The Dirt On “Clean Beauty"
“Clean beauty” may be all the rage, but what exactly is it? It’s just another marketing ploy. Skincare marketing may appear to have changed, but, in reality, it hasn’t changed at all in the decade I’ve analyzed it. Despite avoiding mentioning ingredients that are toxic and emphasizing botanical ingredients and, recently, skin health, clean beauty’s promises of “non-toxic”, “sustainable”, “clean”, “cruelty-free”, and “vegan” skincare remain hollow and empty. “Clean beauty”, like the rest of the industry, remains rooted in profiting from fear of aging and the social ostracizing that comes with looking other than “young and flawless”. Their profits come at the expense of your health. They not only encourage you to fight the natural process of aging, they also ignore that skin is the largest organ in your body, part of your endocrine system, and a driver of your overall health. They only acknowledge skin as part of the endocrine system when and if it suits them. Until those fundamentals change, “clean beauty” is just another version of the same old destructive, exploitative charade.
Your body’s endocrine system is a messenger network through which organs communicate with each other via chemical messages, the hormones secreted into your circulatory system to regulate and maintain your metabolism. The most well-known hormone made by your skin is vitamin D, but the cells that make up your skin synthesize lots of other hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Your skin is a dynamic organ, sensing and responding in real time by sending and receiving messages to and from the rest of your body and the environment. When this messaging system is out of whack, it wreaks havoc on your health.
Ingredients in skincare, makeup, sunscreens, perfumes, etc. change your skin microbiome and frequently end up in your body, altering your metabolism. This is why it’s so important to know what you are putting on your skin and how it affects your health, short-term and, more importantly long-term (read my February 10 column). When it comes to skin, skin care, and hormones, less is more. More is not better.
However, many “clean beauty” brands, and Tata Harper Skincare, in particular, believe that “more matters”. As Tata sells it, “Nobody puts as many ingredients in one bottle like we do. You’ll see that illustrated most in our HPI number you see on your bottle—that stands for High Performance Ingredient and we have upwards of 40+ in any given product. The whole single ingredient approach is great if you want one benefit, but since when did you ever want just one of anything?” Again, more is not better. One cup of coffee may perk you up and enhance your performance, but twenty-seven cups will definitely leave you jittery and dehydrated and you’ll tank. A three-ingredient classic Italian dish may thrill you, but one with thirty ingredients probably won’t.
Tata’s belief that “more matters” extends to ingredient concentrations, too, “Most brands will get clinical feedback on a raw ingredient and put the bare minimum in the formula to deliver just the bare amount of results possible because that’s the most cost-efficient way to make products. But we believe more matters. If science shows that a result requires a minimum of 0.1% you’ll likely see much more than that percentage (and anywhere from 2-4X what our competitors put in) to deliver what we find is the absolute best possible result to our clients.” (Bold text is for emphasis.) This BS completely ignores your body’s biology. Your body can only process so much. There are doses and then there are overdoses. Too much of anything can be poisonous. You can die from drinking too much water. Too much of anything is exactly that, too much. Besides, Tata’s endpoint to determine the concentration of any given ingredient is the one that will sell more products for Tata (i.e., improves the look and feel of your skin over a short period of time), not one that safeguards your health.
In case you’re wondering how forty+ ingredients in high concentrations might react with one another and your skin, Tata’s got you covered, “To pack so many ingredients at high levels of concentrations (with an all natural preservative system) is pretty much the hardest engineering equation you’ll ever encounter. Lucky for us, we have some of the smartest batch masters and chemists in the country to tackle them on a daily basis.” So, what happens if the chemists got it wrong and their engineering equation for complex chemistry messed with your hormones and metabolism enough to cause some horrible health complication? Nothing, because you won’t be able to prove a damn thing and they already will have absconded with your money.
Tata Harper’s formulations remind me of Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger, JUST Egg, UPSIDE Foods, etc… Mother Nature’s food is essential for our life and we cannot recreate or reengineer it without altering something somewhere somehow. I did my dissertation research at UC Davis, studying the effects of folate, the naturally occurring B vitamin essential for making DNA, and folic acid, the synthetic form of the vitamin, on breast cancer progression. Folic acid is metabolized very differently than folate and the effects of the two on your body are very different. Whole foods evolved with us and our bodies with them, and the evolutionary process enabled our bodies to efficiently extract and use bioavailable nutrients from whole foods to repair and grow. This is true when you eat minimally processed whole foods and true when you put them on your skin.
Ignore the marketing ploys, the truth lies in the product’s ingredient list. If you recognize the ingredients and could eat them, then it’s likely your body will recognize them, too, and be able to use them. And, ultimately, that’s what real skincare, intrinsically and actually clean, is about, caring for this critical part of your endocrine system, your skin, by feeding it from the outside in with the nutrients you need in concentrations your body can use to sustain health.
A version of this blog post is published in my local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise. There is no paywall to view my articles in the Davis Enterprise. Simply click the X in the red circle to read my article.