Why Brands Keep Pushing "Clean Beauty" — & What You Should Know About It
Scan almost any clean beauty retailer’s “About” page — Detox Market, Credo, Follain, Beautycounter — and you’ll notice two keywords: health and safety. That’s because the movement’s overarching mission is to eliminate chemicals known to be toxic to the human body from personal care products, including suspected cancer-causing agents (formaldehyde releasers, parabens) and hormone disruptors (phthalates, pesticides). While that’s no doubt a win for overall wellness, it does leave one critical question unanswered: Is clean beauty better for your skin? These seven dermatologists, cosmetic chemists, and renowned aestheticians think so.
“From my unique vantage point as a facialist for the past 25 years, having treated over 25,000 faces, I have seen how the proliferation of harsh ingredients — including dimethicone, fragrance, colorants, and sulfates — compromise the skin’s lipid barrier, thereby sensitizing the skin,” Angela Caglia, a celebrity aesthetician who works with Barbra Streisand and Minnie Driver, tells The Zoe Report. The integrity of the skin barrier is also a sticking point for cosmetic scientist Dr. Shuting Hu, Ph.D., who works with clean beauty brand Acaderma. “I personally believe in using clean ingredients as it is the very best way to prevent skin irritation and skin barrier damages, both of which are better for skin health,” Dr. Hu tells TZR. “Not only is it my belief, it is also scientifically proven.”
There’s a catch, though: Terms like “clean,” “natural,” “green,” and “non-toxic” aren’t regulated by the FDA — so, in theory, any brand can market any ingredient as clean (although the threat of callout culture tends to keep companies in line). “We really need a good working definition for ‘clean’ and ‘non-toxic,’” Marie Veronique Nadeau, a chemist and founder of her namesake skincare line, tells The Zoe Report. She personally considers an ingredient clean when it has “a track record for safety and efficacy” via scientific studies — and that goes for both naturals and synthetics. “It just makes more sense to use ingredients that are safe in your own opinion,” she says.
Ahead, seven skincare experts explain why they believe clean beauty is the healthiest choice for your skin — and reveal the natural and non-toxic products they swear by.
Dr. Nava Greenfield, Board-Certified Dermatologist
“You need to be just as careful about what you put on your skin as what you eat and drink,” Dr. Nava Greenfield, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, tells TZR. "Numerous studies have confirmed that products used topically on the skin penetrate into the bloodstream and affect your body.” She suggests cross-checking your products with the Environmental Working Group’s toxicity database to pinpoint any potentially harmful ingredients.
As for Dr. Greenfield’s own safe, derm-approved skincare routine? She’s a fan of the Gentle Hydrating Lotion by C’est Moi. “All the ingredients in C'est Moi products are clean and they use the highest quality sourcing,” she says. "Belli Skincare is another company that puts a lot of thought behind their formulations. My favorite products are Belli’s All Day Moisture Body Lotion and Exfoliating Body Polish. These ingredients are so safe they are recommended for pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
Marie Veronique Nadeau, Chemist & Brand Founder
“Absolutely, ‘clean’ and ‘non-toxic’ ingredients are better for the health of the skin,” Nadeau says. When it comes to formulating her own products, Nadeau adds a third descriptor to the list: active. “It’s not enough that it won’t harm you — people also need to be asking, ‘Is it active? Is it going to be doing something for my skin?’”
To this end, she recommends incorporating clean versions of vitamin C and vitamin B3 — aka, niacinamide — into your routine. “You need vitamin C to build collagen, and it also does any number of other cool things like limit hyperpigmentation and provide UV protection," Nadeau says. “Vitamin B3 protects mitochondrial DNA from free radical damage. This is about as close as we’re going to get to slowing the aging process in the skin, so it's a must-have for anyone interested in keeping skin healthy and youthful-looking.”
Britta Plug, Aesthetician & Brand Founder
“I avoid processed food and chemicals — I feel my best that way — and I apply the same reasoning to my skincare,” Britta Plug, a holistic aesthetician and co-founder of Wildling, tells The Zoe Report. According to Plug (and science), harsh chemicals can negatively impact the skin’s microbiome and disrupt its inherent functions. “Natural products are much more likely to support the skin's innate intelligence, and support all of its functions, flora, and barrier system,” she says.
Her go-to products, naturally, come from her own line. “I'm obsessed with the sweet fern in our Empress Tonic,” Plug says. “It's amazing for kickstarting detoxification by stimulating lymphatic flow, and it's also great for skin irritations.” After spritzing with the Tonic, she reaches for Wildling’s Empress Oil. “The balm of gilead in the oil is pure magic for stimulating circulation and reducing fine lines and breakouts,” the aesthetician explains. “It also smells like a dreamy forest.”
Dr. Shuting Hu, Cosmetic Scientist
Dr. Hu is passionate about clean skincare — but emphasizes that clean doesn’t always mean natural. “Plenty of natural ingredients are irritating, and not all natural materials are made equally,” she says. “Some high quality synthesized ingredients are also clean, like vitamin C.”
In her work with Acaderma, Dr. Hu defines “clean” as any ingredient that minimizes irritation to the skin while maintaining efficacy. Her favorite? “Seh-Haw EXTM,” a brand-exclusive form of African kinkeliba extract that moisturizes dehydrated skin and boosts the barrier. “We spent two years optimizing the extraction and purification process of Seh-Haw EXTM to make sure no organic solvents were used in the whole process, and that there were no causes of pollution to the environment,” she says.
Angela Caglia, Celebrity Aesthetician & Brand Founder
“Through a process of trial and error in my treatment room, I’ve discovered which ingredients work and which ingredients make skin more susceptible to external aging factors,” Caglia says. (Considering her clients include age-defying celebs like Helena Christensen, I totally trust her.)
“One ingredient, in particular, that I’ve discovered helps with maintaining homeostasis is the organically-grown Limnanthes alba flower, indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, from which meadowfoam seed oil is derived through a unique cold pressing process,” she shares. “The reason why I love it is that it's similar in molecular structure to our own sebum, which means it’s able to deeply penetrate the skin’s surface to deliver high levels of essential fatty acids and antioxidants where they're needed most.” It can be found throughout the aesthetician’s namesake skincare line.
Athena Hewett, Aesthetician & Brand Founder
“Like much of the population, I have sensitive skin,” Athena Hewett, an aesthetician and founder of skincare brand Monastery, tells The Zoe Report. When she discovered that even hypoallergenic ingredients were irritating her skin, she decided to launch her own company — where she's redefined “non-toxic” as “100 percent natural.”
“Take propylene glycol, for example — this chemical is used to make polyester, is considered non-toxic, and is found in nearly all of the skincare products out today,” she says. “I am highly allergic to this ingredient as are many of my clients, but most of them have no idea that this is what has been wrong with their skin. When someone lays on my table and I notice dermatitis, I can almost guarantee that they are putting propylene glycol on their skin in some form or another. Sadly, this ingredient is just one of many.” Hewett now looks to naturals for safe — and sensitivity-friendly — skincare solutions. “I love watching what raspberry seed oil does to the skin,” she says. “It makes up our Gold Oil, and it immediately soothes and reduces redness.”
Sarah Akram, Aesthetician
"I am a believer in integrative skincare, meaning just like what you put inside of your body, what you put on its surface can make a big difference in how you look and feel," Sarah Akram, a Washington D.C.-based aesthetician and the founder of her namesake skincare boutique, tells TZR. "Just like you’d drink a cold pressed juice for optimum nutrient intake, you should take a similar approach to your skincare routine and overall skin health."
She suggests looking for products packed with pure, natural ingredients (i.e., not "naturally-derived" — which is basically a synonym for "synthetic"). The facialists' top pick? The Antioxidant Defence Creme by Environ. "This moisturizer is loaded with antioxidants like vitamin C and E to strengthen skin cells and fight free radicals," Akram says. "Antioxidants are so important in the fight against premature aging, they actually work with your SPF to protect and correct the effects of harmful UV rays." And, of course, they're abundant in nature.