Terms like clean beauty, green beauty, natural and eco-friendly seem to be everywhere these days. But what do they really mean? Dr. Christopher Caires, who holds his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Stanford University, outlines how (even without an advanced degree in science), you can navigate the growing category of eco- and health-conscious beauty brands—and find safe, effective products for you and your family.
#1: Know that clean, green, natural [insert your buzzword] mean…well, nothing, really
“Words like natural and clean are marketing descriptors,” says Dr. Caires. “There is no accepted definition for either word. These are virtue-signaling terms directed at consumers to suggest the products are safe.” That is not to say that a brand who puts those terms on the label is not actively working to create safe, effective formulas—they very well may be. But there is no way to know that’s true because those terms are unregulated. A better strategy, if your goal is to find safe, effective formulas? “Look for brands that are transparent about their process,” says Dr. Caires. They should share all of their ingredients, explain why they choose them, and provide ample evidence of their formula’s efficacy. Dr. Caires says it’s also important to find a brand run by people you trust—who are willing to stake their names and reputations on the safety of what they are selling.
#2: Watch out for clean- and green-washing
“These terms refer to when a brand tries to present a certain virtue that everybody has,” says Dr. Caires. “One example of this is when a label on a can of aerosol hair spray says no CFCs or no ozone-depleting chemicals. Those ingredients are illegal. By putting that claim on there, you're sending a false virtue that your product is superior, when in fact it's what everybody has to do.” This marketing tactic is deliberately misleading because it sounds compelling. A similar strategy is when brands claim to employ a practice everyone also does. For example, many labels now say cruelty-free to indicate that product was not tested on animals. “But nobody tests on animals anymore,” says Dr. Caires. “Even China, which was the last country that required animal testing, has stopped. We've moved on from that as an industry.”
#3: Natural does not mean safer
Other terms that often get slapped on labels are all-natural or made with natural ingredients. But being natural does not make the formula less likely to irritate or cause a reaction. “There are tons of highly poisonous things that are natural,” says Dr. Caires. “There's a poor correlation between natural and safety. In fact, I would say that almost all of the allergens that people are allergic to are natural, whereas synthetic things tend to not be allergenic at all. In Europe, if a product contains one of the 26 most common allergens, you must indicate that on the label. All 26 of those allergens are natural ingredients.”
#4: A product with just three ingredients is not safer than one with 87
The idea that a product made of only three ingredients is cleaner or safer than one with several dozen ingredients is just not true. In fact, when a brand makes a low-ingredient claim, what that may actually mean is a lack of transparency. Take milk. “Someone could claim milk as one ingredient. But milk is not one thing. Milk is calcium carbonate. It has seven different amino acids. It's a whole bunch of different fat molecules. It's lactic acid. It has six different sugars. If you started to list out the composition of milk on a molecular level, you would have five pages of text,” says Dr. Caires. The point is, a longer ingredient list may just indicate that a brand is being open about what’s in their formula. “Consumers now demand to know more, and when brands share more information, the ingredient lists grow,” says Dr. Caires. So, don’t be alarmed by longer lists. “It’s a good thing,” says Dr. Caires. “If there is ever a reactive issue or you suspect an allergy, a longer ingredient list gives you more information to determine what’s going on.”
#5: Trust science (and scientists)
Be skeptical of the extrapolation some non-scientists make about the results of scientific studies. “For example, someone could say this ingredient caused a tumor in a rat when you gave it a dose that was half its body weight. But that dose is an unrealistic quantity, something you’d never get in a skincare product. That does not necessarily make that ingredient harmful to humans,” says Dr. Caires. Similarly, Dr. Caires had a recent conversation with his young son who asked why carbon dioxide in soda doesn’t kill you. “My son said, ‘Doesn't carbon dioxide kill you—how can you be drinking it?’ It was a funny comment because I thought about it, and he's right. We drink carbonated water, sodas, all these things day in and day out and you don't think anything about it. Yet carbon dioxide is a highly deadly toxic gas that, in small doses, will out-compete all of the oxygen on your hemoglobin and you'll suffocate. But, in the right dose, in the right form, it's 100 percent safe and it's quite an enjoyable experience,” says Dr. Caires. “So even though there are studies that show carbon dioxide’s deadliness, to suggest it is always harmful is sensationalizing something that is perfectly safe in the proper dosage.”
#6: Beware the word fragrance in an ingredients list
“The reason we don't use fragrance at Solvasa is not because we don't want our products to smell or we don't think people like products that have a nice fragrance to them. It's because we don't know what's in it,” says Dr. Caires. “Any fragrance is proprietary, and the creator of that fragrance is, by law, not required to share what’s in it.” That’s right; a lot of consumers have no idea that’s the case. But so-called “fragrances” can contain hundreds—even thousands—of other ingredients, and fragrances are one of the most frequent causes of allergic reactions. “The fragrance industry has resisted becoming more transparent,” says Dr. Caires. “So, at Solvasa, we cannot, in good faith, put a fragrance in a product if we don't know everything that's in it.” Also take heed that if just the word fragrance is on a label, there's no way for you, as a consumer, to make an informed choice about what you are buying.
#7: Most products can’t be absorbed. And that’s a good thing.
“The skin is designed to not let anything in. That's why we have it,” says Dr. Caires. “When you put something on your face, 99.999 percent of it will stay put or only penetrate into the upper layers of skin. You get a skincare benefit, but the product is not going any deeper.” Thus, concerns about skincare ingredients getting beyond the skin and into the bloodstream in a quantity that could be harmful is generally unfounded. “Theoretically, things could penetrate and get into your body and systemically be absorbed. But that’s more of a testament to our ability to measure things in the body than it is to whether something is unsafe. The truth is our bodies are awesome and more than able to defend themselves. We have this thing called the liver that knows how to blow up and blast almost any molecule we throw at it. And by and large, skincare products are designed to not be absorbed into your body. We're not doing our job as skincare scientists if things are getting absorbed all the way into your body. Our job is to deliver things to the skin—and benefit the skin. Period.”
Want more information from Dr. Caires on shopping for clean, safe products? Check out Episode 4: Are you Being "Clean-Washed?" on The Beauty Construct podcast, now available for download on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.