Whether you’re strolling through a pharmacy or scrolling through Instagram, you don’t have to wander far in the beautysphere these days before you’re utterly terrified. “Watch out for the demon paraben!” screams one brand. “Beware the dread pirate phthalates!” intones another. “Big beauty is out to get you!” they all cry as one, beckoning you over to the safe harbour of the kingdom of “clean” (a realm whose parameters are as ill-defined as this metaphor is getting overstretched).
Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent viral Vogue video — where she applied sun protection like highlighter, cast major shade on chemical sunscreen and intimated conventional moisturizers are made with antifreeze — was a tour-de-force of misinformation masquerading as fact, but she’s hardly a lone voice spreading dubiously researched claims and anxiety-inducing allegations about what we’re putting on our faces. Once the realm of the kitchen-made salt scrub vendor at a farmer’s market, spreading fear about the ingredients in our cosmetics — while shilling an alternative, of course — has become big business.
“Fear sells,” says Dr. Aegean Chan, a dermatologist who routinely debunks pseudo-science to her patients and more than 16,000 Instagram followers. “If you say a certain product is clean, that implies that others are dirty. That creates a self-perpetuating cycle where other brands, even though they know ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t mean anything, feel this pressure to be a ‘clean’ brand in order to compete in the marketplace.” Couple that with a lack of scientific literacy and a growing mistrust in “the system,” and you’ve got a population primed to be marketed to this powerful lever.
Fear: Chemicals are evil
There’s also the fact, Chan points out, that many indie brand founders don’t have science backgrounds themselves, so while they may have the best of intentions, they’re just as susceptible to half-truths as any other consumer. Their success, built on “no nasties” and “safe” formulations, prods the bigger players to remove those ingredients themselves, even knowing full well they’re not actually harmful or dangerous. In the end, says Chan: “It’s all just a waste of money and of resources that ultimately could go toward innovation that could actually make the industry as a whole more sustainable, and actually make an impact on the environment.”
So what’s a beauty lover to believe — and what should we really be avoiding? To help us wade through the pseudo-science, we’ve assembled a panel of actual scientists — a dermatologist, a cosmetic formulator and a chemistry PhD. The bottom line, though? There’s really nothing to be scared of.
“We already have so many things to be afraid of and to be anxious about in our everyday lives,” says Chan. “This unnecessary fear-mongering is just harmful to people’s psyches,” she adds, noting your average consumer doesn’t need to be going all Miss Marple on labels, and can trust that the vast majority of products, especially those from large companies, have been tested for safety. “They’re not out to get you,” she says. “If you step back and think about it, companies want you to continue to buy from them. If you die or are harmed by their product, you’re no longer going to be a customer.” You might not be able to trust the marketing, but you can trust the market.
Fear: If a product isn’t “clean,” it’s full of harmful toxins and suspicious ingredients that can hurt me
Fact: “Because the term “clean” isn’t regulated, it can be anything, which can be very confusing for a consumer,” says Stephen Ko, a cosmetic formulator whose blog is a fantastic resource if you want to deep dive into actual science and not, say, the scaremongering of the Gwyneth-endorsed Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Most brands have their own definition of a ‘clean’ formula, so it really depends on the organization that the product is being formulated for.” It is, essentially, a meaningless term. Ditto “free from” lists on products, which will often include things like lead or mercury, which have already been banned and were never in the product in the first place. The E.U., in fact, has just passed a law banning the use of those lists as a marketing tactic.
Fact: If we’re being pedantic, let’s start by remembering that everything is a chemical. If it exists, it’s a chemical, because those are the building blocks of all matter. Water is a chemical compound. Air is made of chemical compounds. You are made of chemical compounds. That said: “I think it has become shorthand for ‘chemicals and compounds that may present a potential risk to health,’” says Ko. “Consumers should be savvy about what they’re using; however it’s difficult for a consumer to find researched and scientific information right now, and it’s hard to separate the fear-mongering from truthful information.” When you can, try to find out the context for claims, especially ones that quote studies to back them. “Who did the research? What was the research done on? Are the results of this research actually applicable to humans? Those are important pieces of context that are often missing,” advises Ko.
Fear: Parabens cause breast cancer and can disrupt your hormonal system
Fact: “This is a real bee in my bonnet,” says Chan. “Parabens are a very safe ingredient that’s been around for over a century.” (If you want to deep dive into the history of parabens, she recommends the Beauty Brains podcast.) Used as an antimicrobial and preservative, parabens are a great example of another important dictum in pseudoscience-busting: The dose makes the poison. “Anything can be toxic at a high enough dose,” says Chan, pointing to the mouse studies done in the 1980s, in which the rodents were force-fed huge quantities of parabens, as an example of this. “Parabens were observed to have adverse hormonal effects in these mice, but that doesn’t mimic everyday use,” she says. “People are not eating their weight in parabens every day.”
What is happening, however, is that brands are switching out tried-and-tested parabens for other newer preservatives in their formulations, namely methylisothiazolinone (MI) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI.) “They are much more allergenic than parabens,” notes Chan, putting the rate of contact dermatitis caused by MCI at five times higher than that of parabens, named “nonallergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Association in 2019. “The more MCI and MI have been formulated with, the more allergies we see being associated with them,” she says. “This is an instance of the clean beauty movement being actually harmful to consumers.”
Fear: Some conventional moisturizers contain antifreeze
Fact: That’s a hard no, says Michelle Wong, who has a PhD in chemistry and writes about skin care as Lab Muffin Beauty on her blog and Instagram. “Antifreeze is ethylene glycol, which isn’t found in beauty products.” (At least very rarely.) However — and here’s where confusion can spread — there are similar sounding ingredients in many a personal care product, like propylene glycol and butylene glycol, humectants used in a wide variety of formulas, from serums to creams and shampoos. “They sound similar, but they behave very differently,” says Wong. “It’s like how drinking a glass of wine containing ethanol, a.k.a. drinking alcohol, is largely fine and may even be beneficial to your health, but drinking the same amount of methanol would make you go blind or kill you.”
Fear: You’ve got to protect your body from toxic ingredients found in beauty products
Fact: The word “non-toxic” gets tossed around a lot in the clean beauty space, but it’s really just an elaborate bit of misdirection. “Exposure is everything,” says Wong, pointing to the fact that even water, essential to life, can be a killer in the wrong quantity. That’s why an ingredient that might technically be toxic in one context — say, at full concentration — can be perfectly safe in another. “There are well-established limits to what can be used topically,” adds Chan. “You’re using it in a small amount, and your skin is keeping out 80 to 90 per cent anyway.”
That’s a key point, BTW: “There’s this deranged idea that your skin is mesh, this two-way passageway. It’s a barrier, and it’s evolved to be really good at keeping things out, and in.” If it were as porous as the non-tox brigade would have us believe, she adds, there wouldn’t be a whole branch of study devoted to figuring out how to administer medicine through the skin rather than orally. As an aside, it’s the same reason Chan can’t abide being told, say, that a yoga pose will massage your liver and help expel toxins. “There’s this idea that we need to help our organs, and it’s a fallacy. If you’re otherwise healthy, your body is very capable of removing harmful metabolites.” It contributes to a darker side of the wellness movement, she says, which is the “self-blame” that can happen when we do get sick.
Fear: There’s formaldehyde lurking in your products
Fact: “Formaldehyde is only commonly found in large amounts in two products,” says chemist Wong. “It’s in nail hardeners and some Brazilian keratin treatments, where it’s used to cross-link proteins and make them stronger.” Once again, the potential danger lies in the amount of exposure you’re getting. If you’re a nail artist working with nail hardeners every day or a hairdresser doing non-stop keratin treatments, you might want to consider proper ventilation, since breathing it in is the danger, or seeking alternative products if you’re actually allergic. Otherwise, the casual user is exposed to such tiny amounts that it’s not a worry. “The amount is really important,” says Wong. In fact: “Pears actually contain tiny amounts of formaldehyde, and you make formaldehyde inside your body as well.”
Fear: Fragrance is a menace, unless it’s from essential oils
Fact: “Unless you have an established contact allergy to fragrance, you shouldn’t go out of your way to avoid it in products,” says Chan, pointing out that scent is such a huge part of the ritual of beauty. When it comes to essential oils, however, she’s less enthusiastic. “Essential oils are pretty unstable, depending on the type,” she says, using the example of citrus oils, which have a shelf life of less than a year, which is not that long when you factor in production and how long something might sit on a shelf before it even reaches you. “Essential oils oxidize, and once they do, they become more allergenic,” she says, pointing to a journal article that notes a rise in allergies to the molecule found in lavender, an essential oil added to tons of clean products. “There’s this misconception that because something’s natural, it can’t harm you but things like poison ivy and arsenic completely refute that idea,” Chan adds.
Fear: You should avoid silicones in your hair care and skin care
Fact: On a related note to Chan’s comment above: “We humans have an inbuilt bias where we assume natural things are safe and synthetic things are dangerous, even though it’s obviously not true and natural toxins like botulinum toxin [E.D. note: produced by a bacterium and considered the most potent toxin known to humankind. It’s also used to make Botox] and pufferfish toxin are far more toxic than the most potent synthetic toxins,” says Wong. “And silicones mostly get a bad rap because they’re synthetic.” There’s also a misunderstanding about how they behave, she says, pointing to a perception that they work like a plastic wrap that suffocates our hair or skin. “In reality they form a very permeable film that has gaps for oxygen to escape,” she says.