HERE’S THE THING about the wellness industry: It’s not one to rest on its laurels. It’s antsy and persistent. It’s constantly churning out new formulas, learning new tricks. For example, not too long ago, natural beauty products were the thing to have. Brands were whipping up skin-care potions with ingredients so natural you could probably get away with frappéing them in your matcha smoothie. We started seeing chamomile powder and ginger in our day creams, manuka honey in our masks. We even drank avocado through our epidermis.
But buzzwords just aren’t enough anymore. More and more, people are being mindful about what’s in the bottle. There’s a new movement in the industry rising to reflect that—and it’s called “clean beauty.”
In case you missed the memo, clean beauty is having its heyday. And sure, a part of it is about that back-to-basics approach. But the bigger, more important part has a lot to do with honesty and the old dog-eared adage “less is more.”
In theory, clean-beauty brands tout products that are free of harmful chemicals and toxic mumbo jumbo. In practice, it’s hard to navigate the world of clean beauty without going berserk, mainly because there are so many buzzwords clamoring for our attention.
With claims like “vegan,” “eco-friendly,” “sustainable” and “organic” now making their way onto clean-beauty product labels and shifting focus from what matters, it begs the question: What does clean beauty really mean? We asked Kimberly Cyr, skin-care specialist at Studio 2121, just that—plus a few other pressing questions.
There are so many things a clean-beauty brand can be. It can focus on products that are ethically sourced, vegan, sustainable. … How do you define what it is? And is it one particular thing, or is it sort of an overarching term for all of those things?
It’s hard because there’s no regulation on whether you can call something clean or organic or natural. It’s really easy to use those words interchangeably. [A company] can say its products are clean, but they actually aren’t. They can say they’re clean, but they’re actually just organic. Clean beauty is basically nontoxic. There are no potentially harmful ingredients in it, and it’s all ethically sourced and sustainable. That being said, it can contain natural or lab-made ingredients. That’s the biggest difference. Clean beauty can have lab-made ingredients that mimic natural ones, and those are actually called natural identicals.
Is it a common misconception that clean beauty means “natural” or “organic”?
Absolutely. Organic has been such a huge thing in our culture. People think that organic and natural and clean all must mean the same, but they don’t. Natural can actually be way more harsh than just a clean-beauty product. One of the examples that I give, and that you’ll read online, too, is poison ivy. That’s a natural plant. It’s found in nature, but you can’t use that on yourself. If you have really sensitive skin, a lot of these natural [derivatives] that you’re getting in your beauty products can be harsher for you than something that’s “clean” and maybe made in a lab instead.
What are some of those toxic ingredients that most clean-beauty companies can agree are red flags?
Sodium lauryl sulfate and mineral oils are really big. There are also silicones and parabens, which most people know about. And also, fragrances and dyes. Those are the main things that people need to be careful about because a lot of these ingredients are fillers. You can also be wary if the first ingredient that you see is water. Say you are looking for a moisturizer, and it says it has shea butter in it, but the very first ingredient is water, and shea butter is the 13th ingredient. Then the product is made mostly with filler that costs nothing but is not going to do anything to your face.
Anything else we should watch out for?
You really need to be careful with what products say they’re going to be and what they’re going to do. Products that promise you too much are probably too good to be true, to be honest. We’ve got to be more diligent in doing our research on companies. Just because something is in a store doesn’t mean it’s going to be eco-friendly or sustainable or cruelty-free. I think that just knowing how to read a label is super, super important. There’s an app called Think Dirty that I use. You can scan your beauty products, and it’ll tell you on a scale how toxic a product is and what the harmful ingredients in it are. If you’re not well-versed in all those weird, long words, the [app] can guide you through what’s clean, what’s organic and what you need to look out for.
What are some clean-beauty brands that you love?
I love Algenist. They have a lot of science power behind the company. They really do a lot of testing, and everything that I’ve tried from there or recommended to a client, I’ve been really happy with. It’s the same for Biossance as well. Again, they have a lot of testing power behind their company. They’re not just jumping in on the trend and riding it. There’s another [brand] that I recently came across called REN Clean Skincare. REN has a Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic that brightens everything up but isn’t super strong to where it burns or has a tingling effect. Also, Algenist has a melting cleanser that I really love. A lot of cleansers only get the makeup off and don’t really do anything underneath. This one’s powerful enough to do all of it, which is really good.
What’s another thing people need to know about clean beauty?
Sometimes it’s a little bit of trial and error. I always say “less is more” when you’re starting out. Then you can know and gauge what’s working for your skin and what’s not. Sometimes, the outcome can take a little bit longer with clean-beauty products, and that’s another reason why people don’t always jump into them. It’s kind of a hard line to draw, where you can find a product that’s strong enough, but also clean enough, if that makes sense.