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Donna Trope
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‘Natural’ and ‘clean’ beauty products not always safe, warn dermatologists


TextAlex Peters

Natural may not always be better

Beauty products that are marketed as ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ are not necessarily safer than their traditional counterparts, dermatologists have said.

In an editorial for medical journal JAMA Dermatology, Dr Courtney Blair Rubin and Dr Bruce Brod of the University of Pennsylvania argue that with the failure of the FDA to define and regulate terms such as ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ they’ve become open to interpretation by non-dermatologist retailers, bloggers, and celebrities. These “arbitrary designations,” however, do not necessarily make products superior nor safer for consumers.

In an effort to appeal to conscientious shoppers, Rubin and Brod write, many brands in the clean beauty movement have haphazardly selected ingredients to denounce and demonise without scientific grounds. Petrolatum, for example, which they say dermatologists have “consistently recommended to patients with skin barrier disruption owing to its nonallergenicity, superior qualities as a humectant, and economical cost that makes it accessible to patients of all backgrounds.” Parabens are another commonly avoided component for clean beauty devotees despite the fact, the authors say, that parabens are some of the least allergenic preservatives available and were named 2019 nonallergen of the year by he American Contact Dermatitis Society. 

“Many of the strongest voices in the clean beauty movement suggest avoiding ingredients owing to a theoretical risk of endocrine disruption and cancer, despite the fact that a causative relationship between these disease states and the concentration of these ingredients in cosmetic products has not been proven scientifically,” they write.

Further to this, Rubin and Brod argue that many ‘natural’ products often contain high concentrations of botanical extracts that can cause irritation and allergies.

Between 2017 and 2018, the natural skincare market by 23 per cent to $1.6 billion, accounting for over 25 per cent of the $5.6 billion of annual skincare sales in 2018 according to the NPD Group. Rubin and Brod point to influencers such as Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow who have “ignited fear in consumers who are now hungry for skincare that is safe and non-toxic,” to account for this growth. 

They conclude by urging the FDA to define terms such as ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ and for both consumers and physicians to demand that the clean beauty movement back up their claims with evidence.

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