself is the first step. 

But it’s difficult to be familiar with every single harmful ingredient—not to mention the manufacturing processes and environmental impact—so finding a clean beauty company that does the vetting for you may be the best and easiest route.

Co-founder/CEO at NakedPoppy, a clean beauty startup. Former CMO/VP Marketing at OpenTable, Amazon, Upwork, Eventbrite. Follow Jaleh on Medium: https://medium.com/@jalehbisharat

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