Is “Clean” Beauty a Wash? - Miss Rosier - Women's Online Boutique

Is “Clean” Beauty a Wash?

Hint: This article is from Fiorella Valdesolo at (

“What does clean skin care mean?” According to Google, it’s a question that was among the most popular skin-care searches of 2020. On Instagram alone the hashtag #cleanbeauty has nearly four million posts. Despite the proliferation of beauty brands dubbing themselves clean, and the success of stores that have chosen to focus narrowly on products that fall under that category, there is confusion about what it all means. That’s likely because it doesn’t really mean anything, says Cayli Cavaco Reck, founder of Knockout Beauty, a beauty boutique with locations in New York, Los Angeles and Bridgehampton. “Clean is just an opinion,” says Cavaco Reck, who thinks the term is simply meant to signal a counterpoint to mainstream beauty. “There isn’t a governing body deeming products ‘clean.’”

The wave that started with “natural” and then “green” eventually gave rise to “clean” around 2016, estimates Josh Rosebrook, founder of the namesake beauty line that predates the entrance of these terms into the beauty marketplace. By virtue of being almost entirely plant-based, Rosebrook’s products are often labeled as clean, but he sees the category as a box. “As my brand evolved…I don’t use the terminology, because I feel it’s limiting. I don’t feel it’s accurate. I feel it’s polarizing.” he explains. Much of the inaccuracy comes from the fact that there’s no centralized oversight: It’s the brands, retailers and marketers that create the parameters and no-no lists of ingredients. “It’s not a standard list. Some say this is OK. Some say that it’s not,” explains Cambridge, Mass. dermatologist Ranella Hirsch.


A number of ingredients, despite having long track records of safety and efficacy, have been widely demonized by the clean community. “It irks me that there’s so much unproven ‘data’ or recommendations out there now,” says Loretta Ciraldo, a Miami-based dermatologist and co-founder of Dr. Loretta skin care. She points to the bad rap earned by ingredients like petrolatum, a dermatologist go-to for healing found in products like Aquaphor, and silicone, which she favors in sunscreen because it helps create a smooth texture and even distribution that will ultimately make people want to use it. Fragrance is another one. “Most people don’t even realize fragrance is in everything,” says Hirsch. In fact, products labeled unscented usually have a masking scent because the smell of raw cosmetics isn’t exactly pleasurable. (Those who do have a fragrance sensitivity should look for the language “no fragrance added.”) Essential oils, which are known to be irritants for some, are generally used in very small quantities. “Some people will react to 5 percent essential oil, but in skin care, in our line, we’re typically using .1 percent,” says Ciraldo. And casting a negative light on specific ingredients is problematic in context, says Hirsch. “You’re not buying ingredients, you’re buying a formula,” she says. 

Sandra Lanshin Chiu, an acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist and founder of Treatment by Lanshin, a Brooklyn studio devoted primarily to skin health, worries that the term “clean” implies a measure of safety that’s not necessarily true while “nontoxic” points a finger at so-called non-natural brands. “It’s great that natural health and healing has become so appealing…. However, I think we’ve hit the opposite extreme where people don’t trust things that aren’t natural,” she says. While some skin does well with natural products, she has also seen it trigger conditions like acne and perioral dermatitis. And Lanshin Chiu has noticed the mental toll among her clients, who often feel guilty for using products that aren’t considered natural. New York–based aesthetician Sofie Pavitt describes the obsession with clean beauty products as similar to orthorexia, the unhealthy fixation with healthy eating. “We’ve all been weirdly educated into a corner,” she says. “Alarm bells ring for me…when the words clean [and non]toxic are promoting and really pushing the product.” 

“It’s great that natural health and healing has become so appealing…. However, I think we’ve hit the opposite extreme where people don’t trust things that aren’t natural.”

— Sandra Lanshin Chiu

The challenge for brands is being conscientious not only in how they formulate, but also in how they label. “Let’s all just find better ways to describe our products,” says Rosebrook, bringing up another problematic term, “anti-aging,” which he stopped using in 2015. “Let’s not use these terms that actually don’t make sense.” A number of retailers, including behemoths like Ulta, have pivoted to “conscious” beauty instead, though it also lacks any specific definition and remains open to varying interpretations.

The burden remains on the consumer to sort through the information around clean skin care and read between the lines of the language used to promote it. To help differentiate fact from fiction, Lanshin Chiu says she turns to the experts:  “I prefer information from people who professionally treat many different skin types,” she says, “and people who formulate cosmetics for a living.” While social media has become a platform for questionable advice, it’s also given new reach to dermatologists and a number of cosmetic chemists and formulators like Ron Robinson (@ronrobinsoncosmeticchemist), Michelle Wong (@labmuffinbeautyscience), Stephen Alain Ko (@kindofstephen) and Annalisa Branca (@skinperspective). 

Sometimes the problem ingredients are those that haven’t become buzzwords in the “clean” beauty space. In Ciraldo’s practice, for example, she often sees patients reacting to something as simple as a drying alcohol like ethyl, which shows up in a lot of products. The most common issue though, she says, isn’t ingredients, and whether they’re clean, but simply that people are using too many products. “It’s very easy to fall into the trap that you need everything, which is absolutely not true,” agrees Pavitt. The most conscious beauty choice may simply be to choose less of it, clean or not.

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