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The “natural” beauty industry is on the rise because we’re scared of chemicals

Customer mistrust is so bad now that even huge beauty companies want more regulatory oversight.

When Gwyneth Paltrow launched Goop by Juice Beauty in 2016, she told Vogue how vital it was that her line of beauty products including a face cleanser, eye cream, and moisturizer — was all-natural. “The idea that you’re exercising and trying to eat well and then slathering yourself with chemicals, parabens, and silicones — it’s not great.” A few months later, she went on The Tonight Show to promote the line. She and host Jimmy Fallon dipped McDonald’s french fries into a pot of her moisturizer and ate it, presumably to show how pure it was.

Paltrow often peddles questionable science and theories. But she’s far from alone in her skepticism toward conventional makeup and skin care. Over the past few years, a parallel beauty industry has exploded alongside the traditional one. “Natural” beauty; “clean” beauty. Many new brands and retailers are basically saying, “Your regular beauty products contain all sorts of dangerous stuff. Use these safer ones instead.” It’s a complicated claim and pretty hard to prove conclusively, but it’s a message that has caused radical upheaval in the cosmetics industry.

These companies are responding to legitimate concerns about certain chemicals, like BPA and phthalates. Then there have been some high-profile lawsuits like the Johnson & Johnson ovarian cancer talc cases, in which juries have awarded multimillion-dollar settlements to people who claimed using baby powder for years caused their cancer. Then the hair care company Wen settled a $26 million class-action case because one of its products was allegedly making people’s hair fall out. Consumers have become afraid of chemicals and started looking for products they think would be “natural” or “safer.”

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Fallon eat some Goop moisturizer on The Tonight Show in 2016.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The backlash against traditional beauty companies — and the rise of “clean” ones — might have been inevitable. As scary-sounding reports about ingredients made the rounds over the years, consumers demanded answers. But cosmetics regulation laws in this country haven’t been meaningfully updated since 1938. The Food and Drug Administration, contrary to what some people assume, only has minimal oversight of the beauty industry. For the most part, beauty companies regulate themselves.

But now cosmetics industry regulatory legislation that languished for years is closer than ever to becoming law. And the traditional big beauty conglomerates are scared enough of the clean beauty backlash that even they are actively seeking more oversight. It’s going to fundamentally change how brands talk about beauty and how we as consumers shop for it.

Shopping for “safe” cosmetics

Natural products used to be sold primarily in health food stores and farmers markets with labels decorated with pictures of leaves. It was a very specific niche and not taken seriously by the beauty industry. But now sleek new brands positioning themselves as “cleaner” alternatives to the mainstream are exploding.

Daniela Ciocan — the marketing director at Cosmoprof North America, an entity that hosts a large expo where brands can display their wares in hopes of landing retail placement — says that thanks to retailer and customer demand, this year the organization doubled the amount of space it dedicated to new “clean” brands at the 2017 convention.

In the past 12 months, so-called natural brands like Tata Harper and Jessica Alba’s Honest Company products have made up about a quarter of all higher-end skin care sales, according to the NPD Group. The category is growing at a faster rate than last year.

“We’re absolutely inundated,” says Annie Jackson, a co-founder of Credo, which was dubbed the “Sephora of clean beauty” when it launched in 2015. It currently has eight stores in the US and a robust online business, where it sells about 115 brands. Credo receives about 200 new products a month from brands hoping to sell there.

And it has a competitor. Follain, which opened before Credo in 2013 as a local shop in Boston, is growing rapidly. It currently has five stores, will open two more in October and expects to have 10 by the end of 2019. Its growth rate is up more than 200 percent in 2018.

In the meantime, customer demand means mainstream companies and retailers are giving more lip service to the concept of clean beauty. In 2017, Target bumped up its natural beauty offerings. CVS announced it was removing parabens and other ingredients from 600 of its house-branded products by the end of 2019. Brands regularly remove parabens and sulfates and the like, sometimes quietly and sometimes with great fanfare.

Sephora launched its “Clean at Sephora” initiative in May, citing in-house research that revealed that 54 percent of its skin care shoppers think it’s important that their products “have a point of view on clean” and looking to shop brands that are “grounded in a ‘free of’ ingredient perspective,” according to Cindy Deily, the senior director of skin care merchandising at Sephora, though she did not say free of what. Sephora received some criticism that its clean standards weren’t as rigorous as they could be, but Deily says the “no” list is still evolving.

And it’s not just retailers. Traditional companies are more transparent than ever, at least superficially. In February, Unilever announced it was voluntarily disclosing the fragrance ingredients in its beauty and personal care brands like Dove, Axe, and Suave. Johnson & Johnson is doing the same for its baby care products.

Clean, green, and everything in between

Because of the lack of regulation in the industry, all these new products have caused some confusion among consumers. The terms “clean” and “natural” are often used interchangeably and are the most common; you’ll also see “safe,” “green,” and “nontoxic.” Walk into Sephora and you’ll be confronted with signage that designates those products “Clean by Sephora.” Walk into Nordstrom and you have to ask where the natural products are. (For clarity, I’ll refer to this trend as “clean” from now on.)

But because the terminology isn’t regulated by an agency or governing body like the Federal Trade Commission or the FDA, they’re all essentially meaningless words when they appear on cosmetics and personal care products. Natural usually tends to mean it contains plant-based ingredients, though there’s a push by some new brands to move away from the word natural because there are many safe synthetic ingredients. But it’s still a free-for-all. Usually clean products are notable for the ingredients they are free of: parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and more.

The designation “organic” as it relates to cosmetics is even more confusing. The US Department of Agriculture, the organization that regulates food, has rules about what kinds of products can be labeled as organic; in beauty, it’s dependent on what percentage of USDA standard organic ingredients are in the product. But ultimately, being organic doesn’t make an ingredient better or safer, as the FDA notes.

So any company can call a product “natural” or “clean” and define that term any way it wants. And companies don’t hesitate to slap on that label, because shoppers respond to it. A 2018 survey by students in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s graduate school of cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management found that “90% of consumers believed that natural or naturally-derived beauty ingredients were better for them.” Of course, a lot of natural things can be bad for you. Poison ivy. Cyanide in apple seeds. Some essential oils.

But it’s led to a misconception among some consumers that chemicals equal danger. “I can’t tell you how many times I see a product that says ‘free of chemicals,’” says Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist of 15 years. “It’s ridiculous because water is a chemical.”

How consumers became afraid of their beauty products in the first place

Certain ingredients have garnered headlines throughout the past 10 years, bringing cosmetic safety to the forefront. In 2010, large amounts of chemicals that turned into formaldehyde gas when heated were found in a popular hair straightening treatment from the brand Brazilian Blowout. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration called it a hazard for salon workers and potentially for customers. In 2012, the FDA discovered that 400 types of lipsticks contained tiny amounts of lead; the effects on humans are unknown.

In 2014, following consumer outcry, Johnson & Johnson removed a type of preservative from its baby shampoo that releases very small amounts of formaldehyde into the air. In 2017, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology issued an opinion stating that women of color were disproportionately exposed to problematic ingredients in beauty products, partially because of the societal pressure on them to use hair relaxers and skin lightening products.

Clean beauty proponents often cite the statistic that the European Union has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from being used in beauty products while the US has only banned about 30. And this is true. The clean beauty market is made up of brands that have voluntarily cut these chemicals from their products. As Sephora said, shoppers want things to be “free of” ... things.

Like parabens, for example. Parabens make up a category of preservatives that have been widely used in cosmetics for decades. Any water-based product, which includes everything from shampoo to lotions, needs to contain a preservative to prevent the product from growing bacteria and fungus while it’s sitting in your medicine cabinet. But “paraben-free” is the most frequent claim you’ll see on beauty products these days.

Parabens are known to weakly mimic estrogen in certain situations (mainly discovered through lab animal and cell studies), which gained them the description “endocrine disruptor.” In 2004, the Journal of Applied Toxicology published a study in which researchers found parabens in breast cancer tissue. It’s important to clarify that they did not test the women’s healthy tissue, and they did not suggest that the parabens caused the breast cancer. But this study was the first to the chemical some notoriety among consumer watchdog groups.

In 2014, the EU banned some parabens; this is really when the outrage against them peaked in the US. But the fact that Europe did not ban some of the most commonly used parabens was widely overlooked. The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety wrote:

The group of chemicals known as parabens make up an important part of the preservatives which could be used in cosmetics. In addition to Propylparaben and Butylparaben, other parabens, like Methylparaben and Ethylparaben, are safe, as repeatedly confirmed by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). They are also some of the most efficient preservatives.

Large organizations like the American Cancer Society put out statements that the data about parabens’ harm to humans was limited, writing: “There are also many other compounds in the environment that mimic naturally produced estrogen.”

Parabens may well be terrible for us, but for now the long-term effects of parabens on humans are simply unknown — there is no conclusive data that they hurt us. But the seeds of doubt were planted, consumers balked, and companies started removing them, thus reinforcing the belief that parabens must be bad. You’ll find them in very few products these days.

But how afraid should you actually be? In toxicology, the study of chemicals and their effect on living things, the mantra is “the dose makes the poison.”

“If you give enough of any chemical, it will produce harm,” says Dr. Curtis Klaassen, a toxicologist who edited the textbook Casarett & Doull’s Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons. He also evaluates chemical data as an independent scientist for the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a regulatory council created by an industry trade group. (The CIR is itself controversial, as you’ll see.)

Take formaldehyde, which has been labeled a human carcinogen. “It was discovered about 25 years ago that it is a carcinogen when they exposed rats and mice to very high concentrations in the air,” says Klaassen. “But it turns out that you and I make formaldehyde [in our bodies]. Its likelihood of causing cancer in humans at the dose that you’re exposed to from washing your hair is essentially zero.”

Better safe than sorry

We will likely never conclusively know the effects of years of daily use of these chemicals. It’s impossible to study in a controlled way, and the sheer number of ingredients we use on a daily basis makes it difficult to ever pinpoint a toxic smoking gun. But some argue that’s the whole point.

“What we’re most concerned about is the overall [chemical] body burden,” says Nneka Leiba, the director of the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Science program. “Companies hear our position on that and sometimes they agree and sometimes they don’t.”

Some watchdog groups have become powerful in challenging the mainstream beauty establishment on this issue; the EWG, established 25 years ago as a nonprofit to look at pesticides and food, is arguably the most powerful one. But since then, it’s expanded to larger environmental and human health initiatives, including cosmetics. In 2004, the same year the breast cancer paraben study was released, the group published its first Skin Deep cosmetics database.

The EWG’s database contains more than 73,000 products and ingredients, giving them a rating for their potential hazards based on a complicated set of data and methodology. Leiba says a staff of 12, including toxicologists, chemists, and public health specialists, review the data on ingredients and update it regularly. “We speak to external scientists and industry scientists and see where we differ from them,” Leiba says. “Most of the times we realize we are erring on the side of precaution.”

The Skin Deep database has become a go-to resource for consumers, a go-to reference for the media — especially for its popular annual sunscreen guide — and a pain point for many brands. But it’s been criticized for perceived fearmongering along the way by some cosmetic chemists and others, as well as for rating inconsistently and giving ratings when there is limited data available.

“I agree with a great deal of what they do. We have a lot of carcinogenic materials. The vast majority of the problem is the chemicals that are being used both for cosmetics and for household cleaners are made using some really environmentally destructive methods,” says Gay Timmons, owner of Oh, Oh Organic, a company that provides organic cosmetic ingredients to companies like Aveda. Still, Timmons says, “EWG has had a big role in frightening consumers. That’s really very much the tack they have taken, for good or for bad.”

Leiba does not agree with that characterization of the EWG, saying they just want customers to understand they have options: “We are staunch in the fact that we’re not fearmongering. We’re educating. We’re not saying, ‘Don’t get this, don’t get that.’ We take a precautionary approach. That’s the same approach the European Union takes when it’s regulating chemicals.”

The US beauty industry regulates itself

Part of the reason we’re in this confusing mess is that the FDA is not empowered by law to actually regulate the beauty industry. Based on the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the only ingredients it can approve before they hit the market are color additives. (It also regulates ingredients like those in sunscreens and acne medications like benzoyl peroxide because they’re considered drugs.)

It can’t order product recalls, but it can request them. If it thinks a product is contaminated or misbranded, it can work with other agencies to take legal action and does conduct occasional testing, as in the lead lipstick situation, if it has safety concerns. Ingredient safety is the biggest point of contention, though, because companies are expected to determine that on their own — which is kind of a joke because, per the FDA website, it doesn’t require companies to demonstrate safety or even share information.

The Personal Care Products Council, the beauty industry’s biggest trade group, formed the Cosmetics Ingredient Review 40 years ago. The CIR reviews data and studies on about 300 to 500 ingredients per year and offers judgment about their safety.

Each CIR panel member must pass a conflict of interest analysis, and a representative from the FDA and a consumer advocate group called the Consumer Federation of America sit in on meetings. The reports are finalized, peer-reviewed, and then published in the International Journal of Toxicology. (Parabens, last reviewed in 1984, are currently undergoing review again at the CIR.)

But because the PCPC, whose members include some of the biggest beauty conglomerates in the country, funds the CIR, its conclusions just aren’t trusted the way they would be if it were a truly objective organization. Ironically, it’s been accused of the same thing the EWG has — passing judgment on ingredients where there is limited data. And it should be noted that the EWG partially relies on data from and refers to the CIR in its own rating system.

Big beauty actually wants to be regulated

The big companies that are being forced to reformulate products because of consumer demand or that are losing sales to more nimble “clean” indie brands seem to be at their wits’ end. In the beauty and lifestyle media, ingredients are regularly referred to as “toxic” while clean brands are called “nontoxic.”

According to a report on the industry site Cosmetics Design, the PCPC all but begged beauty editors to talk more about science at the organization’s last annual meeting. “The misinformation that’s out there drives the scientific side of me crazy,” the PCPC’s chief scientist told the room. (Vox reached out to the PCPC repeatedly, and a representative responded several times that the organization would provide comment. It has not as of publication time.)

And now they’re asking the FDA for oversight too. “Consumers are very confused and the beauty industry and brands are very frustrated. This is something that cannot be solved by industry. Industry has tried and has lobbied the federal government constantly over the years for more funding to the FDA,” says professor Stephan Kanlian, who is the chair of FIT’s master’s program in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management.

Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, agrees. “Big companies have been working with us to give FDA more authority because consumers don’t trust the regulatory programs like CIR.” He compares it to the situation last year, when, as Politico reported, some large food companies like Nestle and Campbell Soup Co. left their grocery trade lobbying organization because its policies weren’t perceived to be in step with what consumers wanted.

New cosmetics regulation

So we may finally be closer to stronger regulation. There are several pieces of legislation pending now. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) submitted a discussion draft for a House bill to regulate cosmetics in 2016. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the FDA Cosmetic Safety and Modernization Act at the end of 2017, which the PCPC publicly supported at the time, though it’s unclear if it still does.

But the most prominent proposal is the Personal Care Products Safety Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). It’s been around in various forms since 2015. Basically, it gives the FDA the same power over cosmetics that it has over drugs and medical devices. The FDA could inspect safety records and mandate recalls. The bill also requires the FDA to review safety data on at least five ingredients per year. Companies will be charged a fee on a sliding scale depending on size to help fund the FDA so it can fulfill its new responsibilities.

Kourtney Kardashian appears at a cosmetics reform briefing in Washington, DC, in April 2018.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

The EWG has been devoting resources to draw attention and publicity to the bill, including even bringing Kourtney Kardashian (who, unlike two of her sisters, does not have a makeup line) to Washington, DC, for a briefing at the Capitol.

Beautycounter, a multilevel marketing beauty company that has banned 1,100 ingredients in its products and has been a visible and vocal voice in the clean beauty movement, has also supported the bill publicly. The company has a team dedicated to advocacy and it’s made multiple trips to Washington for hearings and meetings with lawmakers. Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s vice president of social and environmental responsibility, says “a Senate version of the bill is about 95 percent negotiated, which is no small feat.” But because of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and a focus on the November midterm elections, industry sources suspect the bill might be tabled until early 2019.

You can be excused for being skeptical about whether the current administration, which has shown itself to be decidedly anti-regulation, would support a bill regulating an industry that primarily affects women and their health. But it has bipartisan support, and the EWG’s Faber is hopeful.

“FDA has been a pleasant surprise. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and his team understand that it’s government’s job to keep us safe from dangerous products. Which is a departure from some of President Trump’s appointees,” says Faber. The FDA even just launched its first-ever survey of safety practices and manufacturing standards of cosmetic companies, indicating that it is gearing up for more oversight of the industry.

Looking forward

None of this legislation is perfect and all-encompassing, and there is still a lot of data missing on ingredient safety. Even “clean” beauty produts contain ingredients that have no data one way or the other on safety. Plus, it’s not clear how the FDA would or could provide guidance on labels like “natural” or “clean.” But it would be a win-win for both companies and consumers, at least superficially.

Big beauty companies would be relieved of some of the burden and bad press that has come with regulating itself. (In the cynical view, they would be able to counteract claims of toxic ingredients with the rebuttal, “But the FDA reviews us and says it’s fine.”) For shoppers, it could seem like there is an objective entity looking out for them.

There are some downsides to pulling ingredients out of products, though, especially if there aren’t good alternatives. The Honest Company has been plagued with recalls, lawsuits, and complaints through the years because of faulty products. It’s going through a bit of soul-searching and reorganization.

Then there’s the risk of ditching well-known preservatives like parabens. “I have actually seen more recalls for microbial contamination in the past few years than I’ve seen in all my years in the industry,” says Dobos, the cosmetic chemist. Just this month, Avalon Organics and Bath & Body Works issued recalls for microbial contamination in some of their products.

What’s important to remember is that in the meantime, clean brands and retailers are still trying to sell you things just like the traditional beauty companies are, even if some of them truly have public health top of mind. Marketing themselves as “clean” is an advantage in this market. Even the EWG utilizes Amazon affiliate links on its product pages, meaning if you click through to Amazon to purchase, the EWG gets a percentage of the sale. (It links to all products, regardless of their safety ranking, but the sunscreen page specifically invites you to “Shop with EWG on Amazon.”) It also sells a special certification label to companies allowing them to state their products are “EWG verified.”

“We are trying to make money,” says Beautycounter founder Gregg Renfrew. “We are doing well by our financial stakeholders while simultaneously creating significant social impact. The companies that are going to be successful in future will do both.”

In FIT’s report on industry transparency, the authors quoted an infectious diseases specialist reacting to the anti-vaccination movement in recent years. “It’s very easy to scare people; it’s very hard to unscare them,” he said.

People are scared of ingredients, and they have made that clear with their dollars. Eventually, the clean beauty industry is going to just become ... the beauty industry.

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