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Purity Now: Chemicals in the Beauty Industry

As the beauty industry grapples with a heightened regulatory landscape, consumer consciousness is increasing exponentially about ingredient safety and efficacy.

Last summer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and the organization Forum for the Future convened a personal-care summit addressing sustainability. Attendees from companies including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever, the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and L’Oréal were surveyed on the issues most concerning them.

The results were stunning. Women’s self-esteem, consumer behavior, packaging and labor standards weren’t the biggest worries. Instead, the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment was by far the chief concern, followed by a related concern over transparency.

“The most drastic change has been the increasing level of transparency about what is in products,” wrote one respondent.

Another said, “[Increasingly significant] is the idea that products you use in your home and on your person can have slow, but impactful changes to personal health and well-being.”

Similar to the focus on trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup or refined grains in foods, consumers’ consciousness about what they put on their bodies is increasing dramatically. A stripped-down, nontoxic, healthy, nourishing and documentable approach to personal maintenance is emerging.

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To wit: There has been an explosion of brands—such as Beautycounter, Drunk Elephant, One Love Organics, Ilia and Vapour Organic Beauty, to name a few, predicated on not containing ingredients that many consumers consider unsafe, particularly parabens, phthalates and formaldehyde. Simultaneously, new retail formats are emerging, online and off, dedicated to such brands, including Follain, which has four locations in Boston and Washington, D.C., and Be Clean, also in Washington.

At the same time, activist groups like the Environmental Working Group are agitating for bans on specific ingredients, while legislators at the federal and state levels are aggressively zeroing in on cosmetics.

Clearly, the age of clean beauty is dawning, affecting beauty brands big and small, and beauty retailers from mom-and-pop to big-box.

“It is going to be an industry-wide, sweeping movement,” says Gregg Renfrew, founder and chief executive officer of Beautycounter. “As American consumers become more aware, they are going to place higher demands on the beauty industry for cleaner ingredients. They are demanding radical transparency.”

Clean beauty is not synonymous with natural, organic or green beauty. Clean beauty is more about the absence of certain ingredients, such as propylene glycol, coal tar dyes, mineral oil and sodium laureth sulfate, than about formulas containing plant-derived ingredients. “Clean beauty products may have some synthetic ingredients, but it is about them not containing potentially harmful ingredients,” says Munemi Imai, founder of the skin-care brand Mun. “When you use the term ‘clean beauty,’ it opens up the concept a lot more.”

Although it might have a tinge of environmentalism, clean beauty’s roots are in the clean-food movement, which was named by trend forecaster Gerald Celente in 1994, when he wrote, “Clean is more than organic. It’s a new standard of healthy and reliability. It means foods that are free of artificial preservatives, coloring, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, drug residues and genetic engineering. It also means foods that are processed, packaged, transported and stored to retain maximum nutritional value.”

Since then, the clean-food movement has exploded, attracting celebrity advocates such as Gwyneth Paltrow and cascading into various categories, most notably beauty. “The changes that we have seen in food—the pushes toward organic, fair trade and sustainable—and the proliferation of stores like Whole Foods, have changed people’s habits,” says Alexis Krauss, cocreator of the Web site Beauty Lies Truth, a rate-and-review site started after Krauss and her partner, industry-activist-turned-entrepreneur Jessica Assaf, read an article about plastic micro-exfoliant beads and decided to investigate other questionable ingredients.

Krauss and Assaf are hardly alone in their intense scrutiny of personal care products. Because of the Web, consumers are more educated than ever about cosmetics ingredients. Even on the go, they have access to apps such as Skin Deep from EWG, Think Dirty and GoodGuide, which enable them to scrutinize labels as they shop the shelves.

Often, consumers convert to clean beauty when they realize their clean-eating habits are incongruous with their personal-care routines. Clean-beauty-box subscription service Art of Organics founder Claire Molyneaux’s journey to clean beauty is along those lines. “I grew up in a pretty organic household. Four years ago, I became curious about the products I was using,” she says.

Brands are also often born out of personal illness. Valérie Grandury, ceo of Odacite, traces the creation of her organic skin-care line to her breast cancer diagnosis in 2004, for example.

A decade or so later, clean beauty is progressing from personal choice to public policy. Since the enactment of the 1938 federal law governing cosmetics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has primarily left cosmetics companies to police themselves. But the regulatory environment is getting tougher—much. Laws in a number of states eradicating microbeads, California’s 2005 legislation requiring cosmetics manufacturers to label ingredients linked to cancer or birth defects, and the European Union’s product safety reporting rules portend a new, more stringent normal for the beauty industry in which the government is enforcing clean-beauty standards. And in April of this year, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins introduced a bill called the Personal Care Products Safety Act that looks to strengthen the FDA’s regulation of cosmetics ingredients by requiring the agency to evaluate a minimum of five ingredients per year to determine their safety and appropriate use, beginning with formaldehyde and propyl paraben.

Many clean-beauty brands have decided to adhere to firmer EU policies, which restrict about 1,300 ingredients, compared to 11 in the U.S., according to Beautycounter. Several retailers have also made adjustments. In 2013, Wal-Mart issued a policy pertaining to personal care that phased out 10 chemicals, which were not divulged, and stipulated suppliers disclose ingredients of products online by January of this year. The same year, Target established its Sustainable Product Standard that awards scores from a low of zero to a high of 100 to products based on their ingredients (high points go to products that don’t have ingredients associated with health problems), transparency (ingredient lists must be publicly available) and environmental impact. CVS has eliminated parabens and formaldehyde releasers from its baby-care products, and has launched a tool called WercSmart to help suppliers register ingredient information.

Mainstream brands are increasingly addressing such concerns openly, too. Revlon, for example, created a Web site explaining which ingredients it does and doesn’t use, including those it steers clear of (i.e., microbeads, phthalates and triclosan) and those it does use, like sodium laureth sulfate, that activists such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics urge brands to avoid. In a note on the site, Revlon ceo Lorenzo Delpani writes, “Our bottom line on product safety: Revlon really cares.…We want our consumers to be happy, to look and feel great—and do so knowing they are using safe products.”

While such transparency isn’t yet mandated, it’s certainly increasingly expected. “We are putting more and more information out there for the consumer so they can make good choices,” says Beth Lange, chief scientist and executive vice president of science of the Personal Care Products Council. “The Web sites are becoming more and more elaborate. You are going to see a lot of our members have scientific links. They will talk to the scientists at the companies. They are trying to educate the consumer, so they can understand more about the products and make informed decisions.”

At Whole Foods, Maren Giuliano, global coordinator of Whole Body, is asking brands to go above the retailer’s baseline standard prohibiting 50 ingredients to meet its premium body-care standard barring 400 ingredients. “New products that we bring in, we want them to come in at the highest premium level that we have defined internally,” she says. “If they don’t meet that [premium standard], there has to be really good reason to bring them in.”

Ingredients previously accepted are being dissected. Fragrance is a case in point. Under U.S. law, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be marked merely as “fragrance” or “flavor.” Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, says her organization “would like to see legislation that calls for full fragrance disclosure.” In the absence of laws compelling brands to disseminate information on fragrance ingredients, retailers have stepped in. Under its premium body-care standard, Whole Foods only allows fragrances derived from essential oils. Wal-Mart, too, has targeted fragrance for improved transparency. It permits “fragrance” on labels, but formulators of private-label products must offer detailed fragrance information elsewhere and signal where it can be found.

Letting consumers in on product ingredients is a fundamental tenet of clean beauty. Web pages cataloging ingredients are becoming de rigueur for clean-beauty brands and retailers. On its Web site, Follain inventories restricted ingredients across hair, face, body, cosmetics and sun care. “People come in knowing that everything in here has been vetted and is safe,” says founder Tara Foley.

Proponents say a certification program could direct consumers to increased education. In Canada, Clean Care founder Jenise Lee, who launched the Clean Beauty Awards, is spearheading an effort to initiate a certification for beauty products under the moniker Cert Clean. “There are thousands of brands that exist that are cleaner, and there are curious consumers who are looking for them, but there is a huge gap between the consumers and the brands,” she says. “The brands spend a lot of time educating their consumers instead of selling their products. At the same time, consumers are confused and misled. There must be a mark that helps both parties find one another.”

Certification or no, consumers insist brands be candid about what they put or don’t put in their products. When makeup brand Ilia incorporated a small amount of dimethicone in its tinted moisturizer to keep the formula from separating, founder Sasha Plavsic welcomed discussion about her use of the ingredient. “We don’t want to hide anything. I explain my reasoning for why,” she says. “By having that dialogue, you give consumers the choice. They either appreciate you more for disclosing everything or they want to use something else, a risk we are willing to take.”

Less is increasingly more. At Whole Foods, products with three ingredients or less are taking off, such as Heritage Rosewater & Glycerin and Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay. “There is so much confusion and instead of having to wade through and wonder what is OK and what’s not, you know what you are getting in these products,” Giuliano says.

Food-grade ingredients are also appealing for being forthright. If an ingredient is fine to eat, it is usually safe to use on skin. The New Zealand skin-care brand Sans[ceuticals] relies on food-grade preservatives, including a derivative of salt. “I don’t have any processed foods in my pantry. I don’t buy anything preprepared. I approach skin care from that angle,” says founder Lucy Vincent Marr. Earth Tu Face, which informs consumers on its packaging that its products have GMO-free plant-based and food-grade ingredients, sources its oils from food companies. “We have used the body butter to make pancakes,” says Sarah Buscho, cofounder and ceo. “They are very expensive but delicious.”

As with food ingredients, the freshness of beauty ingredients is becoming prized. Odacite stamps a “Freshiency Date” on its products instructing customers on the best time frame to use the products. “We have our own lab, and we make fresh batches every week,” Grandury says. “For all the products, we recommend you use them within six months because that is when they are going to have the optimum antioxidant activity.”

As clean beauty evolves, manufacturing processes are also entering the equation. For example, refined ingredients are getting a second look. RMS Beauty shuns refined coconut oil in favor of raw, virgin coconut oil that founder Rose-Marie Swift argues has greater antioxidants and healing abilities. Cold-pressing, a process by which ingredients, especially oils, are extracted at low temperatures, is extending from food to beauty. Grandury at Odacite, which relies on oils that are cold-pressed, says, “When it comes to food, if you want a really good olive oil, you buy a cold-pressed olive oil. The minute you introduce heat, you start to lose some of the nutrients.”

The onus isn’t only on brands and manufacturers to amend their approach, though. Truly clean beauty requires consumers to also seriously reconsider their beauty preconceptions. Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant, emphasizes pretty-smelling products shouldn’t be the objective. She says skin-care consumers “might smell some ferulic acid or zinc, and that should be OK. It doesn’t need to be hidden. We should show the customer really what they are getting.”

That mentality foreshadows a change in thinking for many established brands, and there are those who believe survival depends on it. “Ingredients matter and our customer is letting us know that,” said Giuliano, in a speech at the WWD Beauty Summit in June. “Consciousness is expanding, awareness is expanding and we are never going to go back to people wanting more toxic ingredients and more chemicals. We’re at the tipping point where this will become the new norm.”