Navigating Buzzwords in Skin Care
The use of terms like “vegan,” “natural,” “organic,” and “clean” have been cropping up like weeds, but what these words mean when it comes to skin care is as ambiguous as a Picasso masterpiece. With no clear scientific definitions, standards, or regulations, skin care and beauty industries are in a heated battle to convince you to buy into their claims, which caters to consumer beliefs and fears around what constitutes safer, more effective skincare and thus worth your skincare dollars.
The Science of Defining Clean and Natural Beauty
As a dermatologist and skin care professional, I navigate a landscape wrought with potential pitfalls. I want to give my patients and you, my reader, the best advice, direction and confidence in the products and ingredients I mention. I know there is excitement around the concept of ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ and I never want to discourage brands from trying to make better products. So, I will state the simple facts:
Clean skin care and beauty items are difficult if not impossible to evaluate.
What makes something “clean”?
- Sometimes it is because the herbs are ground organically
- Sometimes it is because it doesn’t contain gluten
- Sometimes it is because it is Paleo
- Sometimes it is because it is eco-friendly and packaging is sustainable
Between the content provided by industry headlines, media influencers, and general publicity, “clean” or “natural” beauty terms have an emotional aspect to them that makes you feel they are safer and more effective, even without real science or data behind them.My patients come in every day with bags of products in which they have sometimes invested hundreds of dollars, and yet, still have breakouts, blotchy skin and rashes.
- Clean does not mean safer or more effective
- The science has not caught up to the claims. The FDA needs to clearly define and regulate their use reliably and consistently and to regulate the language around claims of ‘clean,’ natural,’ and ‘organic’ in products
- It is an emotional connection. There is a feeling associated with ‘clean’ beauty terms. The FDA allows efficacy statements that are not allowed in the prescription category and safety tests are minimal. It would be extremely useful if the FDA could define these terms and back them with scientific evidence before addressing the issue of ‘clean’ cosmetics and the standards they should live up to.
- Only when the FDA creates guidelines for the use of these terms, will skin care professionals be able to effectively help manage outcome expectations and to better determine the most effective products for your skin.
How Can We Help Patients Better Understand the Current State of “Clean” and “Natural” Skin Care?
While you may want to look and feel your best, you are probably also looking to live more healthfully and with a greater sense of social-consciousness. This quest often includes seeking out “natural” beauty products. Many people believe that if it’s ‘natural’ and ‘clean,’ it’s healthy. Most things that can harm or even kill you are natural. Everything is a chemical. No matter what you’re putting on your skin, it’s a chemical—whether it comes directly from nature or is taken from nature and synthesized in a laboratory. There isn’t a simple answer as to whether ‘clean’ beauty is better. Any time you take a product and make something else out of it, you’ve transformed it. It’s no longer in its original form, so it’s no longer truly ‘natural’. This doesn't diminish the value of the product if it's well designed and tested. My Hydrate Facial Silk Mineral Sunscreen is a fan favorite, especially for those interested in clean and environmentally conscious sunscreen. It's made with Zinc rather than absorbable sunscreen ingredients which are being studied regarding possible effects on coral reefs. It also contains antioxidants and ceramides to have a silky soft feel and extra benefits for your skin. My Silky Foam Cleansing Mousse contains salicylic acid as well as lactic acid which are gentle enough for daily use to clean your skin without stripping your natural oils and without extra ingredients that may be irritating or harmful for your skin.
What matters is the science, the data, and testing. This is where medical professionals can have the most impact on the conversation—through educating our patients and helping them understand that reliable testing and good science matter. My hyaluronic acid serum contains science backed ingredients of hyaluronic acid that is natural to the skin, peptides, and green tea extracts to hydrate your skin without blocking pores and, it's cosmetically elegant, feels great going which makes it a pleasure to use.
Take preservatives, for example. Preservatives like parabens have received very negative coverage over the last 50 or so years, but there is new evidence suggesting they are not as negative as they were once thought to be. Preservatives are an essential component of any beauty or skin care product—even natural ones.
Is vegan skincare better?
Vegan Skincare is a little easier to define: Vegan skincare products are not produced from an animal or an animal byproduct. This includes traditional ingredients like beeswax, honey, collagen, lanolin, keratin, glycerin, guanine. Vegan skincare even steers clear of “animal derived” products. Lanolin: comes from the washing of sheep’s wool, but many vegan products stay away from this ingredient.
Vegan products include the same benefits of a vegan diet in terms of reducing environmental damage.
Vegan ingredients like aloe, ginger, garlic, mint, and lavender have healing and cosmetic properties.
Many vegan products also include vitamins and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
You can still be allergic or sensitive to vegan products, so be sure to still check ingredients.
Cruelty free means the product or its ingredients have not been tested on animals. Cruelty-free products can be ethically sourced, but still include animal byproducts. Animal testing is now rare to non-existent since testing methods are more advanced. However, there are products on the market that are old enough that they were animal tested in the past, it all depends on how far back you want to look.
Organic in food means that the product was grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetic modifiers. Many apply this same definition to skin care products, however, once you take those elements and manipulate them in a lab to create a product, I no longer consider them organic. Therefore, I would say organic really doesn’t yet exist in skin care. It would be more accurate to say they are organically sourced, but that doesn’t sound as good to the consumer.
Beauty and skin care products, unlike food, need to have a longer shelf life. If you use your product in less than a week like your grocery items, preservatives would not be as necessary. However, it usually takes one to three months to use a beauty [or skin care] product, and without preservatives, it would decompose.
As physicians, it is our responsibility to share this knowledge with our patients—not to negate the use of words like “natural” and “clean,” but to show them that these types of products should be approached with thoughtfulness and awareness. Products should serve a purpose, be backed by science and be pleasurable to use. This is what drives my passion for product development and my desire to keep challenging the market to keep raising the bar.
The battle rounds of “clean beauty” are far from over, but as we wait for the FDA to take action, you should be aware that this is the wild wild west of skin care, take the claims with a grain of salt.
What “clean” and “natural” beauty trends have you taken notice of? Let us know in the comments below!