The Common Ground Between Clean Beauty Supporters And Detractors

Clean beauty has caused one of the biggest chasms in the beauty industry today.

On the clean beauty side, beauty brands and retailers avoid certain ingredients they worry could be potentially hazardous. On the other side, there are cosmetic chemists, influencers and founders of some beauty brands not billing themselves as clean that hold the ingredients clean beauty brands and retailers avoid don’t pose a threat to human health. Clean beauty detractors argue the clean beauty movement is a marketing play, and does a disservice to consumers by spreading confusing and misleading information.

Beauty Independent delved into the debate last Wednesday during an In Conversation webinar moderated by editor Claire McCormack with the participants Lindsay Dahl, SVP of social mission at Beautycounter, McKenzie Bolt, director of global education at Biossance, Jen Novakovich, a cosmetic chemist and founder of The Eco Well, and Ricardo Diez, adjunct professor at Rutgers University. Rather than dwell on the differences between clean beauty supporters and opponents, we decided on their common ground. Here are four points of agreement the webinar revealed.

1. The Natural/Synthetic Dichotomy Doesn’t Make Sense For Human Health

“This debate is sometimes fueled by oversimplification of things that are written on social media,” said Dahl—and Diez agreed with a resounding, “Yes!” Dahl detailed, “In my over 15-year career of working in the field of environmental health, I’ve never said everything that’s natural is safe and everything that’s synthetic is toxic. When Beauty Counter first launched, everyone was like, ‘Ugh, why aren’t you a natural brand? How dare you use synthetic ingredients!’ And we’ve had to do a lot of continuous education to say, ‘Most everything that’s natural is safe.'” Some essential oils, she pointed out, are harmful to the skin. Beautycounter embraces certain colorants and preservatives as critical to a product’s safety.

Bolt added, “As an educator, when I’m training, I never try to challenge [ingredients we don’t use]. I just try to speak about what we do use. The ingredients we choose not to use are an attempt for us to say, ‘Hey, we are taking the measures that our cosmetic chemists think are important, and they can create amazing formulas without using these ingredients. So, why not?'”

2. Beauty Products Are Regulated In The United States

“I hear this all the time on social media: ‘The cosmetics industry is not regulated at all! Companies can do what they want it!'” recounted Novakovich. She emphasized that’s not true. She explained, “I’m not here to tell you that cosmetics regulations are perfect. There are many ways that I would like to see it improved, but cosmetics are regulated. I feel very proud as a cosmetic chemist to be working in the cosmetics industry because not only do we do a lot of work to make sure consumers are safe, but we also do a lot of work to innovate, to do things better for the future.”

Beautycounter is advocating for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to have greater oversight over cosmetics. It’s fighting for the proposed federal Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would require beauty companies to register with the FDA, report serious adverse reactions and mandate cosmetics websites include complete labeling information, among numerous stipulations.

Dahl said, “We should really look to the FDA directly to see where there are holes in the regulation—and that’s where we see there’s a major opportunity. Currently, there’s not a system in place where the FDA can say, ‘These ingredients are safe, these ingredients are safe at certain levels, and these ingredients we should move away from.’ That’s what people are calling to question, and I think that’s a fair assessment.”

She continued, “I lobby with all of the big guys—Procter and Gamble, and a bunch of other companies—on Capitol Hill. We’re all saying the same thing. We’re saying, ‘Guess what? Cosmetic good manufacturing practices. There needs to be some major improvements.’ If you talk to people in DC, and you’re actively lobbying on this, there’s not a lot of disagreement. I think the problem is that people then try to translate that into soundbites on social media that are clickbait. That does the conversation a disservice.”

3. Misinformation Is Rampant

“I can see what happened before and after the internet, and that’s a magic moment because, in the old days, the books would [be written] by hand and, then, go to the press. And, now with the internet, every idiot has an opening to say whatever crap they want,” said Diez. “That’s a big problem! You have all this misinformation put out there by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Ingredient lists on cosmetic products amplify confusion and misinformation, according to Diez. “By having an ingredient listing on the back, we opened the door for people to start making comments. Consumers do not know what the ingredients are,” he said. “A set of websites and a portion of the industry is feeding this stuff to the consumers…We already know that we are using some of this stuff as a marketing tool.”

Early in the webinar, Diez said, “There is not freedom of speech in science. [Chemist] Antoine Lavoisier made that clear in 1786: ‘You are not allowed to say whatever you want. You are not entitled to an opinion. There is no freedom of speech. You are entitled only to facts. When you have this experiment, these are the results.'”

4. The Environmental Working Group Is Problematic 

The panelists had varying degrees of concern about the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the nonprofit behind the Skin Deep Database with product safety ratings. “I see them as a pseudoscience, marketing organization that makes money by putting out misinformation in the industry to get a brand to certify because they do make money from that,” said Novakovich.

Bolt concurred. “EWG is not perfect at all,” she said. “The intention is providing some sort of information for customers to say, ‘OK, this is what I want to be putting on my body or not.’ However, my hope is that there’s a potential growth opportunity with EWG for better research, better data. Because, at the moment, I feel that often ingredients do not have an accurate portrayal. There are still gaps. The consumers are asking for this information. They really are. They want to be responsible consumers, and I don’t feel like the EWG is the full answer.”

To watch a replay of the webinar diving into the debate over clean beauty and others, visit Beauty Independent’s premium In Conversation webinar library