Parabens, mineral oils and chemical sunscreens are the bugbears of the clean beauty world. But what evidence is there that they are bad for us - and are clean alternatives any better? Dermatologist Anjali Mahto gives her view

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'Clean beauty' has become something of an industry buzzword. It's likely due to a number of factors including the explosive growth of the global wellness industry, celebrity influencers - think Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop - and the idea of  'chemophobia':  the false belief that 'natural' equals 'safe'.

One of the main issues with products labelled 'clean' is the lack of standard definition of what this means. Rather than defining what a 'clean' product contains, brands usually play on what their product is 'free from'. This is often an arbitrary designation that is widely open to interpretation and exploited by brands, retailers and marketing teams.

Many ingredients excluded from 'clean' beauty products, such as parabens, mineral oil, chemical sunscreen filters, are safe in the concentrations used in our skincare. Despite no proven causative association, terms such as 'endocrine disruption' and a 'theoretical increased risk of cancer' are concerns expressed by supporters of the movement.

even if there is no conclusive evidence that parabens cause breast cancer (there isn’t!), people will still choose to avoid them out of fear

The clean beauty movement reflects an excessive form of decision-making known as the 'precautionary principle'. This essentially means: even though there is no conclusive evidence of a causal link between an activity and a feared consequence arising from that activity, measures must be taken to reduce or prevent that activity.

To put it in more simple terms, even if there is no conclusive evidence that parabens cause breast cancer (there isn’t!), people will still choose to avoid them out of fear.

This can result in decisions which are at odds with existing knowledge and scientific consensus. It creates an inflated sense of absolute hazard around our personal care products. We start making decisions on our skincare based on fear and not true knowledge - we must be cautious of this.

Exclusion of ingredients which are safe to human health in the doses used in skincare has led to problems in itself. Many brands are switching to high levels of botanical or plant-based agents. Not only are these highly prone to quality variation (did the plant grow on the sunny side vs the shady side of the mountain, what was the harvest like, was the right part of the plant-sourced e.g. fruit, flower, leaf or stem, what methods were used for extraction?) but all dermatologists will tell you that plant-based ingredients are common sources of irritant or allergic eczema as well as causing sensitivity to sunlight.

Parabens are cheap, effective and have broad-spectrum antimicrobial ('bug-killing') activity. We need these in products to prevent us from getting skin and eye infections. Leaving out parabens has led to the use of other preservative agents which are potentially either more allergenic to human skin (e.g. MI and MCI) or have limited activity against a wide range of bacteria and fungi, resulting in contamination of products and product recalls.

So where does this leave clean beauty? Well the movement certainly isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, but what we need to see is a new definition of what it is - not what it isn’t.

What is clean beauty? The dermatologist's view

In my view, clean beauty should stand for these key things:

  • Minimal ingredients and simplified formulas
  • Social responsibility: the products should be sourced ethically and derived in a sustainable manner along all parts of the supply chain starting from the raw ingredients to the disposal of packaging
  • Transparency: we don’t want marketing guff from brands, we want to know exactly what is in the product, not what it doesn’t have!

It goes without saying, the products need to be safe and effective for consumers. We need tighter definitions of what makes a product 'clean' so that consumers are not being misled. Brands need to be held accountable and show us more evidence and not marketing. And lastly, both consumers and those of us recommending skincare to patients or clients need to be aware of the current industry pitfalls with clean beauty.

I'm not trying to push a 'chemical' agenda versus a 'natural' one. The purpose as always is to educate and also expose the high levels of persuasive marketing we are exposed to on a daily basis warping our perception of true hazard and risk around beauty products.

If you like products labelled as 'clean' this is not a criticism of that, but please do be aware that at this moment in time, 'clean' may not mean everything you think it does. It may not be sustainable or ethical and there may be a significant level of sales driven by fear-mongering and green-washing. Let’s watch this space and see how the market evolves - as consumers of beauty we deserve honesty and transparency from the products we choose to buy.

Do you agree with Dr Mahto? Let us know in the comments below