Clean & green: Eyewash or real deal?

The so-called natural beauty products are having a moment. The 'clean and green' beauty trend promises clear skin and a clearer conscience to boot. But are products really 'toxin-free' and 'cruelty-free' as they claim to be?
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 20:15 IST

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If you are getting inundated by a hashtag on Instagram, be rest assured that there is a revolution somewhere! First, it was fashion, then food and now the affliction has hit the beauty industry fair and square. Every celebrity and influencer worth their followers are bombarding us with the clean-green trend — hashtag #cleanbeauty (remember it was #cleaneats a while ago!) Clearly, this is two-way traffic — not only are more companies hopping onto the clean beauty bandwagon, but it is also consumers who are keener than ever to opt for products that are more natural and sustainable.

Parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde and artificial fragrances, which are commonly found in beauty products, are being frowned upon and people are leaning more towards clean living, which also includes a cleaner skincare routine. This has, in turn, led to the birth of several clean make-up and skincare brands. But there is no real definition of what clean beauty means and no clear agreement either on which chemicals ought to be avoided and which are okay to include. The lack of regulation in the beauty industry only muddies the waters further. But none of these have stemmed the craze for clean beauty products.

But what does clean mean?

It’s a fact that the skin is the largest organ of the body and a stark reflection of one’s inner health. It’s another known fact that most make-up and skin care products are a concoction of chemicals and synthetic ingredients, many of which could cause a great deal of damage not just to the skin but also to our overall health. Hence, when one puts two and two together, it’s not surprising to see why the demand for clean beauty and skincare brands is on the rise.

“Educated consumers are increasingly demanding non-carcinogenic, non-comedogenic, ethically sourced, cruelty-free, and environmentally sustainable options. They want products that are derived from non-animal sources and renewable bio-based sources,” says celebrity plastic surgeon and cosmetologist Dr Karishma Kogadu, who believes that clean beauty is a result of the integration of augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence in the beauty industry, along with an increasing demand for eco-friendly and skin-safe products. “It emphasises the safety of products, transparent labelling of ingredients and the use of organic components that prioritise both health and results,” she adds.

Stemming from personal battles

While some of these brands claim to be cruelty-free and use sustainable packaging, some say they are plant-based or gluten-free. Whatever the case might be, a heartening thing to note is that many of these brands are a result of their founders’ personal battles with the world of conventional beauty and glamour. Ame Organic, which offers numerous natural skincare products and was founded by Nandita Sharma, is one of them. The owner of an award-winning organic salon with many branches and franchises, Nandita had the life that everyone dreamed of. However, in actuality, she was burnt out and stressed.

A painful back surgery and a spiritual sojourn in the Himalayas made her rethink life, close her chain of salons, and come up with a natural skincare brand. “I always knew of the havoc chemicals can wreak on our system. That’s why I started my organic salon chain where all the products we used were made from natural and fresh ingredients,” she says. “But once I closed the salon, I realised that my access to natural skin care products was limited. So I thought of coming out with a brand that made these products. Today, this is more of a mission than an option.”

Bindt Beauty, founded by lifestyle and beauty influencer and ex-Miss Chennai Bindya Devi Talluri, is another brand that stemmed from Bindya’s personal experiences with beauty and skincare products. Always shooting for campaigns and events and an avid user of numerous makeup and skincare products, Bindya would often suffer skin irritation and breakouts. After trying and testing many products to tackle her constant battle with hormonal acne, she stumbled upon the concept of clean beauty. While she was sceptical initially to try them out as clean beauty products are oil-based, she discovered that her skin started to get better with the oils.

That’s when Bindya decided to start her company, a homegrown chemical-free make-up and beauty brand. She paid close attention to the ingredients and formulations and has received a great response so far. “In India, the clean beauty market is a growing one. It may not be as advanced as it is in the West, but there is so much to look forward to,” she believes.

How dirty is clean?

With certifications being an extensive and expensive affair, the cosmetic industry in India remains largely unregulated. Hence, the bigger question is — are the ingredients that go into your organic make-up and skincare products actually natural?

Says Dr Karishma, “Unfortunately, there is no government body dedicated to fact-checking, which leaves the door open for misinformation and confusion to enter freely.” To address these challenges, the cosmetic industry regulatory experts follow guidelines set by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) and collaborate with certified plastic surgeons and dermatologists worldwide. “Their expertise and data help determine the cosmetic approval of products. However, it’s worth noting that cosmetic companies are not obligated to disclose their full ingredient lists due to trade secrets,” she adds.

She further explains, “Luckily, there is constant research and analysis in the cosmetic industry thanks to which, we are committed to investigating products that are non-toxic and free from harmful chemicals. We make our patients aware of common conventional products that may pose health risks and are not included in safe practices.”

Just a gimmick?

Nandita feels that many companies don’t have the knowledge, resources, and most importantly, the intention to help consumers achieve truly clean skin. “So they either get white-label products or create handmade products in their kitchens/homes without understanding molecular biology or even microbiology. As a result, there are a lot of products which claim to be natural and safe but are actually a breeding ground for bacteria,” she states and adds, “Personally, it took us nearly two years with multiple batch tests from different labs to get completely toxin-free products.”

Some experts have their doubts and feel that the entire movement is a marketing gimmick. Rashida Pavtiwala, an IMA-certified make-up artist who has been in the industry for over 12 years, feels that though consumers are becoming more aware, it’s not possible to keep track of every ingredient that goes into the making of a cosmetic product. “How many consumers actually read through every ingredient to understand what goes into a product? Even the most conscious of consumers may not be aware of every single component,” she reasons.

According to her, beauty products can be ‘clean’ only if the ingredients come straight from the kitchen pantry and are used soon after. “If they are bottled or packaged, it means that they have gone through a certain degree of processing and contain preservatives to make them last longer,” she notes. “An easy scrub of milk and oats works wonders to remove tan. Potatoes too work for dark circles, tomatoes for tan and a coconut oil-aloe vera mix for the hair. I recommend these to all my clients. But many consumers prefer buying a fancy cream rather than going the extra mile and making all these packs from scratch. They even use it diligently just because they paid for it!”

Rashida feels that it’s better to go completely clean or fully chemical knowing what works on your skin. “It’s better to use a chemical that you are aware of rather than go for a natural product, which you may not be sure of. Also, the so-called eco-friendly packaging with wooden corks and glass bottles may not always be sustainable. It’s like how a nylon t-shirt is actually more environment-friendly than a processed cotton tee,” she contends.
Stressing upon this point further, Dr Karishma says, “While clean beauty emphasises safety, natural ingredients and biodegradability, it’s crucial to remember that these factors alone don’t guarantee healthy skin. Even natural products can cause side effects if they don’t suit your skin, and claiming that natural ingredients are inherently superior to synthetic ones is an oversimplification. In the clean beauty industry, there should be a willingness to embrace synthetic (or lab-created) ingredients, as long as they are safe.”

A bright future

In spite of the criticisms it currently faces, the clean beauty industry sure is making a clean sweep and has been seeing exponential growth. After all, how else can one explain the whopping worldwide worth of this niche market — which was $7.22 billion in 2022 and is estimated to touch almost $15 billion by 2028 and cross $21 billion by 2031?

“Navigating through the world of clean beauty can be both challenging and confusing. As the concept of clean beauty is relatively new and evolving, it requires careful scrutiny. As a conscientious consumer, it’s important to be discerning before making any choices. While considering your skincare routine, it is crucial to consult with skincare experts and consider a few key points. By making informed decisions and being wise as a consumer, you can better understand the complexities of going clean and green,” sums up Dr Karishma.

Published 03 June 2023, 20:09 IST

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