Tess Greenberg
9 min readDec 10, 2018
Photo by Joe Robles

Sitting on her hotel room floor, beauty YouTuber Amber Andrews sat comfortably, wearing a plain black sweater and a stark white scrunchie, holding together her blond hair in a loose bun on the top of her head. Her camera was set up directly in front of her, as she greets her viewers with a warning that this video might not ever be posted on her channel. She then holds up a pink First Response pregnancy test with her perfectly manicured nails painted with white polish, and a cup of urine in the other — clueing her viewers into the fact that this might be a little different than her usual makeup tutorials. The details of her symptoms — bloating and tender nipples — leave little to the imagination of her five thousand subscribers. She reaches for the test and lets out a heartstopping gasp that cuts through the speakers. Her face turns the color of a stop sign and she begins to repeatedly whisper to herself, “Oh My God,” while holding up the test that has two perfect pink lines peeking through the window.

Now, it wasn’t just about her health anymore.

Prior to this news, Andrews had been somewhat exposed to the idea of eliminating any chemicals that might seem toxic from her beauty routine. Now, more than ever, would she become conscious of the ingredients in her products. “I started thinking about what was being absorbed into my skin every day and had to make a change.” Andrews has become aware of the safety of her products not just for her own health, but for the health of her baby.

She is not alone. The clean beauty movement has become something that we are beginning to hear more and more about in the mainstream media, whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial Goop products or Jessica Alba’s face oil made out of apricot oil. Last year, products labeled “natural” generated $1.3 billion in annual sales — and that number is continuing to grow each year. But the word “clean” is not a defined scientific term. Products that are non-toxic and free of potentially harmful chemicals are marketed as “clean.” None of the ingredients are synthetic or artificially manufactured in a lab and tested on animals. The formulas are mostly made up of botanical oils, which are oils extracted from plants using heat, in place of the “toxic” ingredients. Cosmetic brands are simultaneously changing their formulas and packaging to keep up with the demand. Now, only about 35% of beauty products contain parabens, a preservative commonly used in cosmetics that many believe is linked to breast cancer, although this has ever been concretely proven. The persuasive marketing and labels that read “all-natural and vegan” with photos of beads of water falling off of vibrant, green plant leaves, have made words like parabens, fragrance, and petroleum equivalent to beauty curse words.

This switch to consumers crowding the clean aisle comes not only from the alleged link between these chemicals and long-term negative health effects, but also that the cosmetics industry is mostly a self-regulated industry. The only regulations mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA are that products have to be safety tested, have an appropriate label, and cannot make any drug claims, according to cosmetic consultant and member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, Dr. Mindy Goldstein, Ph.D. But for the consumer, that isn’t very reassuring. Clean beauty bloggers, brands, and media coverage have scared consumers into believing claims that in reality are not necessarily scientifically proven.

Clean beauty addicts have taken it a step further, by taking the time to look into the “safety” of the ingredients in every single one of their cosmetics through the use of apps like Think Dirty, which allows you to search for and scan your products to test the cleanliness of the ingredients. The app then lists out all of the ingredients in the product and color codes them based on their standard of safety, matching them with a number rating on a scale of 1–10. They claim that anything above a 4 may have potential moderate to serious negative long-term health effects. They say the ratings are determined by publicly available data as well as evaluations by experts in fields of chemistry, biology, the FDA, and more. The issue is, negative health effects could mean a whole plethora of things. Does “harmful” mean adult acne, or cancer? The range is huge. Apps like this can cause users to become obsessive and feel like everything they are putting onto their skin will lead to something dangerous. So, more and more people are going shopping in hopes of finding a clean alternative.

Clean beauty brands have been popping up by the dozens, with Sephora even jumping on the bandwagon by stamping non-toxic products with their “Clean by Sephora” logo, which is, of course, a green circle with a leaf. One of these brands is lilah b., founded by Cheryl Foland. Prior to her entrepreneurial leap, Foland worked with brands like Urban Decay and Too Faced to improve their sampling strategies, but she was living a life with no balance. She wore layers and layers of makeup, was constantly changing and fussing with her brunette locks, and was always itching to keep up with the newest designer handbags. She had a high strung demeanor and was overworking herself to no end. When the opportunity to relocate to the chill, meditation obsessed, juice-loving West coast, she went for it. No longer was it about that next pair of Louboutins, but about walking out the door in jeans, a T-shirt and maybe, just maybe, a dab of lipstick. This is exactly the vibe of lilah b.; a minimalistic, throw it on and walk out the door type of beauty line. “The philosophy of the brand is very much an extension of my newfound philosophy. Our tagline is ‘with less you are more.’” Every product is packaged in a sleek, white stone shaped container that can fit right in the palm of your hand or in a small purse. The ingredient list hits all of the buzzwords for a clean beauty fanatic; paraben-free, vegan, fragrance-free and more. So when shoppers are browsing through Sephora searching for a clean option, this is definitely something they would gravitate towards. Other popular brands that have similar stories and values include Kosas, Au Naturale, Kjaer Weis, among others. Director of Marketing for Kosas, Beth Risley, says that clean is in the DNA of their brand. But, when marketing to consumers, they try to stay away from fear mongering.

It seems to be the trend with many of the clean beauty brands that they are marketed by their ability to have the same level of performance as a generic product, but also they are serving the “natural” woman who cares about her health and future, and less about a full coverage, glam look.

But people like Kyeisha Washington, the founder of Clean Beauty Artists, say otherwise. “Clean beauty has come a long way,” she says. “It used to be such a struggle to find a full coverage foundation or a pigmented lipstick, but now it is totally doable to do a glamorous and glittery look on a client.”

Washington only started her business in 2017 and says the amount of clean and natural products that are high performing have increased dramatically. She has clients come to her who are looking to use only clean products but also want to achieve a Scarlett Johansson at the Oscars look, and they are able to give her exactly what she wants.

It is evident that this billion dollar industry is continuing to grow, formulas are improving, and consumers are loving every second of it, but it all comes down to one small factor that is often forgotten when it comes to cosmetics. Science. People can believe all they want that they are going to live until they are one hundred years old as long as they eliminate parabens from their life, but cosmetic chemists are not quite convinced.

Dr. Goldstein says that in her professional opinion, the clean beauty movement started with something called the Environmental Working Group, an activist group that specializes in agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants and corporate accountability. She says that the EWG takes science that is not proven and uses it as a scare tactic towards the consumer. “They point out bad things when they’re not really bad,” says Dr. Goldstein. Their website says that parabens are one of the most unsafe ingredients to have in your cosmetics, and that has fueled the clean beauty movement, but Dr. Goldstein says that in reality, there is nothing wrong with parabens, and this is a statement not only supported by her, but other cosmetic chemists in the industry.

Dr. David Steinberg, a cosmetic chemist and consultant at Steinberg and Associates, has been an industry expert for over 30 years. Dr. Steinberg feels strongly that clean and natural beauty is a hoax. “Parabens are the safest preservatives that we’ve ever used in cosmetics and we’ve never had issues with them.” He attributes the fear of parabens to a paper that was published in Europe that linked them to breast cancer, but he says that no one pays attention to the fact that the statements were not only retracted, but another paper was published saying that they were wrong.

Even then, Dr. Goldstein says that she has seen a shift in that many more clients are coming to her looking to make their products clean. “Plants have poisons too. What people don’t always understand is that if it’s natural, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you.” She says that the oils have to be properly picked and purified and they can be good, but there is still always room for reactions.” There are common reactions to things like peanut oils or coconut oils, so no matter how much a product is tested and deemed “natural,” there is no guarantee that no one will react to it.

Photo by Sarah Comeau on Unsplash

A major part of clean beauty is that none of it is animal tested, which is very appealing to beauty lovers who are also animals lovers. But Dr. Goldstein says that although it is a very touchy and highly protested subject, the alternative testing strategy doesn’t give the whole story of the product. Clean beauty is tested using two methods. There is something called in vitro testing, which is the testing of a product on Vitro skin, which is 3-dimensional skin that has been grown in the lab. There is also ex vivo testing that is the use of skin that has been freshly removed from a human, usually from reduction surgeries. Both of these are alternatives to the use of animals for testing and allow for the stamp of approval from Leaping Bunny, an organization that gives out the official standard for cruelty-free.

The problem here is that there will never be a definitive conclusion about what the real truth is about the clean beauty craze. Its impact on society has shifted many people to think about living healthy lifestyles, and if that leads to eating better, exercising and taking care of themselves, then clean beauty might be the best thing to happen to our society. But one step at a time. It might take a while before the entire beauty industry is taken over by Gwyneth and her goopy-ness, but that is definitely the direction it is moving in.

14 weeks into her pregnancy, Andrews has fully transformed her life into a clean one. Free of parabens, fragrance, and sulfates. It’s all gone, cold turkey. But don’t get it twisted…There is still one thing that she will never give up. “I do still get my nails done because I want to, and chose to do that even while pregnant. So, everything in a little moderation… right?”