Let me preface this by saying I’m a big fan of natural skin-care. Huge. (Here is some proof.) But I’m also a fan of facts — and when it comes to some of the alarmist claims in clean beauty brands’ marketing materials, facts can sometimes take a backseat to fear-mongering. Like this oft-cited stat: “Chemicals in skin-care products take just 26 seconds to absorb into your bloodstream.” (I recently read this on RMS Beauty‘s Instagram Stories, but it’s all over the internet, too.) Could that possibly be true? Wouldn’t my circulatory system be completely clogged with hyaluronic acid by now?
The answer actually isn’t that clear-cut. There are reputable sources that stand by the scary-sounding statistic (“Just look at nicotine and birth control patches,” they say), while other experts claim it’s categorically false. And if the professionals can’t agree, how are consumers supposed to separate fact from fiction?
Confusion is to be expected, to an extent. There aren’t many regulations in the beauty industry at all, especially around marketing language, so brands can kind of say whatever they want. “There are some consequences for companies who mislabel, but because the Food and Drug Administration has not defined terms like ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ for personal-care products, there aren’t regulatory actions taken against companies,” explains Lindsay Dahl, the SVP of Social Mission at Beautycounter. That explains how the phrase “free from chemicals” — a scientific impossibility, since all matter, including your own skin, is made up of chemicals — made its way into the marketing lexicon.
What’s more, science isn’t static. New information is constantly coming to light, casting shadows of doubt on long-held beliefs about beauty products. For example, mascara was made with aniline in the 1930s, a chemical eventually found to cause blindness; this discovery preempted the FDA’s second-most-recent update to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938. (Would 1937’s aniline critics be considered 2019’s “fear-mongers?” Probably. But they’d still be right.)
Even scientific research feels a little iffy when you consider the fact that controlled studies require a lot of financial backing; and those with the cash flow to support a 12-week study — the pharmaceutical industry and beauty conglomerates, for instance — aren’t looking to funnel funds into research that disproves the safety or efficacy of their star ingredients. Consumers are more likely to come across studies like this one, paid for by Olay, which concluded that the most effective skin-care product for eliminating wrinkles isn’t prescription tretinoin, but rather cosmetic moisturizer… from (surprise!) Olay.
While findings like that are all well and good for brands to feature in their own press materials, these industry-supported studies inform the decisions of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the panel that rules on the safety of cosmetic ingredients in the US, which happens to be “funded and staffed by the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group that spends roughly $2 million a year … lobbying Congress,” as The New York Times recently reported. The CIR’s not-exactly-impartial decisions — which are based solely on available data (like the aforementioned studies) and require no additional testing — later get touted as hard-and-fast fact.
It’s no wonder these murky waters have buoyed a collective case of “chemophobia,” the term used to describe consumers’ newfound fear of synthetic chemicals. As a result, alarmist marketing claims that capitalize on mounting concern are on the rise, too — although it should be noted this technique spans both sides of the spectrum, as evidenced by a viral video from No BS Skin Care that compares using natural products to “rubbing mold on your face.” (This, ironically, is BS.)
“Thankfully, many nonprofits have stepped in to help watchdog the industry,” says Dahl, nodding at the Environmental Working Group‘s efforts to clarify the risks and rewards of synthetic versus natural ingredients. “And increasingly, we have seen savvy consumers punish brands who misuse marketing terms.”
Said savvy consumers are now turning their attention toward tactics like fear-mongering and “greenwashing” (scaring the customer into buying clean and presenting a product as more natural than it actually is, respectively). Some call out brands that employ fear-inducing language on social media — RMS Beauty and Drunk Elephant are popular targets — as a way to advocate for the safety of modern medicine and man-made chemicals. Others believe that embellishing the truth about naturals only does a disservice to the larger clean beauty movement. (There are plenty of fact-based reasons to go natural, after all.)
One thing we can likely all agree on is that the industry could use a little clarity. Ahead, Fashionista consults leading dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to debunk — or confirm — some of the most alarmist natural beauty marketing claims that persist.
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The Claim: Chemical-Free Skin-Care Is Healthier
The Truth: Nope. That’s not even a thing, according to experts. “No, there are no ‘chemical-free’ products in the traditional sense of the word,” says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of the Beauty Brains. “Everything is a chemical, except stuff like electricity. Plants, animals, people, synthetic detergents… they are all made up of chemicals. Marketers use the term ‘chemical-free’ to mean a wide variety of things, such as paraben-free, sulfate-free or petrochemical-free. But all products are made up of chemicals. It’s a disingenuous, misleading claim.”
The Claim: Chemicals in Skin-Care Absorb Into the Bloodstream in 26 Seconds
The Truth: How topical products penetrate the skin and absorb into the circulatory system is hotly debated, but two stats show up over and over again on the sites and socials of clean beauty brands: Chemicals in skin-care products absorb into the bloodstream in 26 seconds (RMS Beauty), and 60 percent of chemicals in skin-care products eventually absorb into the bloodstream (Goop). Both are false… but they’re also not not true? It’s complicated.
“The skin is made up of three layers that work together to protect us against external harms, like toxic chemicals, bacteria, allergens and UV radiation,” explains Dr. Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine, the founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, and author of the upcoming book Keto Diet. “Some chemicals or substances are more easily penetrated than others, and not all solutions can break the skin barrier and reach the bloodstream.”
“The two main factors that will determine how much of an ingredient will absorb into the skin is the size of the molecule and its affinity for lipids,” says Dr. Aanand Geria, a dermatologist at Geria Dermatology. “Ingredients that absorb into the bloodstream must be very small and lipid-soluble, which is often the case for essential oils and medical patches. Most skin-care ingredients won’t make it to the bloodstream because they’re too big, not lipid-soluble or too low in concentration.”
While it’s almost impossible to know what percentage or how quickly chemicals end up in the bloodstream without individually studying this effect in every single ingredient ever, research has shown that certain cosmetic substances, like BPAs and lead, end up in the cord blood of newborn babies — suggesting that at least some chemicals absorb into the body. Just not 60 percent of them, and not in 26 seconds flat.
The Claim: Silicones Are Bad for Skin and Clog Pores
The Truth: Silicone-free brands like Kora Organics and Eminence Organics often vilify silicones, claiming these substances can suffocate the skin and lead to acne. But according to experts, this isn’t necessarily the case. “The term ‘silicone’ refers to a wide variety of chemicals with different properties,” says Romanowski. “Some are water-soluble, like dimethicone copolyol. Some evaporate off the skin quickly, like cyclomethicone. Others can provide an occlusive effect, like dimethicone — and while dimethicone can provide occlusion and even coat the pores, there is no evidence that it clogs the pores or leads to any formation of acne.”
That’s not to say these ingredients are entirely unproblematic. “Silicones are damaging to the environment in the long run, but not necessarily damaging to our bodies,” says Greg Altman, PhD, the founder of chemistry company Evolved by Nature. “Silicone products cannot penetrate the skin. The major issue with silicone is that it’s going to wash off down the drain and contribute to accumulation of sludge in the ocean and our waterways.” That’s because silicones are polymers, aka plastics. So choosing to avoid them isn’t the worst decision.
The Claim: Without Preservatives, Skin-Care Starts to Mold
The Truth: No, you’re not (definitely) rubbing mold on your face when you opt for preservative-free products. “If an oil-based product doesn’t contain water, then a preservative is not needed in most circumstances,” Dr. Geria clarifies. “Some oils even have inherent antibacterial and antifungal properties, such as lemongrass, eucalyptus, peppermint and orange oils.” Water-based products, on the other hand, can grow bacteria and mold — but they require the inclusion of a preservative by law anyway, so it’s unlikely that you’ll ever run into an issue here. Fear-mongering, indeed.
The Claim: Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Skin Care May Mess With Hormones
The Truth: This one, unfortunately, is true. “Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemical molecules that can mimic the shape, structure and function of natural hormone molecules,” Dr. Altman says. “With these molecules in our skin-care, we are dosing ourselves with lookalike hormone molecules. In biology, sometimes even a very low dose is what kicks off a biological cascade. BPA and phthalates are great examples.” The EWG’s Dirty Dozen list details known endocrine disruptors that are found in beauty products; but — and this is an important “but”! — since it’’s not just man-made chemicals that can mess with hormones in this way, even natural beauty buffs aren’t safe. There’s evidence that lavender essential oil and soy proteins may be endocrine disruptors, according to Romanowski and Dr. Geria; these ingredients can reportedly interfere with development and fertility and even lead to cancer.
The Claim: Essential Oils Cause Breakouts and Irritation
The Truth: Drunk Elephant famously includes essential oils in its “Suspicious Six,” a list of ingredients the brand believes to be at “the root of all skin issues.” DE claims that EOs specifically cause “breakouts, irritation, inflammation and collagen breakdown” — and it isn’t exactly in the wrong here. “Many people are allergic to chemicals found in essential oils, but many people can also use essential oils without a problem — it depends on the essential oil,” says Romanowski. “The main reason is that essential oils come from plants. Plants have evolved defense mechanisms to either attract pollinating insects or kill off organisms that might harm it. There are lots of chemicals that plants have created that are terrible for our skin.”
“There are over 150 essential oils and more are being discovered every year,” Dr. Geria adds. “Because it’s such a huge category, we can’t classify them as all good or bad. As essential oils are studied more, I expect that more beneficial and harmful effects will be discovered.”
The Claim: The Term “Fragrance” on Ingredient Labels Can Hide Dozens of Toxic Chemicals
The Truth: The FDA requires beauty brands to list every ingredient inside a particular product on its box or label — but “fragrance,” being proprietary, does fall through a loophole in that law. “The problem with ‘fragrance’ is that it’s a convenient label to hide behind to avoid disclosing everything in the product,” Dr. Altman says. “There could be volatile solvents, molecule stabilizers and other small-size molecules that can easily penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, which is why the industry has pushed for fuller disclosure. The word fragrance on an ingredient list could represent dozens of undisclosed chemicals.”
But Romanowski maintains that the most commonly used fragrance chemicals — amyl cinnamal, amylcinnamyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, benzyl salicylate citral and cinnamal — don’t pose much of a health risk. “Most people are not allergic to these ingredients and will be perfectly fine if they use fragrance with them in it,” he says.
The Claim: Formaldehyde Is Hiding in Skin-Care Products, Causing Cancer and Killing Skin Cells
The Truth: Here are a bunch of facts: This study of FDA data shows that formaldehyde and formaldehyde “releasers” (aka chemicals that break down into formaldehyde) are in roughly one-fifth (!) of all cosmetic products in the US. The CIR recommends that brands use no more than 0.2 percent formaldehyde in personal care product formulations, but this is a voluntary, non-enforced guideline. When inhaled, formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer. Studies have shown that products formulated with formaldehyde release formaldehyde into the air, at which point, you might inhale it.
What all of that means differs depending on who you talk to, though. “Formaldehyde is a potent crosslinker and will immediately embalm the skin and kill any living cell that it comes in contact with,” says Dr. Altman. “Because formaldehyde is an incredibly potent crosslinker, it’s also a carcinogen. A molecule that has the potential to create or release formaldehyde should be banned.” Those molecules include BHT, DMDM hydantoin, methenamine, quaternium-15, sodium hydrozymethylglycinate and bronopol — fairly common preservatives that are no doubt sitting on your #shelfie right now.
“They generally don’t have any effect on skin,” counters Romanowski. “These preservatives can be used in cosmetics at appropriate levels and have no effect on skin. As with any material, some people may have allergic reactions to them, but generally, they are safe for most people.”
Perhaps the Great Formaldehyde Debate is a microcosm of fear-mongering marketing itself: There’s the data, then there’s the translation of said data — and a lot can get lost in translation.
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