Are ‘Clean Beauty’ Products Worth It? Dermatologists Break Down the Wellness Trend
"Unfortunately, many cosmetic and skincare companies are using a lot of substances that really do not belong in skincare."
Over the last few years, the country’s biggest cosmetics retailers have leaned hard into a two-word phrase: Clean beauty. While it’s not a new concept, interest in so-called clean beauty — in which beauty products are purportedly free of harmful chemicals — has soared in recent years. In 2018, cosmetics and skincare giant Sephora launched their “Clean at Sephora” label, which they purportedly give to products without specific ingredients. It’s good business: Market research suggests the global natural and organic cosmetics and personal care industry, currently estimated at 39 billion dollars, is expected to grow to 56 billion by 2030.
But are all the ingredients Sephora and other brands claim are problematic genuinely harmful? Inverse spoke to dermatologists about which ingredients to avoid and how to think about the “clean beauty” trend more broadly.
What is clean beauty?
Neera Nathan, a dermatologist and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, tells Inverse that, in general, “knowing what you put on your skin, hair, and nails is so important. Personal care or beauty products that we use have the potential to cause skin allergies, clogged pores, or worse. Using products that contain non-harmful but effective ingredients is critical.”
Jeffrey Hsu, a dermatologist in Illinois, agrees. He tells Inverse that the trend “brings awareness to consumers to a much-needed topic. Unfortunately, many cosmetic and skincare companies are using a lot of substances that really do not belong in skincare. Currently, the retail skincare and cosmetics industry laws [in the United States] are extremely outdated.”
In 1938, the Food and Drug Administration passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Yet, as the Harvard Health blog reported in 2019, except for color additives, the ingredients used in cosmetics are exempt from FDA regulatory practices, which “includes the need for approval or product recall if an ingredient is found to be dangerous.”
Hsu and Nathan say the clean beauty trend can be positive as it brings consumer awareness to certain harmful ingredients and hopefully makes consumers pay closer attention to ingredient labels than they might otherwise.
However, Hsu says, “‘Clean’ or ‘natural’ doesn’t mean a product is chemical-free — all natural ingredients are, of course, chemicals — safer, or more sustainable, and ‘synthetic’ doesn’t mean it is bad.”
Hsu notes that in recent years, companies have begun to “capitalize on this fear of science that's been created with their ‘natural’ or ‘eco’ products. The worst one is ‘chemical free.’ Anyone in the fields of science or chemistry can tell you, there are no products that can be chemical-free.” For example, water is a chemical found in many beauty products, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone lamenting the dangers of water.
What ingredients in cosmetics should consumers avoid?
Both dermatologists Inverse spoke to for this article are unequivocal about the harms of certain ingredients: at the top of the list is formaldehyde.
“It is very important to avoid formaldehyde, which may be present in certain hair treatments. Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer in humans when inhaled or absorbed through the skin, especially with repeated exposure at high doses,” Nathan says.
Hsu says, “formaldehyde is generally never listed as formaldehyde on products; it’s almost always listed in its chemical formulas that release formaldehyde.” Hsu says when added to water, these chemical formulas decompose and form formaldehyde molecules. Instead of formaldehyde on the label, Hsu says you might see one or more of the following:
2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (bronopol), diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea; sodium hydroxymethylglycinate; quaternium-15; polyoxymethylene urea; Bromopol, Glyoxal, methenamine 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, Nitorpropane-1, Formalin, Methanal, Methyl Aldehyde, and Methylene Oxide.
And that’s just a partial list. “To my knowledge, there are 32 versions of formaldehyde, none less toxic than what we know as formaldehyde,” Hsu says.
Nathan also cautions against “using any products with hydroquinone, which can be found in dark-spot fading or brightening treatments, due to concerns of allergies and permanent skin discoloration.”
Hsu says that dermatologists sometimes prescribe an ointment with hydroquinone in it to lighten pigmentation, but there is “no reason it should be in any retail skincare. If it is at any percentage less than the prescription strength, it won’t work. It is very effective, but it is also prescription based because it is an ingredient that really has to be used under the care of a dermatologist.” When used under the supervision of a dermatologist, the doctors can ensure it’s used safely.
Similarly, Hsu says, retinyl palmitate, a synthetic version of retinol or vitamin A, might be on Sephora’s list because of a 2012 study by the FDA showing that it might speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence on sunlight. However, Hsu says, the FDA’s warning applies to retinyl palmitate being in sunscreen; direct exposure to the sun may give retinyl palmitate a photocarcinogenic property.
“There is never any reason why anyone should put that in sunscreens. Retail companies love to take trendy ingredients and say they are used in their products; in the case of retinyl palmitate, these companies can now say, we have the ‘holy grail of anti-aging ingredient’ in this product,” Hsu says.
Vitamin A strengthens the skin and restores skin health when used at a certain percentage, but Hsu notes that it may not do much when used at less than a prescription strength.
“When we tell patients to use Vitamin A, it is usually as a stand-alone product at night. We often give them one from a medical grade skincare company where there are studies to prove the percentage of Vitamin A inside the product,” he says. “For dermatologists, knowing dosing, even if it is not a drug ingredient, is important to help patients correct skin conditions and maintain good skin health. Vitamin A, in general, shouldn’t be used during the day.”
Phthalates, which are in some nail polishes, hair products, and lotions, are also something Nathan cautions against using “as there is growing evidence to suggest that they may be endocrine disruptors,” she says. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with normal hormonal signaling in the body.
Other ingredients on Sephora’s bad list have relatively mild health consequences, though you may still want to avoid them. Sulfates, for example, are “common skin allergens that may cause rash or irritation and should be avoided when possible,” Nathan says. “Products that contain dimethicone can clog pores, so I recommend avoiding those when possible. Further, avoid brow or lash serums that contain prostaglandin-analogs. These can cause eye color or eyelid darkening, increasing hollowness or shadowing under the eyes.”
Hsu also cautions that an ingredient that simply says “fragrances” might hide some sketchy things.
“The term ‘fragrance’ is, by design, a bucket into which beauty companies can put whatever ingredient they want without having to disclose it on the label,” he says. “When you see fragrance listed, unexplained, on any cosmetics label—not just on perfumes, but also skin cream, shampoo, body wash, lipstick, anything—it’s important to know that it could include any number of some 3,000 potentially harmful cosmetic ingredients, some toxic, some not.”
Corporations don’t have to list fragrances because it was initially a way to hide trade secrets. Over time, though, the term has become a “chemical dumping ground, a toxic loophole. So I always tell my patients to beware [of this] if they purchase retail skin care,” Hsu says.
Ultimately, Hsu says Sephora’s list “is a good start. Other than the ingredients I specifically mentioned, if there are any benefits to any of the ingredients listed on the Sephora list, the harmful effects of those certainly outweigh the benefits.”
Nathan adds that there are a few simple ways to find products that don’t contain harmful ingredients. “The Environmental Working Group has searchable online databases where you can look up specific ingredients, products, or brands and find out more information about any potential risks associated with use,” she says. “Many beauty and wellness retailers also have a ‘clean filter’ which you can use to include only products verified by their ‘clean’ standards. But know that the definition of ‘clean’ can vary greatly.”