Ask a chemist: what is clean beauty?

Do you feel like every company is warning you about the “dangerous chemicals lurking” in your products these days?

Gah, me too! I have no doubt that certain cosmetic ingredients are damaging to both humans and the environment, but tbh – I have a lot of skepticism about the clean beauty industry. So you can imagine how excited I was to meet Aubri – a cosmetic chemist – on Instagram, because I finally have someone to unload all my burning questions!

If you don’t follow her (@the.rebrand) already, you must! Posting from NorCal, Aubri is documenting her sustainability journey with actionable advice and the loveliest photos. Oh and side note, she is starting a Masters program in sustainable product development soon, so there will sure to be many more informative posts to come!

Q: Tell us about what you do for work! A chemist sounds like the. coolest. job. ever. 

Aubri from @the.rebrand

A: Hi everyone! Thanks to Yue for letting me share about a little about clean beauty. My name is Aubri, and I work as a cosmetic chemist in the clean/green beauty space. Basically, I work in a lab to create amazing skincare and makeup formulations that fit within the lines of clean beauty. It’s actually a lot like cooking or baking!

Q: Clean beauty” is a big buzz word these days. In your opinion, what is clean beauty, and why should anybody care?

First I’ll say that like most marketing buzz words (e.g., natural, non-toxic, green, eco-friendly, etc.), CLEAN beauty has no official definition or regulation. This means it is up to brands and consumers to do their due diligence to shape what clean beauty means. Several brands including Credo, Follain, Goop, and Honest Beauty have created definitions that they share on their websites.

The gist is this: clean beauty products are created without suspected toxic ingredients, with human and environmental health in mind. Note, this can include synthetic ingredients as long as they are not risks.

Why should you care? In the past few decades, we’ve come to realize the health effects that harmful chemicals can have on us and our children (not a mom yet but I feel like this will hit me really hard). As we choose to avoid pesticides on our food and carcinogens in our home, it only makes sense to think carefully about the ingredients we are ok with putting on our skin.

Q: What got you interested in clean beauty?

As a chemistry major in college, I did a research project on chemicals in conventional consumer products. My results showed real risks for both human and environmental health. From there on out, I changed my buying habits and set my sights on working for a company that cared about the issue.

Q: It feels like everything is “toxic” these days. Aren’t chemicals only toxic at high levels of exposure? How do we as consumers know what chemicals we really should be worried about? Are some beauty brands using fear-mongering to sell their products? 

A: There is definitely some fear-mongering happening, but on the whole I think most mission-based brands have consumers in mind. Briefly, your RISK is calculated based on TOXICITY and EXPOSURE. So while a substance may be toxic only at high levels, you could be exposed to it several times a day (if it’s a lip product god knows I’m applying it like 20 times) and by several pathways (through the skin vs through ingestion).

For me, the big players are:

  • Formaldehyde donors (ex: DMDM Hydantoin and Diazolidinyl Urea) – known to release formaldehyde, a carcinogen
  • Parabens, phthalates, chemical sunscreens – known to disrupt hormones
  • Petrolatum, paraffin, EDTA – known environmental concerns

Look at the Credo Clean Standard for more information!

An example from Aubri’s page!

Q: Is clean beauty more expensive than traditional “dirty” brands? Are there affordable brands we can look for?

At the moment, yes. I’m really hoping this changes, and I’m proud to work for a brand that prioritizes accessibility. Target has a clean standard now, which will hopefully provide a bit more opportunity. Some brands include Honest Beauty, Burt’s Bees, and W3LL People.

Q: Shouldn’t there be regulations that protect us from toxic chemicals in our cosmetic products?

A: Yes haha. I hate to laugh but honestly the effort by the US FDA to do anything about this is quite laughable. In the US, only about 30 ingredients are banned from cosmetic products. In the EU and Canada in comparison, over 1,300 ingredients are banned. Crazy! The only bright side is that some states are taking this into their own hands. California passed Prop 65 which requires warning labels to consumers for certain hazardous ingredients. This is only a small step, but at least any national company will be forced to comply if they want to sell in California.

Q: Before better regulations come around, what can us do as consumers to educate and protect ourselves?

As hard as it may seem, we really have to do our research when it comes to these products. Don’t be afraid to google ingredients or use EWG‘s app to check out product safety ratings. But don’t give up! Because as consumers demand more clean products, bigger companies will have to get on board to compete. Consumers can make the industry change!

Q: Ok – enough talk about clean beauty. What else excites you?

Clean beauty has been a small part of my sustainability journey, and I’m excited about other aspects of this lifestyle! Working to eat fewer animal products and shopping secondhand are two of my biggest goals at the moment. I also love to get outdoors with friends and family – whether it’s the beach, mountains, or a good park 🙂

That’s all ! This is a brief conversation, but I hope you find it helpful! I don’t have any background in chemistry, so all opinions expressed were Aubri’s. To be clear, Aubri mentioned some brands as examples, but we are NOT endorsing any specific products here (which is why we don’t mention where Aubri works and I edited out the brand logo from the header image).

Lastly, here’s my $0.02: if this is something you care about, I encourage you to do your own research and trust authors that have credentials and cite peer-reviewed sources (such as the Waste Free PhD). And don’t let companies using marketing tactics scare you into thinking you HAVE to buy this and that. Some products are necessary (i.e., I can’t make sunscreen at home), but there are so many important ways we should take care of our skin besides slathering products on it: getting enough sleep, eat better, exercise…so keep that in mind while you shop for only the products you need please 🙂

If you want to get more into the weeds:

  1. This Vox article gives a great overview of the current cosmetic regulatory scheme in the US (hint: there isn’t much).
  2. This short interview with physician/dermatologist Dr. Xu on a similar topic is also informative. Dr. Xu and coauthors evaluated more than 5,000 health-related cosmetic complaints submitted to the FDA between 2004 and 2016; that study is here.
  3. This piece on Refinery 29 raises some good points re. limitations of the clean beauty movement.