Ten years ago, if you told me Sephora had a clean beauty section, I would’ve rolled up expecting an aisle full of deodorants, body wash, and maybe some questionable feminine hygiene products. Of course green beauty existed, but organic beauty brands were still considered “quaint” and “niche,” while they battled it out with big cosmetic houses for both shelf space and respectability. Meanwhile, the rest of the market bloated itself on injectables, retinoids, light therapies and anti-ageing everything in a bid to look more Kardashian.
Oh, what a difference a decade makes. We can now be clean, green, vegan and non-toxic, all while having a 47-step skincare routine and weekly infared saunas. But just because you can, does it mean that you should? Is natural really better when it comes to beauty, or is it just another form of green-washing – albeit a perfectly manicured one? And are chemicals really the enemy, or are we all just so high on our green juices that we can’t see the forest for the hyperbole? Maybe just a little.
As Dr. Michelle Wong, PhD, founder of the science-based beauty site labmuffin.com notes, “none of these wellness terms (green, clean, natural) are actually well-defined… it’s really just another way to market products.” Here, she helps us understand what it all means, and weighs in on whether, from a scientific standpoint, natural really is best.
Aside from allowing me to give my rhyming skills a workout, this is the part where we break down those common marketing terms for you.
Natural: “This usually means that a product contains a substantial proportion of naturally-derived ingredients (ingredients that have been taken from nature, with little to no modification),” says Michelle. The problem with the word natural is that its use is not regulated, so it varies a lot between each brand – meaning one ingredient out of 20 could be natural, but they can still make the claim on the pack. As ingredients are listed from highest proportion to lowest, check the pack to see which of your ingredients is in fact natural, and how much of that natural ingredient is actually in the product.
Clean: Generally, brands with “clean” ranges mean that their product(s) are free from ingredients that the brand considers either harmful to your health or the environment. But, as Michelle says, there is a problem with that. “Every ingredient has a safe level, and every ingredient is harmful when used in excess, so there aren’t really any brands that have a scientifically accurate definition of ‘clean.’”
Non-toxic: Kind of like a cousin to clean beauty, non-toxic usually refers to products with “free-from” ingredients, but focusing more on health (rather than environment).
Green: On the flip side, Michelle says, “green usually means that a product does not contain ingredients that are harmful to the environment, either in acquiring the ingredient, or in terms of what the ingredient does after it’s washed off. There is a big trend of ‘green-washing,’ where brands are not entirely truthful about their products’ impacts on the environment.”
Chemical: Here’s where things get interesting. Because, although in mainstream beauty speak the term “chemical” is used to describe synthetic ingredients, Michelle offers this insight: “All ingredients are made of chemicals, including everything from nature…”
All ingredients are made of chemicals. Including everything from nature. We’re just going to leave that nugget with you for a moment. Because chemicals are meant to be inherently bad for you – right? And similarly, isn’t “natural” better and safer for your face? Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions of the wellness trend, this underlying belief that natural is automatically better. “Even if you take the term ‘natural’ to mean ‘synthetic,’ synthetic substances are not automatically less safe than natural ingredients, and in fact this is often the opposite of reality,” says Michelle. In fact, some of the most toxic chemicals in the world are natural, and in skincare, a lot of “natural” ingredients can also have serious side effects. Like lemon peel oil for example, which causes phytophotodermatitis – a condition where blisters can form after sun exposure. Or, take essential oils, which are the darlings of many natural products, but which are also common irritants.
Then there are the synthetic ingredients that are actually moonlighting as “natural.” Things like, vitamin C, which Michelle notes is often synthetic in beauty products (just like other vitamins). Or, zinc oxide arguably one of the heroes of the “natural” sunscreen world, which is also synthetic. So why have they gotten such a bad rep? According to Michelle, it’s a little bit of human bias towards nature (because, what kind of animal doesn’t like nature?!)… And a little bit dodgy beauty history skewing our view. “There were also a number of chemicals in beauty and health that were harmful in the past, before regulations were stricter and we had more knowledge about how the body worked.”
So, where does that leave us? Well, hopefully just a teeny bit wiser when it comes to decoding this kind of beauty and wellness babble. But in terms of our faces, the choice to go clean or embrace synthetics is really up to you – and what works for your skin. For Michelle, however that choice is quite clear: “In my opinion, synthetic ingredients are almost always better than natural ingredients, especially for sensitive skin and for active ingredients for treating skin concerns like acne and aging.” Science has spoken.