Is ‘Clean Beauty’ really a thing? How Should Dermatologists Address it with Patients?

April 21, 2020

The use of terms like “natural,” “organic,” and “clean” have been taking many industries by storm, with the skin care and beauty industries finding themselves neck-and-neck with food for first place.

But what these words even mean when it comes to skin care is as ambiguous as a Jackson Pollock masterpiece.  In terms of regulation, there is no clear definition of “clean,” “organic” or “natural”—making the space difficult to navigate for patients and physicians alike.

At the 2019 Cosmetic Surgery Forum, Dr. S. Manjula Jegasothy, board-certified dermatologist, Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology at Miami Miller School of Medicine and founder of the Miami Skin Institute, along with Dr. Doris Day, board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center, dove into the complications surrounding the use of these terms as well as their role in the aesthetic space.  In this expanded summary, CSF asks “What is the state of “natural” skin care?”

The Science of Defining Clean and Natural Beauty

First, Dr. Jegasothy explains that “clean” skin care and beauty items are difficult to evaluate and compares the current ideation to clean eating—what makes something “clean”? Is it because the herbs are grown organically? Is it because it doesn’t contain gluten? Is it Paleo? The issue doesn’t lie in the use of these terms themselves —it lies in a lack of clear definitions and consistent regulation.

In the skin care and beauty industry, there is growing concern surrounding the use of “clean” terms, as it’s unclear exactly how they are being defined and—of equal importance—who defines them. This can be a challenge for patients, but especially for skin care professionals—as there is no scientific evidence to delineate one category of product over another.

Dr. Day explains that, as dermatologists and skin care professionals, we navigate a landscape wrought with potential pitfalls. Between the content provided by industry headlines, media influencers, and general publicity, “clean” or “natural” beauty terms “[H]ave a sensational aspect to them but no real science or data behind them.”

She goes on to emphasize the importance of skin care professionals taking ownership of the narrative and driving the idea home that “[D]ata makes a difference. Science makes a difference—and ‘clean’ is just a word. [While] there’s a feeling [associated] with ‘clean’ beauty terms, it’s not clearly defined,” and there is still a lot of work to do to quantify this category of products.

Dr. Jegasothy aligns with this position—explaining that in order to reliably and consistently use these terms, the FDA needs to clearly define and regulate their use. She says,

“The FDA needs to regulate [the language regarding ‘clean,’ natural’ and ‘organic’ products]. Right now, they are very vague about what claims cosmetics and toiletries can make. They allow efficacy statements that are not allowed in the prescription category, and safety tests are quite minimal. It would be valuable for the FDA to define ‘clean,’ ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’ as they’re used interchangeably in many cases and it has created a lot of confusion for [patients]. 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.”

Once the FDA creates guidelines for the use of these terms, skin care professionals will be able to help manage outcome expectations and teach their patients how to better determine the most effective products for their skin.

How Can We Help Patients Better Understand the Current State
of “Clean” and “Natural” Skin Care?

We know that while many patients want to look and feel their best, they are also looking to live more healthfully and with a greater sense of social-consciousness. This quest often includes seeking out “natural” beauty products—their rise in popularity is anecdotal proof. The unfounded and sometimes misleading claims, Dr. Day explains, are what need to be addressed:

“People believe that if it’s ‘natural’ and ‘clean,’ it’s healthy. In reality, most things that can hurt or 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 to [whether or not ‘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’,” she says.

In the end, Dr. Day explains, what matters is the science. The data. This is where medical professionals can have the most impact on the conversation—through educating their patients and helping them understand that reliable testing and good science matter.

Take preservatives, for example. Preservatives like parabens have received both bad and good 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. Dr. Jegasothy reminds us of the importance of helping patients remember that preservatives are an essential component of any beauty or skin care product—even natural ones.

“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,” Dr. Jegasothy says.

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.

“It’s imperative as skin care professionals and dermatologists to educate [patients] that this is a very new and nascent field. We need to make sure they understand that virtually nothing is known about clean, organic and natural skin care—so they should take all product claims with a grain of salt,” Dr. Jegasothy goes on to say.

What, if Any, “Natural” Beauty Items Should I Recommend to My Patients?

While “clean” beauty products in general should be approached with reasonable expectations and, perhaps, a dose of skepticism, there are some very reputable brands and products that you can recommend with confidence to patients interested in a more “natural” approach.

Stand out brands like SkinfixEminence Organics and Kypris offer professional-quality products that deliver high-performance results. Eminence Organics and Kypris are crafted with sustainably and BioDynamically® farmed ingredients. These brands feature plant-based “active” ingredients which have been thoroughly tested and have shown evidence of statistically-significant efficacy in addressing skin care concerns. Skinfix is the first “clean” and clinically active skin care brand. “Clean,” for Skinfix, means avoiding a lengthy and ever-evolving list of ingredients known to be toxic, controversial, irritating or are identified as skin allergens by the dermatology community.

Additionally, these companies have made both ethical and financial commitments to environmental causes, giving back to the regional ecosystems from which their ingredients come. Among other commitments, for every product sold, Eminence Organics plants a tree through their “Forests for the Future” program in support of developing communities around the world. As one leg of its commitment strategy, Kypris engages in fair-trade, fair life business practices with the small, ethical and sustainable farms with whom they partner around the globe and donates 1% of all profits to environmental-sustainability projects. Skinfix uses only reclaimed and recycled plastics and papers for their packaging as well as biodegradable and vegetable-based inks.

“Cruelty-free” beauty brands like jane iredale and Glo Skin Beauty are also excellent options as their products have been extensively tested for safety, efficacy, stability and performance, in addition to being dermatologist- and allergy-tested. These self-identified “clean” brands both have roots in makeup and see cosmetics as an extension of skin care, thus offering a holistic, end-to-end approach for those interested in an entirely “clean” facial care regimen.

Skin care and cosmetic products tend to take the “natural” spotlight, but there are also some nutraceuticals that take the same approach. Nutrafol, for example, takes a wholesome, scientific approach to hair growth by offering ingestible supplements to balance internal systems. The staff, doctors and scientific advisors at Nutrafol have committed to 100% drug-free hair-growth solutions.

The battle rounds of “clean beauty” are far from over, but as we wait for the FDA to take action, physicians should be familiar with the conversation and able to offer at least nominal guidance to curious and questioning patients.  After all, we are the skin care experts!

What “clean” and “natural” beauty trends have you taken notice of? Let us know in the comments below!

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