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Everything You Need to Know About Clean Skincare

With no real definition for "clean beauty" on the books, confusion abounds. Here, an expert sheds some light on the ubiquitous term.

Contributing Writer
Clean Skincare Guide, Beauty Products on Marble Counter
Photography by: Carol Yepes/Getty

Right along with green and organic, clean is a word often used today in the sphere of wellness. "Clean eating" is used to describe a diet full of fresh, organic foods made without additives, preservatives, and chemicals. Likewise, clean beauty is used to describe cosmetics formulated without toxic ingredients. But there's not a universal definition of clean beauty since it's not regulated by the government. "In the United States, there's a feeling that the government doesn't restrict enough ingredients in personal care products," says Tara Foley, founder of clean beauty mecca Follain. "In Europe and Canada, the government better regulates what can and can't be in beauty products." In fact, the European Union has banned more than 1,300 ingredients for cosmetic use, while the United States has banned only 11, according to the CSC, or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

 

Instead, beauty brands are increasingly taking it upon themselves to restrict toxic ingredients linked to cancers and hormone disorders. "Each of us has to decide for ourselves what clean means, and customers have to decide what's important to them," Foley says. "I believe clean skincare prioritizes human and environmental health and restricts ingredients that are harmful to that. Clean skincare uses nutritious, plant-based ingredients as much as possible, and safe synthetics as necessary for preservation or performance." Here, Foley shares everything you need to know about clean beauty.

 

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What are the worst-offender ingredients you should start omitting from your medicine cabinet?     

According to Foley, synthetic fragrance is one of the worst culprits. "If you see the word fragrance or parfum on an ingredient label of any personal care product, it can be a catchall for up to 1,000 ingredients," she says. That doesn't mean all fragrances are bad, though. Foley points out that scents from natural sources like essential oils are fine, and those should be listed individually as their own ingredients. "But if it just says fragrance and doesn't list all of the ingredients that make up that fragrance, steer clear," she adds.

 

Preservatives like parabens, sodium laurel sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate are additional ingredients to avoid, as these have been linked to endocrine disruption, Foley says. "Other ingredients on the short list are avobenzone and oxybenzone," she explains. "They're ultraviolet filters in sunscreen that can cause endocrine disruption and cell damage and mutation."

 

Are there different "levels" of clean? Once you've gotten rid of those ingredients, what would you eliminate next?   

Foley says that there are certainly different "levels" of clean. Once you've eliminated the ingredients above, she recommends avoiding triclosan, which is in antibacterial hand soaps. "It's linked to endocrine disruption," she says. "The next one I would say is PEG. It goes through a process called ethoxylation, which is used to emulsify a product or make it thicker. And it's usually contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane, a known carcinogen. There's another called BHA, it's a preservative that's linked with endocrine disruption and can also cause kidney and liver problems." Last but not least, the pro advises ditching any products that contain aluminum zirconium, which is the first ingredient in most conventional deodorants. "It's been linked to breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease. It pinches the nerves to keep you from sweating," Foley explains.

 

But are these toxic ingredients really in large enough quantities to harm us?  

"Think about how many products we use every day—it's a lot," Foley says. "And every day, the little bits of toxic ingredients in each of those products can add up." On average, women use about 12 personal care products a day, and men use six, with each conventional product containing a dozen or more chemicals. If you're not able to cut that number down, using cleaner products is a good start. Foley says, "If your body doesn't know how to digest an ingredient, it bioaccumulates, meaning it adds up inside your system. So little bits from products matter."

 

How does the performance of clean products compare to conventional ones? 

Some people are hesitant to make the switch to clean beauty products fearing they just won't work. Foley says that you shouldn't worry, as there are a number of high-quality products on the market and they only continue to get better. "There's been so much investment into the performance of many natural products. They're so much better now than they were before, and they're going to continue to get better. Because of rising demand, you see brands applying the same innovation that used to be applied to conventional products," she says. "It used to be that natural beauty consisted of a basic face oil, and now we see really high-performing formulas. They're not only as good, but they're also better than the old traditional products because they're using ingredients filled with vitamins and nutrients."

 

Which clean beauty products should consumers look for?

Foley has tested thousands and thousands of clean products, including every single product that she carried in her store (over 500 items!), so her recommendations are a great place to start. "I have some I go back to time and again. The Osea Ocean Cleansing Milk is a really nice creamy cleanser, it has algae in it to deep clean the skin without drying it out. I really like a face moisturizer by Ursa Major, Golden Hour Recovery Cream," she says. "I use Pai Rosehip Bioregenerate Oil, they're a small brand from the UK. Josh Rosebrook Hydrating Accelerator is a nice refreshing face mist. And then there's a ton of great makeup I use daily by RMS Beauty, like the "Un" Cover-Up concealer and Burati Bronzer."

 

What about mascara, everyone's desert-island beauty product?

Mascara is so personal, depending upon the look you prefer, but Foley loves Ilia mascara. "The wand has both defining and volumizing on either side of it. That one's been my favorite so far," she adds.