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Is there a dirty side to the clean skincare movement?

How are our natural beauty products being sourced sustainability?

12 Sep 2019

We’re becoming a nation of eco-warriors. The growing consensus is that natural, organic and green equals better. And, with A-listers like the Duchess of Sussex, Jessica Alba and Miranda Kerr among the movement’s high profile fans, it’s only set to gain momentum.

It makes sense. Around the globe, we’re catching on to the impact our lives (beauty routines included), are having on the planet. And, we’re taking it seriously, looking for eco alternatives that feel planet-friendly. 'Natural' beauty seems like the obvious answer, with its kind-to-nature connotations and sustainable association.

Beyond its eco credentials, clean beauty sounds like exactly the sort of minimalistic, back-to-basics approach that offers transparency and simplicity in a political and social climate that increasingly feels overwhelming. Clean beauty has emerged as an antidote to the murky global events hitting headlines daily. It’s easy to trivialise, but the choices we make around what we put in and on our body (factors that we have autonomy over, where elsewhere we’re bound by decisions beyond our control) can feel like small but defining acts.

Altogether, it's culminated in an environment where synthetic feels sinister and chemical seems unnecessarily abrasive. The 'clean', 'natural' beauty movement has amped up almost as a remedy to conventional skincare, and much of its positioning nowadays – it is natural and therefore clean – suggests that the alternatives, by default, must be dangerous.

“We absorb 60 to 80 percent of what we put on our skin,” Gwyneth Paltrow told Vogue while promoting her organic skincare line, Goop. “Slathering yourself with chemicals, parabens and silicones – it’s not great,” she said. Widely publicised cases, like the lawsuit around Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder (accused, though not yet proven, to be linked to causing ovarian cancer), and toxic traces of asbestos found in eyeshadow palettes at high street chain, Claire’s Accessories, aren’t helping to dispel our fears. It's culminated in growing sense of "chemophobia", which some natural skincare brands are only too happy to capitalise on.

But despite its ostensibly clean appearance, there remains unresolved problems that plague the natural beauty industry, making way for a dirtier side to emerge.

For starters, words like “natural”, “organic”, “clean” and “non-toxic” are not regulated. There’s still no legal definition or official standard in place around these terms that guarantee quality and protect consumers from fraudulent claims. “Natural skincare is a total mine field,” admits consultant dermatologist, Dr Anajali Mahto. “One of the problems is that natural means different things to different people.” For instance, it could mean that a product’s ingredients are sourced entirely from plants or that no synthetic ingredients are used, but it could also mean that “some” or “the majority” of ingredients come from nature. “This means that beauty products may be labelled ‘organic’ even if they only contain a very small percentage of organic ingredients,” explains Louise Green, head of organic at Neal’s Yard. Effectively, any brand can call itself “natural” or “organic” without having to meet a defined standard. “If customers want to be certain when buying organic or natural beauty products, then the key thing to look for is a recognised and trusted independent logo,” says Louise. Look for accreditation from third party organisations like The Soil Association, COSMOS and Ecocert.

Next lies the issue around efficacy. “There is a growing notion that natural products are better for you and safer for your skin but this is not necessarily true,” explains Dr Anjali. “Even natural ingredients may be harmful,” agrees Marcella Cacci, CEO and founder of One Ocean Beauty. Consider poison ivy, or nettles – they may be natural, but they’re hugely harmful to our skin. “Botanicals, herbs and essential oils can cause irritation and allergies and these are commonly documented in scientific literature,” warns Dr Anjali.

There’s also the question of quality control. “With herbal preparations you may not always be aware of a number of factors, which include growing conditions or health of the plant, selection of the right part of the plant, and extraction methods to name a few,” says Anjali. In comparison, synthetics, like preservatives (including parabens), are created under lab conditions. “Extensive research shows that parabens are not toxic to human cells – despite what others may claim – and are some of the safest preservatives in current day cosmetics” says Dr Anjali.

That’s not to say that all natural products lack the rigorous testing required to ensure they’re safe – for instance, all of REN’s products come complete with a safety report, while Liz Earle have an in-house ethnobotanist to seek out the safest and most skin-friendly ingredients and ensure the growth factors are measurable and consistent – it's simply to point out that chemical or synthetic ingredients needn’t be feared. “On its most fundamental level, everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical; we are a walking, talking mish-mash of chemicals, so why the fear?” asks Dr Anjali.

Last comes the issue of sustainability. Natural products rely on taking ingredients straight from the earth and this presents a problem if those resources aren’t then replaced. “The reality when using natural ingredients, is that sourcing them will always have some sort of environmental impact,” acknowledges James Wong, Liz Earles ethnobotanist, “particularly when these ingredients come from ecosystems such as the humid tropics or arid subtropics where the indigenous flora is already under threat”.

“Sourcing ingredients through conventional agriculture could put natural habitats under increased pressure, as it can create an economic incentive for local people to cut down wild spaces and convert them into farmland,” explains James. The devastating impact palm oil has already had – on deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and the displacement of indigenous people and animals – is only now being fully realised. Many have lost their homes and livelihoods due to the unsustainable plundering of natural habitats.

Likewise, we're starting to see the darker side of crystal mining – used to create the rollers, gua shas and powdered gem stones now popular in our skincare – and the exploitation of natural resources, underpaid labour and unsafe working conditions that often go into sourcing them. Ditto, the surge in marine ingredients (like algae and seaweed) making its way into our face creams, which has led to underwater ecosystems being ransacked.

“Recently, we had a customer question if we use ‘monkey labor’ in sourcing our coconuts. We thought this was a hoax but upon further investigation, we realised the use of trained monkeys in harvesting coconuts actually exists,” reveals Ericka Rodriguez, founder of natural skincare brand, Axiology. “We immediately called our partners and ensured they sent us a signed document stating this is not part of their processes”.

The problem for many brands is finding suppliers that they can trust to uphold their ethics. “We are dependent on information given from our trusted suppliers to ensure that the material supplied is sourced sustainably,” admits David Delport Global Ambassador at REN Clean Skincare. “We've had to switch suppliers numerous times after finding out they mixed palm oil into our ingredients,” reveals Ericka when asked about the challenges natural beauty companies come up against when sourcing ingredients sustainably. Now, several reputable companies like REN and One Ocean Beauty will only buy ingredients from suppliers with accreditation from the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation), who oversee good manufacturing processes, but there are still many natural brands who aren’t able trace their ingredients back to exactly where they came from and what went into sourcing them.

Of course, getting the supply chain wrong can be devastating, but getting it right can improve the futures not only of the natural habitats used to source ingredients, but also to the livelihoods of those who live there. It’s this that we need to be pushing our favourite natural brands to do by asking them questions and holding them accountable. “We train local people to ensure quality management, traceability and sustainable harvesting techniques,” says James. For instance, sprigs may be taken just from the base of a shrub, while the rest is left in tact to grow unharmed. “It means the plants, and their ecosystems are worth more to local people standing up than cut down, providing them with a material incentive to protect their amazing natural resources”. That way natural ingredients can be supplied whilst protecting local habitats and empowering local people.

And, if a product can’t be created sustainably? “In the past we have withdrawn products entirely from the market, even some of our bestsellers, if there was an issue with securing the right levels of the correct ingredient at the quality we need,” says James. It's a lesson to consumers. While we all want to be on top of the latest skincare trend, demand for new and emerging “wonder” ingredients can place an unreasonable burden on the habitats where they’re grown, and brands who bow to customer pressure are just adding to the problem.

Innovation will be part of the solution – already brands like Upcircle and BYBI are creating products out of waste from other industries. “Our Strawberry and Blueberry Boosters are made from 100% cold pressed strawberry and blueberry seed oil. They’re both by-products of the juicing industry and produced solely from seeds that would otherwise be thrown away,” explains BYBI co-founder Elsie Rutterford.

Meanwhile, One Ocean Beauty are merging natural ingredients with lab-led science to come up with an answer to increased demand for scarce resources. “We take single cells, obtained from living marine microorganisms through Blue Biotechnology and regrow them in the lab,” explains Marcella. “The marine environment is preserved as there is no harvesting or large-scale extraction from nature.” Is this natural? Sort of. But in order to be more sustainable, it means customers will need to get back on board with supplementing natural ingredients with synthetics.

In truth, there are so many ‘clean’ and natural brands doing amazing things. But equally, there are several who are prepared to piggy-back off the achievement of others, cashing in on the positive press established around natural beauty, without putting in the leg work or providing sound solutions for our skin. “While ‘clean beauty’ is not bad in itself, it creates and propagates a myth that ‘chemicals’ are bad and ‘clean’ is better or more virtuous,” says Dr Anjali.

Rather than focusing on "clean", we should be looking to the brands prepared to be transparent – the ones who are willing to shout about exactly how their products will help our skin and where, precisely, their ingredients come from, because they have no reason, whatsoever, to hide it.