For the past month of my life, I’ve lived each day in a clean beauty spiral, researching and writing everything there is to know about being a more conscientious consumer for Cosmo’s Clean Beauty Month. (FYI: If you missed the past three weeks, we’ve got a beginner’s guide to clean beauty, the best sustainable beauty brands doing actual good for the world, and a breakdown on why you really, really need to care about blue beauty right now.) Overall, the majority of what I’ve learned has been positive (there’s never been a time when consumers have been as excited and curious about beauty), but through this process, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring problem: the widespread presence of misinformation.
The clean beauty movement is new and evolving—and also complicated and confusing. Even the exact definition of “clean beauty” itself is still hotly debated by pretty much everyone in the community. And because the messaging around clean beauty products isn’t regulated either, a brand can claim anything it wants about its supposedly clean/green/sustainable products, and there’s no governing body to fact-check it. Not ideal.
And then there’s the fact that humans are predisposed to accept negative information, says Jen Novakovich, a science communicator, formulation chemist, and founder of The Eco Well (a platform dedicated to spreading accurate information about the cosmetic industry). So when we hear that something is “unsafe” or “toxic,” we’re hardwired to panic. And in the clean beauty world, where unsubstantiated, fearmongering claims about health and safety are casually thrown around every day, it’s unsurprising that misinformation then spreads like wildfire.
The current state of the world isn’t helping things either. “There’s evidence that stress and fear prevent us from assessing information critically,” Novakovich says. Combine that with the fact that cosmetic chemistry is already, um, pretty confusing to the average person, and you’ve got the perfect foundation for conspiracy theories, cherry-picked data, and sketchy science to turn into widely circulated and widely believed facts.
And the thing is, the more misinformation we all believe, the less willing we’ll be to tiptoe into the clean beauty space and actually make some very necessary changes for the world. So with the help of the experts, I’m here to debunk the six most common clean beauty myths once and for all. Consider this your anti-BS guide to all things clean and green.
False, false, false. The idea that natural ingredients are superior to synthetic ones is a big nope. Every expert I’ve spoken with agrees: Just because something is natural doesn’t automatically mean it’s good for you. “Some of the most poisonous ingredients in the world—like botulinum toxin and arsenic—come from nature,” says Novakovich.
Natural ingredients are also notoriously difficult to work with when formulating products, which means their efficacy (and safety!) can be iffy in the end. Plus, you’re contending with the environment, so the chemicals in those natural ingredients can vary from month to month as weather patterns, seasons, and even minerals in the soil change. Basically, you can’t guarantee the same results each time. When working with synthetic ingredients, however, it’s often easier to demonstrate higher levels of purity, consistency, and safety when formulating a product, says Novakovich.
This doesn’t mean that natural- and plant-based ingredients are never a good choice though, says dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, MD. Look at green tea, aloe vera, and turmeric—all incredibly effective natural ingredients, as long as they’re being used properly in a formula. Your best bet? Make it a habit to buy from brands that clearly state on their website or packaging that they do clinical testing, are backed by experts, or use science to support their claims. Sound overwhelming? Josh Rosebrook, Kosas, Klur, Augustinus Bader, and Beautystat are all great brands to start exploring.
Again, a hard no. Clean and gentle aren’t synonymous. Some of the most common natural ingredients found in clean formulas, like essential oils, citrus extracts, and natural fragrances, are also common causes of skin irritation and allergies, says dermatologist Heather Rogers, MD. Plus, the preservatives used in clean products aren’t as well studied as the preservatives used in conventional products (like parabens), and they can be irritating to the skin as well, says Dr. Hirsch.
Meanwhile, there are tons of synthetic ingredients proven to be hypoallergenic and safe for sensitive skin. And even if a synthetic ingredient has the potential for irritation, cosmetic chemists have the ability to remove the allergenic portion of the ingredient in a lab, making it more tolerable for your skin. You simply can’t do that with natural products, explains Dr. Hirsch.
So if you have sensitive skin or are just looking for gentler products, it’s important to be more critical and selective of all ingredients—whether they come from nature or a lab, says Dr. Rogers. You can’t go wrong using simple formulas with well-studied ingredients.
It’s important to remember that just because a product is natural or clean doesn’t automatically mean it’s sustainable. It’s true that many natural and clean brands are making eco-friendly strides, such as employing low-waste production methods or switching to minimalist packaging. But sustainability is a huge and complicated topic, and the truth is that some natural ingredients actually contribute to climate change.
How? Well, turns out the very method of obtaining natural ingredients can be harmful itself. “We know that agriculture is one of the most environmentally disruptive things we do as a society,” explains Novakovich. “It disrupts biodiversity and also contributes to CO2 emissions.” There’s also the issue of land availability: As the world’s population continues to grow and we need more land to support that population and then also produce food to feed them, the issue of land scarcity becomes more and more real.
In other words, it just doesn’t make sense to use land for the sole purpose of growing natural or plant-based ingredients for cosmetics. But producing a synthetic ingredient in a lab? Often times, it puts significantly less strain on the environment, says Novakovich, which is “better” when you look at the larger picture—even if it’s not natural.
Listen up: Labels and claims like “chemical-free,” “preservative-free,” and “toxin-free” are actually so misleading that the European Union (EU) has banned companies from using them on their products and packaging. Really let that sink in for a sec.
In the United States, however, these claims aren’t regulated by the FDA—or by anyone at all—so brands can slap any of them on a jar of face cream or tube of lip gloss and call it a day. And that is problematic not only for the obvious reasons but also for what they imply: that products that don’t use these labels are dangerous or bad for you—“and that’s simply not the case,” says Novakovich.
At the end of the day, we absolutely need chemicals and preservatives for product safety, which is why it’s so important to get the facts around them straight. Let me break it down for you:
Decoding your labels
By definition, a chemical is any substance consisting of matter, so that means water is a chemical, air is a chemical—basically, anything and everything is a chemical. If your beauty product is calling itself chemical-free, then what exactly are you paying for?
Unless you want to keep your beauty products stored in the fridge and replaced every three days (!), they need to have preservatives, says Dr. Hirsch. “Most formulas contain water, and preservatives are what keep harmful bacteria and mold from growing in them,” she says.
Repeat after me: Toxicity means nothing without dosing. “Any ingredient—even water—can be toxic depending on the amount,” says Dr. Hirsch. “Peaches, even the natural and organic kind, release toxic formaldehyde, but we still eat them, right?” Of course. And that’s because it’s the dose that matters, not necessarily the ingredient itself.
If the idea that your skin absorbs 60 percent of what’s put on it were even the slightest bit true, you’d never have to drink a glass of wine again—you could just rub some chardonnay on your bod and get a nice buzz instead, says Dr. Hirsch. Common sense (and your stocked bar cart) tells you these things obviously don’t happen, and that’s because your skin has a barrier that’s both incredibly efficient and effective.
Your skin barrier is literally designed to keep things out, so for a formula or ingredient to penetrate your skin, a lot of things need to be just right. “There are so many factors at play when it comes to product absorption, including the health of your skin and a molecule’s size, charge, and chemical makeup,” says Dr. Hirsch. And even if an ingredient does penetrate your skin, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to enter your bloodstream and hurt you.
U.S. cosmetic regulations may be less strict than other countries, but before we go any further, know this: In the U.S., it is 100 percent illegal for any company to sell a product that’s toxic or poisonous. The idea that brands are out there formulating products that are going to kill you is just completely untrue—and, not to mention, a really bad business model, says Dr. Hirsch.
The U.S. also has a very litigious business market (meaning people love to sue), so in a way, cosmetic companies purposely regulate themselves. “It’s in a brand’s best financial interest to create the safest product possible for consumers,” says Novakovich. And it’s especially important for big beauty companies. “They have the scientific expertise to bring the best and safest products to market, so it doesn’t make sense for them to cut corners and risk a class-action lawsuit or damage to their reputation,” says Novakovich.
And even though it’s true that products in the U.S. don’t undergo the same regulatory process as in other countries, it’s not as if the FDA allows brands to throw whatever they want into their products, dangerous or not. In reality, the facts are often taken out of context to scare you into buying a certain brand’s products.
For example: You’ll often see brands say they formulate their products in adherence to the EU’s list of 1,400 banned ingredients instead of the United States’ list of 11. And sure, that comparison sounds horrifying (only 11?!), but the EU’s list is composed of ingredients that have never and would never be used in cosmetics, explains Dr. Hirsch: “The FDA takes a common-sense approach to cosmetic regulations.” (Exhibit A: When was the last time you saw rocket fuel in your shampoo? Exactly.)
That’s not to say the occasional unsafe product can’t slip through the cracks, though, so you still want to have a healthy amount of skepticism before you add any to your cart—and also be weary of where that cart is. Buying a beauty product from Target, Sephora, or Ulta? Probably fine. Buying a beauty product from a sketchy third-party seller on Amazon? Maybe not so much.
Bottom line: If a clean beauty brand or retailer tries to sell you a product based on one of the six statements above (which, FWIW, it probably will, since fearmongering and greenwashing are profitable), an alarm should sound in your head. “Ultimately, there’s no reason to market a product with these kinds of faulty claims if it can stand on its own merit,” says Dr. Hirsch.
And listen, this is not to say that clean beauty is a total sham (I spent a whole month proving the opposite). IMO, the movement has helped make consumers more mindful of what they put on their bodies, made brands more transparent and accountable, and, in some ways, even made talking about things like sustainability, self-care, and climate change more mainstream and comfortable—all very good things.
So my best advice for navigating the whole clean beauty space after this? Choose to be informed by data from reputable sources, experts, and scientists—not some random person on your social feed (sorry in advance to your mom’s best friend’s cousin).