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A guide to what 'Clean Beauty' is and help in understanding the ingredients in your skincare products

different beauty products squirted out on to a surface including gels, creams, lotions and scrubs

What is Clean Beauty?

There is a lot of talk online from influencers, in the media and in print about 'clean beauty', but what exactly does it mean?

Basically it is the use of skin care and beauty products that are made with natural ingredients with minimal processing and that are safe, non-toxic and have not been shown, or are not suspected of, being harmful to humans.

You would also expect the companies that make such products to be fully aware of their environmental impact in areas such as the production and manufacture of the products, their supply chain and their packaging and delivery methods.

I have been passionate about natural and organic beauty for decades and ran a small organic skin care business developing my own products and won four awards for them. The arguments continue to rage about whether natural and organic skincare is any better than main stream synthetic chemical products, so let me try and explain some of the issues.

Is natural skin care chemical free?

No, it's not. All ingredients, whether natural, organic or synthetic are chemicals in their own right so saying something is 'chemical free' is a bit misleading. Anyone can be allergic to any ingredient, synthetic, natural or organic and essential oils themselves can contain allergens (which will be marked in the ingredient list for those who need to know).

All skin care and beauty products sold in the UK must be cosmetically certified and there are strict laws about what ingredients are allowed and not allowed in skin care products, and at what concentrations. It is argued therefore that the industry is already well regulated and that the ingredients used in skin care products for sale in the UK have been shown to be safe.

Whilst safety testing and studies have been undertaken on each of the individual synthetic ingredients, scientists know virtually nothing about the long term effects of many of these ingredients when they act in combination with each other. Some ingredients are suspected of causing cancer whilst others have the potential to impact the brain and nervous systems. Others are linked to eczema, a host of skin allergies and fertility issues.

Synthetic chemicals in skin care

So, if there is such concern about synthetic chemicals in skin care why do main stream beauty brands use them? Basically it's down to two reasons:

  1. Money. Mass produced synthetic ingredients are much cheaper than their natural and organic counterparts and they can be used to bulk out a product at little cost. Skin care and beauty products are meant to come in to direct contact with the body and a large proportion of what is applied to the skin is absorbed by the body (State of the Evidence: The Connection between Breast Cancer and the Environment; sixth edition 2010). Think of how many products you use on a daily basis from your shampoo, shower gel, toothpaste, deodorant, moisturisers and make-up. Add in hair styling products, nail varnish, hand cream and all the other incidentals you might use such as mouthwash and lip balm and you will probably find you are being exposed to over a hundred different chemicals a day.

  2. Marketing. Main stream beauty brands like to continually release new anti-ageing creams or other products that they claim have a 'wonder' ingredient in them. This 'wonder' ingredient will of course have been developed and patented by the company and it gives them an easy route to market it as 'exclusive' or 'new'. There may well of course be a natural ingredient that does the same thing, or even perform better, but they can't patent a natural product so they are not interested in them.

Natural skin care vs main stream skin care

A lot of people are put off using natural skin care and beauty products because they don't think that they will work. Whilst it is certainly true that about fifteen years ago the products were fairly basic, products today are hugely improved. The technology and biological science is now so advanced that I would say some of the natural and organic products are far superior in terms of results than their main stream beauty counterparts. It's likely the main stream products are still using similar base formulations with the odd new 'wonder' ingredient added in and then re-packaged and re-marketed. However you have probably noticed the many companies who now proudly proclaim that their product contains a 'natural' ingredient or two on their packaging. Sadly, this will probably be a miniscule amount.

What does green washing mean?

Once main stream beauty companies and marketing agencies realised that consumers were starting to be more conscious of what they were putting on their skin and were starting to look for more natural products, they saw this as just another marketing opportunity. There was a rush of new labels on mainly synthetic chemical products with the phrases such as 'natural' or 'contains organic ingredients', and trying to pass off a mainly non-natural product as natural is called green washing.

Green washing examples

There are actually no set standards in relation to terms such as 'natural' so if you actually read the ingredients label on a product you may find that although it claims to be natural it has just one single natural ingredient in it amongst a soup of synthetic chemicals, and the products that proudly claims 'contains organic ingredients' on it's label will have just a miniscule percentage of organic ingredient in it, with the rest of it being as far from organic and natural as it is possible to be.

Companies rely on the fact that most people don't even look at the ingredients label, and even if they did, they probably wouldn't understand it. I am a complete geek and always read the labels on everything but if you don't want to go down that route then look for a product that has been certified by a suitable professional body such as the Soil Association or Natrue.

Clean Beauty Certification

The Soil Association now certify internationally as COSMOS. There are two certifications available, organic or natural and they will also review the marketing messages that a company sends out to ensure consumer clarity. COSMOS is a result of the growing demand for certified organic beauty worldwide. The Soil Association teamed up with 4 other organisations (BDIH in Germany, Cosmebio and Ecocert in France and ICEA in Italy) and helped to develop a new harmonised standard for organic and natural cosmetics, known as COSMOS (Cosmetic Organic Standard).

Selecting a product that has been certified like this certainly helps people make informed choices but on the downside there are a lot of smaller companies out there producing some wonderful natural and organic products who just can't afford the cost of the certification and it is a shame that not more is done to help these smaller companies get some form of recognition for their fabulous products.

How to read the ingredient list on your skin care product

If a product is natural it should be pretty easy to see from the ingredients list. The label must list the ingredients in descending order by weight so the first ingredient on the list is the biggest ingredient in the formulation (and in lotions this this can often be water).

I always find this interesting to look at. Sometimes you get a product advertising itself as 'containing organic rose water' and a quick look at the label shows you that this is nearly the last ingredient on the list. Not very much organic rose water in that product then!

Ingredients also have to be listed by their INCI names (International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients). Most people have absolutely no idea what these ingredients are (and I suspect the mainstream brands prefer it this way). When I developed products I wanted to be absolutely transparent about the ingredients and I always described the ingredient in brackets after the INCI name to help people make an informed choice. For instance the INCI ingredient 'persea gratissima oil' is avocado oil and 'tocopherol' is vitamin e.

Is fragrance in natural skin care bad?

Also beware products with the term 'fragrance' in the ingredient list. This term may be used on an ingredient list without describing exactly what is in it, so there could be a cocktail of unlisted ingredients bundled together and hidden behind the word 'fragrance'. Companies will say their fragrance is a trade secret but if are using pure essential oils then why not say so? As they don't have to give away the exact percentages or amounts used in a blend. Far more likely they are using pre-blended fragrance mixes or essential oils blended with synthetic fragrances. This is not the end of the world in say a hand wash or something that is not in contact with your skin for very long and the products will be cheaper, but there needs to be transparency so that people can make informed buying choices.

Personally I can't stand the smell of most fragrances and have often had skin issues with products that contain them so always buy products that only contain pure essential oils (which can also be extremely beneficial for the skin).

What is a naturally derived ingredient?

You may also find ingredients on lists that say 'derived from' or 'naturally derived'. This is a product that has come from a certain source (usually natural) and been further processed. Obviously there are cases where a natural product has to be processed to make it into the right format or consistency as an ingredient for a particular product, but beware the ingredient list that is literally full of ingredients that are listed as 'derived from'.

Is vegan skin care natural?

Not necessarily. Many products are marked as suitable for vegans but this does not mean it is a natural product as many people seem to think. A vegan product can be totally made from synthetic chemical ingredients. However there are many natural and organic skin care companies out there selling products that are suitable for vegans.

Natural vs organic skin care - which is best?

I spent a huge amount of time researching this issue when I was developing products. Natural products work and are good for the skin and if you were to just swop a few of your products for natural ones then you would be dropping your chemical load straight away as well as helping the environment.

I always used organic ingredients in my formulations where they were available. The ingredients cost more but you are guaranteed no GM, herbicides, synthetic fertilisers, nano-particles or similar and also I took into account the benefit that this also had on wildlife and biodiversity.

I also felt that organic ingredients, particularly essential oils, performed better in skin care products and that was also hugely important to me. Pure organic essential oils contain more than just an aroma and can be medicinal and healing, amongst other things. I think of organic essential oils as a natural pharmacy and I developed my products with this in mind.

Are some essential oils fake?

Because of the popularity of the essential oils market there are a lot of 'fake' oils out there. I once read that there was more organic tea tree oil sold than had been produced world wide! If you are going to make your own skincare products or diffuse essential oils then buy the best. I just love NHR Essential Oils who are based in Brighton but Neal's Yard and Tisserand are great too.

How can you tell what the ingredients in your skincare really are?

If you can't make any sense of your skin care or beauty product ingredient list then you are not alone! If you are interested and want to know what they are or you want to find out if they could be related to any issues or concerns you have then I suggest you buy yourself a copy of A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter.

You might think this sounds really boring but I promise you, just get your favourite make-up or skin care product out, look at the ingredient list and look them up in the book - it might just make you consider what you are actually putting on your skin!

If you are having issues such as redness, irritation, itching or rashes, then this book can help you track down whether any products you are using contain an ingredient that may be causing the problem.

Natural make-up - is the pigment any good?

I often get asked about the staying power of natural and organic make-up, and it is really good these days. I only use natural make-up, liquid foundation, mineral powder foundation, eyeshadow, mascara, lipsticks, lip gloss, you name it, I use it. I can assure you that the days of weak coloured pigments and short lasting products are over. As long as you buy from a decent brand you won't even notice the difference.

Natural skin care

How to move to natural skin care

If you have sensitive skin or have concerns about the amount of chemicals you are using in your life you can start by looking at your skin care and beauty products. An easy win is just to replace your body moisturiser with a natural product as this is the one product that goes over most of your body and probably on a regular basis and it is a 'leave on' product.

If you are looking for al all over body moisturiser, you might be interested in my product reviews on:

Start with things like body moisturiser or fake tan for example (for fake tan take a look at my review on Green People's Liquid Gold Tanning Drops). Then go with facial moisturiser, deodorant and then maybe look at hair products, nail varnish and make-up. You can get some beautifully scented natural and organic skin care products but you may just want to go for a completely unscented one if you have skin allergies.

If you want to go the whole hog and replace perfume as well, Neal's Yard do a couple of lovely ones, Pure Essence Eau de Parfum in Rose and Frankincense options. The Rose (No 2) is gorgeoud and they cost £42 for 50ml.

It would be hugely wasteful to throw away any existing products so unless you are having issues or reactions to products just use up what you have and then look for a suitable alternative when it is time to buy that type of product again. There are masses of companies out there producing some great skin care, why not check out the Product Reviews section of my Directory of Recommended Products.

Your skin can actually improve when you move to natural skin care and beauty products. I found that my skin improved massively when I changed about twenty years ago, and this was before they were so advanced in relation to the anti-ageing ingredients that they now use.

On my face I found my skin tone evened out and my complexion was smoother and plumper. Probably because it was starting to breathe properly after years of being caked in petroleum by-products! I also found that I had more elasticity in my body skin. You may think you have no reactions to mainstream skin care products, but give it a month or so with natural products and see what clean beauty could do for you!

Now why not read about the ingredients to avoid in skincare products and get started!

If you are really passionate about natural skincare and beauty products, why not try making your own? Check out the DIY Skincare Recipes.

If you fancy setting up your own business selling natural skincare products, then why not take a look at Running a Natural Skincare Business from Home or the FREE online Skincare Business Course - everything you need to know about setting up and running your own business.

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