Squeaky ‘Clean’ Deception: How safe are your personal care products, really?
Many human ailments are correlated with repeated exposure to toxins over time. Here, I do not refer to the common cold, but instead complex, multifactorial conditions such as diabetes, endocrine disorders, and cancer.
These toxins can be found in the food we eat, the environments we live in and the products we use. Women, especially, may be frequently exposed to them through a myriad of makeup, skincare, nail polish and hair dye.
This is supported by the finding that, on average, American women are exposed to 168 unique chemicals daily and men are exposed to 85. I am talking about chemicals found in consumer goods that are ubiquitous in our era, the usage of which is unprecedented in human history.
Like me, you may have noticed that the word ‘clean’ has become less of a reliable accreditation and more of a marketing catchphrase. And it’s working. ’Clean’ cosmetics are proliferating everywhere. Two leading beauty retailers in Australasia, Mecca and Sephora, dedicate an entire section of their online stores to the word.
I have been fooled by the clean claim — a number of times.
Let’s first look at BioOil, developed for a range of skincare uses. The company proudly reports the product to be a consummation of good science and clinical research. It appears BioOil’s ‘clinical research’ has bypassed a review of the safety of its ingredients, or if its launch preceded the publication of those studies, then a willful ignorance of the evidence that has now surfaced. For this product, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database rates it a 7/10, reporting high concerns for bioaccumulation and moderate concerns for non-reproductive organ toxicity.
Contrary to most scales, a high score on the Skin Deep database is not indicative of being ‘better’. In fact, it’s the opposite. As this scale ascends, safety concerns such as developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies, and immunotoxicity are more likely to be cited. Just reminding you that BioOil is the stuff that is often recommended for pregnant women to rub on their stomachs.
I have also purchased a concealer made by Tarte cosmetics. Its cheerful box was branded with a bright green ‘clean’ tick to reinforce the saleswomen’s assertion that Tarte is, in fact, a clean brand, after I asked her to suggest suitable candidates for my makeup bag. Brands willingly make us look gullible when we later find out they’re not so clean after all — the concealer got a 6/10 on Skin Deep, citing high concern for endocrine disruption and bioaccumulation (EWG, 2019).
What really took the cake was a BareMinerals ‘clean’ foundation I purchased last year. On the Skin Deep database, not all products are listed, but you can search for individual ingredients’ scores. I investigated several of the first listed ingredients to find most were scoring 6s — not terrible — but definitely not ‘so pure you can sleep in it’ as its box boldly claimed.
Presently, we just do not have the data to evaluate how detrimental regular, accumulative exposure to chemicals in personal use products are to our long-term health outcomes.
That does not mean we should disregard any concerns, quoting a lack of data (recall that in the 1930s smoking was lauded for its health benefits).
I can conclude from the extensive product searches I have conducted on the Skin Deep database that truly clean products with good ratings are the minority.
It should be okay to pick a product off the shelf without questioning whether it will have an insidious, delayed effect on your long-term health after using it regularly. It should be okay to trust the claims of big businesses about how clean their products are.
Until businesses face stricter regulations, what can you do?
Support Brands that are Authentic in their Care (For You & the Planet)
This article suggests that many brands soothe us with their claims of clean, sustainable products, but when put to the test, notably underperform. For this reason, it may involve a smidge more research to investigate which brands are living up to their promises. By using the Skin Deep database, you will be able to access much of this information freely.
To get you started, here are a few brands that have proven that they are performing well in terms of rigorous ingredient selection and sustainable practices:
Here are some brands that often claim ‘clean’ but should be treated with caution:
· The Body Shop
Use (and Support!) the Skin Deep Database
The Skin Deep Database was created by the Environment Working Group (EWG) and is continually evolving.
It is an open-source database with information on a wide range of ingredients found in our products. Each is assigned a rating, and this rating is supported by reliable studies.
You can also search the database by product. While there are still many product gaps, with your use of the platform, the database can continue to develop.
If you are inclined to support the work of EWG, the site invites you to make a one-time or recurring donation in a denomination of your choosing.
Make Incremental Changes
To reiterate, women are exposed to 168 chemicals, on average, every day. Start small and begin to think about how you start incorporating cleaner products into your routine. List the products that you are exposed to most frequently or broadly (e.g., foundation, self-tan) and decide whether you think you can switch to a cleaner alternative next time you go to purchase that item.
Or just go all in and pledge to research and only buy clean next time you go to replace your products!
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Has anything in this article surprised you? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Otherwise, if you want any recommendations for (truly) clean products, then you can reach out to me here.
This article has not been sponsored, or otherwise commissioned, by any of the organisations, brands or studies mentioned. Any statement that has not been referenced reflects the authentic opinion of the author.
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 Barrett, J. R. (2005). Chemical exposures: the ugly side of beauty products. Retrieved from https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/ehp.113-a24
 Environmental Working Group. (n.d). Personal Care Products Safety Act Would Improve Cosmetics Safety. EWG. https://www.ewg.org/personal-care-products-safety-act-would-improve-cosmetics-safety