The Making of Clean Beauty: How is Skin Care Regulated?
Posted by Nikki Wisher on Apr 16th 2021
You’ve probably heard the term “clean beauty” before, but in a nutshell, it refers to personal care products that don’t put your health at risk. When you hear that definition, your first thought is probably, “Why is that an exception? Shouldn’t all cosmetic products be safe?”
Apparently, not all care product manufacturers agree. Over the years, companies have added a few chemicals here and a few there to change the consistency, scent, or shelf life of their products. Some of those additions have turned out to have serious consequences.
The general assumption is that governments regulate skin care and other cosmetic products to keep us safe, so let’s put that assumption to the test. How much regulation is there really in skin care?
What Regulations Are There to Make Sure Skin Care Products Are Safe?
Because regulations on care products are generally put in place by governments, your regulations will depend on where you live. The US is particularly notorious for having minimal regulations for cosmetic products.
It surprises many people to learn that the FDA doesn’t have an approval process for cosmetics because they haven’t been given that authority. They can only tell manufacturers that their products “must be safe” although they don’t have any type of required testing to find out in advance if it is safe. It’s the equivalent of, “Now, Billy, I’m going to leave this open flame and this gasoline here and walk away but you better be good because otherwise, golly gee, I’ll be very mad.”
The only real limitation before products hit the shelves is that they can’t contain the ingredients that the US has banned for being known to be harmful. That’s a step in the right direction, but there are only 11 ingredients on that list. By comparison, the EU has banned over 1300 chemicals and Canada has banned hundreds as well.
Other than blocking those few chemicals, the US takes a reactionary approach. If and when a product is found to be harmful, they hold the company liable. Until then, though, there’s nothing to prevent that harm in the first place.
Why Are Some Skin Care Chemicals Dangerous?
A common question about clean skin care is, “How are chemicals in skin care products dangerous if we aren’t ingesting them?” The truth is that those chemicals are still getting into your body because they’re being absorbed through your skin.
The specific health risks that come from skin care chemicals will vary from one ingredient to another. In many cases, though, these chemicals we’re talking about are either known or likely carcinogens, meaning that they can cause cancer.
Another common problem is hormone disruption. Some ingredients like parabens are known to affect your body’s production and regulation of various hormones, ultimately throwing off your hormonal balance. Because your hormones control so many aspects of your body and your health, the effects of hormone disruption are nearly infinite.
How Can I Make My Skin Care Routine Safer?
There it is, we’ve ripped off the bandage, and the fact is out there: you can’t assume that a cosmetic product is safe just because it’s being legally sold. That leaves one person who can safeguard your health: you.
The good news is that as more and more people are finding out about these issues, more information is spreading about ways to identify safe, clean beauty products. Start with these top tips.
Go for Fragrance-Free Products
Most people with sensitive skin opt for fragrance-free products anyway, from cleansers to fragrance-free eye creams, because fragrances are among the most common and harshest skin irritators.
Here’s the really scary thing about fragrances, though: the US regards products’ fragrance formulas as “trade secrets,” meaning that they don’t have to disclose what’s in their fragrances. There could be any number of risky ingredients in there that you have no way of knowing about, so it’s best to keep that door closed altogether.
Remember all that talk about hormone disruption? Parabens are a major culprit. To stay safe, opt for paraben-free products in every part of your skin care routine, including paraben-free sunscreen. If you don’t see “paraben-free” on the label, check the ingredients list. If you see any words that end in “paraben,” like “methylparaben,” put it back and walk away.
Phthalates are ingredients that are known as plasticizers. This means that they affect the consistency of the product and, primarily, help the product stick to your skin. That’s why they’re often found in nail products and certain types of face masks.
The issue, though, is that phthalates can be serious endocrine disruptors, causing the same issues as parabens. To avoid them, look for “DBP,” “DEHP,” and “DEP” on the label as these are the typical abbreviations for phthalates. Or, make it easy on yourself and use products that are already labeled as phthalate-free, like a phthalate-free scar reduction treatment.
Steer Clear of (SLS) and (SLES)
Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is found in the vast majority of personal care products like toothpastes and shampoos because helps products to foam or lather up. SLS can be harsh on your skin, though, so most people with sensitive skin avoid it.
For that reason, some skin care manufacturers started putting SLS through a process to make it less harsh on skin, and this converted it to SLES: sodium laureth sulfate. In the process, though, this conversion actually creates a byproduct called 1,4-dioxane, which is classified as a likely carcinogen.
To avoid those risks, look for SLES on the label or shop for sulfate-free products like a sulfate-free foaming exfoliant.
Standing Up for Your Health with Clean Skin Care
The clean skin care movement is one that has decided to step up and empower people to protect their own health, and as anyone who uses clean skin care can attest, it doesn’t mean your products are any less effective. It all starts with learning about the top troublemakers and finding ways to shop smart.