What is ‘clean beauty’ and should you be using it

Clay masks and salt treatments on a Grid. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Every year, sometimes every month, there seems to be a new hot beauty and skincare trend you need to know about, and add to your routine. The latest one is ‘clean beauty’, so what is it and do you need to know about it?

What is ‘clean beauty’?

With more people interested in sustainability, environmentalism, conscious consumerism, and health, it was natural that these movements would eventually hook up with the beauty and skincare industries.

There really is no clear definition of ‘clean beauty’ but it has come to mean beauty and skincare products that combine one or more of these concepts - ‘natural’ or bio-based ingredients, often labeled ‘chemical free’; organic products; products that don’t use plastic packaging; products produced in an ethical way; products that give back in some way; etc.

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Since there is no central authority or official accreditation system to monitor or control these sorts of terms or concepts, there is no one definition of what a ‘clean’ product really is. So, there is no current regulation that outlines the definition of ‘clean’ beauty and skincare; although ‘organic’ does have a an accredited system so that branding is a little different.

All this means is that many brands can claim to be ‘clean’ but as a customer you really have no way of proving this.

Sarah Kate Watson-Baik, a Green Beauty and Conscious Lifestyle influencer. (PHOTO: Sarah Kate Watson-Baik)

Do ‘clean beauty’ products work better than other products?

This question seems to be the core of the current popularity of ‘clean beauty’, since many people who are looking to live a more natural or chemical free lifestyle have jumped onto the idea. Generally these people are simply looking for products that they feel are ‘better’ for themselves and their families, particularly for their children when it comes to body care products.

Sarah Kate Watson-Baik is a Green Beauty and Conscious Lifestyle influencer now based in California with her Korean husband and daughter Luna. Since Luna’s birth, Ms Watson-Baik has become more and more interested in living in a more ‘clean and green’ way with her family. Previously based in Seoul, Ms Watson-Baik has long been a fashion and beauty influencer with followers throughout Asia; now she’s known for explaining the various new ‘green’ and ‘clean’ beauty and skincare trends.

“Green and clean beauty is good because toxic chemicals are literally being dumped into conventional ones as the beauty industry that is not highly regulated, especially in the US where much of our products come from,” explains Ms Watson-Baik.

“[This is] a major concern as these chemicals are endocrine disruptors and silently causing us health issues. Fragrance is the newest area to get cleaned up as ‘perfume’ or ‘fragrance’ is proprietary [to brands], [so] on an ingredient deck it can be a placeholder for hundreds of chemicals in the formulation,” says Ms Watson-Baik.

According to Ms Watson-Baik there are a number of ingredients she watches out for in the beauty and skincare products she uses: “Aluminum and other heavy metals, hydroquinone, toluene, tricolsan, phthalates, ethoxylates, sulfates, silicones, 1,4 dioxane, parabens, petro compounds, propylene and butylene glycol, BHA, BHT, PEG, MEA, TEA, MIA, EDTA artificial dyes or synthetic fragrances”.

She also prefers products that are also gluten-free, cruelty-free and non-GMO. “[Products get] super extra points when the botanicals are organic,” says Ms Watson-Baik.

“Green and clean brands tend to also be more conscious [about using] sustainable packaging and avoiding the use of plastic both for toxic reasons and for the environment,” she explains.

Or is ‘clean beauty’ just another trend?

However, there are some beauty industry experts who disagree. Larry Yeo is a well-respected makeup artist and skincare expert based in Singapore who has strong feelings about the truth of the ‘clean beauty’ movement.

“Basically I do not believe in ‘clean beauty’,” says Mr Yeo. “It is fear mongering and mostly using pseudoscience to explain [stuff] that isn’t there.”

recent article by Vox supports Mr Yeo’s beliefs, stating that people are now ‘scared’ of chemicals due to various marketing and industry lobbying claims that have little or no proof or support. So much so that even some of the larger ‘clean’ beauty and skincare brands are looking to the FDA to help clean up the industry.

Mr Yeo explains that many beauty and skincare brands use phrases to refer to various ingredients that are considered unpopular, and remove these substances from their products despite the fact that they are often non-damaging and actually can be useful.

For example, ‘silicones’ are often referred to as a being damaging to skin, but according to Mr Yeo, who also has a biochemistry degree, in the right combination can be “skin soothing and skin protecting”.

He also points out that “chemical sunscreens” and “physical sunscreens” are actually the same: “Both are chemically treated [in order to work].

In fact, Mr Yeo’s points about sunscreens are particular on point. A recent study organised by a team of US researchers in the journal Health Communication shows that ‘natural’ or homemade sunscreens offer “offered insufficient UV protection, leaving people vulnerable to sunburn and increased skin cancer risk”.

Woman applying sunscreen on beach. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

Chemical sunscreens are the only ones that actually work, according to the report, and particularly those from Australian companies are highly regulated and have been proven to not only protect from both UVA and UVB but are also safe to use on a daily basis.

Mr Yeo also points out that many ‘natural’ ingredients are actually not that good for your skin. “Citrus fruits, lavender, rose can all be toxic to skin due to their fragrances which are not stable, or their active ingredient strengths that can not be monitored.”

On top of his concerns about the type of ingredients being used and perhaps falsely championed, Mr Yeo is also concerned about how these ‘clean’ products are being advertised and sold around the world.

“Frankly, what is the use of ‘clean beauty’ if all the products are being shipped from around the world, adding to issues like carbon footprints?”

According to Mr Yeo, ‘clean beauty’ is “all about marketing; beauty brands are always using fear rather than education”.

Sabrina Tan, founder of Skin Inc. (PHOTO: Sabrina Tan)

Make your own decisions

While there continues to be ongoing discussion about the benefits of ‘clean beauty’ from experts on all sides, many skincare and beauty brands are taking on-board at least some of their customers requirements and requests.

Singapore-based global skincare brand Skin Inc has noticed that more of their customers are definitely interested in knowing more about the products they’re putting on their bodies.

“As customers are becoming increasingly savvy, they are very knowledgeable about ingredients and are paying more attention to what they put on or ingest into their bodies,” explains Skin Inc founder Sabrina Tan.

“At Skin Inc, we listen to the needs of our customers and also recognise the benefits of ‘clean beauty’.”

According to Ms Tan, Skin Inc will be adopting the Sephora Clean list for the brand’s products. Sephora, one of the world’s largest beauty and skincare retail outlets, has recently announced its list of ingredients that can not be used in order for a brand to be considered ‘clean’.

Skin Inc products. (PHOTO: Skin Inc)

“All brands with the Sephora Clean seal qualify as Sephora Clean and are free of: sulfates SLS and SLES, parabens, formaldehydes, formaldehyde-releasing agents, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, and triclocarban,” explains Ms Tan.

While the various definitions of ‘clean beauty’ are still to be clarified, using lists from various organisations like Sephora are one way of checking the ingredients that are used in beauty and skincare products; at least until any official bodies can come up with a registered definition.

If you are interested in living more sustainably, then you might want to use ‘clean’ beauty and skincare brands that use sustainable packaging or ingredient sourcing; you might also be interested in products that are not tested on animals, or give back to the community in some way … All of these ideas can be found in many so-called ‘clean’ brands as well.

At the end of the day, it is up to you to make your decisions about what you buy and use on your body and face, but do use a bit of common sense!

Some ‘clean’ beauty and skincare brands to try suggested by Sarah Kate Watson-Baik:

Odacite

Vegan, Cruelty Free, 100% non GMO; no fillers, parabens, nanoparticles, petrochemicals, PEG, synthetic perfumes, dyes, phenoxyethanol. Made in California; result-driven French skincare plus green movement.

Josh Rosebrook

Uses plant ingredients that are 100% organic, certified organic or wild-crafted; no animal testing; no sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrances, artificial colors, silicones, petrochemicals or GMOs.

Agent Nateur

Free of GMO's, soy, parabens, sulfates, aluminum and petroleum; no animal testing; based on a holistic system of health and lifestyle.

LIP2CHEEK. (PHOTO: RMS Beauty)

RMS Beauty

Reports every cosmetic ingredient used in the products; non-GMO, non-nano, hypoallergenic, noncomedogenic, cruelty free and free from soy, parabens, sulfates, phalatates, silicone, talc, petrolatum and polyethylene/PEGs; cream products come in recycled glass pots, boxes are made from 80% post-consumer recycled fiber and manufactured using 100% wind power.

May Lindstrom

Ingredients used are organic, bio-dynamic, wild-crafted, cruelty-free, sustainable, conscious - both environmentally and socially; free from parabens, propylene or butylene glycols, petroleum, sulfates, PEGs, TEA, DEA, phthalates, GMO, silicones, pesticides, artificial dyes, fragrances, or carcinogens; soy, wheat, and gluten free and vegan except for one particular product. Focus is on ‘freshness’ of the ingredients ie. recommended shelf-life of 6 to 12 months.

Lip Pencils in Bare. (PHOTO: Kjar Weis)

Kjaer Weis

Products are made in Italy and almost all products have been Certified Natural or Certified Organic by the country’s certification body, the Controllo e Certificazione Prodotti Biologici. All batches of makeup are inspected by hand and are free of parabens, silicones, petrochemical emulsifiers and synthetic fragrances. Known for wide range of foundation shades for all skin tones.

Ilia

Makeup based on skincare using organic bases and active botanical ingredients; also uses safe synthetics; packaging is sustainable wherever possible, including using recycled aluminum, glass components, post-consumer recycled paper printed with vegetable-based dyes. Best known for colour makeup products.

Tata Harper

A kind of ‘farm-to-bathroom’ concept that makes all its own ingredients; free from GMOs, toxins, fillers, artificial colours, artificial fragrances, synthetic chemicals; uses sustainable packaging including glass, corn resin plastics, 100% post-consumer materials, or recycled paperboard and soy-based ink for printing.