“Clean Beauty” And The Safety Of Skincare Ingredients—Here’s What I Think

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Renée Rouleau Products

Now more than ever, people are seeking out trustworthy information to help them make healthy choices and live their best life. People are ultra-aware when it comes to the safety of what they put into and onto their bodies, and skincare is no exception. You are surely aware of terms like “organic”, “all-natural,” “non-toxic” and “clean.” Most people sum this up as “Clean beauty” and it has become a huge industry in the past few years. The demand is higher than ever before. However, a lack of regulation has allowed some beauty brands to make unsubstantiated claims for the sake of marketing. As a consumer, it can be confusing to cut through all the noise, and you might wonder whether you’re making the best decisions when it comes to your skin health and wellness in general. In this post, I’ll share my personal thoughts on how to make sense of “clean beauty” and cut through the noise so you can make the safest, healthiest choices for yourself without sacrificing great results for your skin.

What Is Clean Beauty?

There are no official regulatory guidelines that define “clean beauty”, so every skincare brand can have its own definition of what it means to them. But, the general idea behind clean beauty is that a company is being thoughtful and ethical about the ingredients it chooses to use (or not use) in its formulations and how they’re sourced. These choices may be based on actual scientific studies, the brand’s own research, or simply on a gut feeling or opinion the brand has about certain ingredients. For example, the skincare brand Drunk Elephant avoids what they refer to as the “Suspicious Six:” six ingredients they believe to be harmful to overall skin health—whether it’s substantiated or not. It all just boils down to the ethos of a brand and what they choose to believe. Every brand has a right to their own opinions. 

Is Clean Beauty Here To Stay Or Just A Trend?

Some people refer to clean beauty products as a trend, but I don’t see it this way at all. Having been an esthetician for 30 years (and a skincare formulator for 20+ of them), I have seen many trends either come and stay or come and go. For example, topical vitamin C and exfoliating acids were “trends” when they first came on the scene two decades ago and are now mainstays of a comprehensive skincare routine. On the other hand, using high percentages of essential oils in skincare products (pioneered by Aveda back in the late 80s) has already come and gone a few times. This trend currently seems to be making a comeback with the emergence of so many “natural” indie brands, but I think it will be heading out again soon because high amounts of fragrant, essential oils can be very irritating to so many types of skin. (Especially ones that use retinol and exfoliating acids on a regular basis.)

As for clean beauty, I can confidently say that pretty soon we won’t be attaching the word “trend,” which is a great thing. All skincare products should absolutely be focused on safety for both the skin and overall health. Transparency in skincare products will also be the new norm as consumers demand that brands step up to the plate and share what is being used in their products.

“It’s important to understand that you don’t have to compromise your health in order to use products that tap into scientific advancements.”

Safety of Skin Care Ingredients

Are Chemical Skin Care Ingredients Safe To Use?

The word “chemical” has a negative connotation and may sound super scary. Unfortunately, some brands are purposely trying to make you fearful of chemicals, so let me offer some insight into this. For starters, chemicals aren’t just found in chemistry labs. Our world and everything in it is made up of chemicals (with the exception of heat, gravity, kinetic energy, ultraviolet light and the thoughts in our brains). This means that almost everything, including people, plants and animals, are all chemicals. (Scientific nerd fact: A chemical occurs when two or more atoms are held together by a chemical bond.) This means that all skincare ingredients are considered chemicals, and there is actually no such thing as a “chemical-free” skincare product and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is being dishonest or is simply misinformed.

With that said, there are certainly chemicals out there that could potentially be harmful to your health or skin but much of it still requires a lot more research. California just tried to pass a bill that failed to ban 20 unsafe ingredients from use in personal care products. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean your current products that might contain some of these ingredients are truly detrimental to your health, but it does underscore what I’ve said time and time again, which is that it’s so important to buy products from a company you trust!  The reality is, cosmetics are not very strictly regulated in the U.S. It is thought that 2% of the FDA’s budget is allocated to cosmetics whereas the rest is put towards food and drug. 

“There is actually no such thing as a “chemical-free” skincare product and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is being dishonest or is simply misinformed.”

Are Natural Skin Care ingredients Safer?

The term “natural” only indicates the source of an ingredient. It does not mean it’s chemical-free, or even safe. Many natural ingredients have not gone through the rigorous testing that synthetic ingredients have been put through, so we have not fully discovered any potential side effects that there could be. Because of this, we tend to think of natural ingredients as safer, but this isn’t necessarily the case. For example, a “natural” product that chooses to shy away from more tried-and-true synthetics may be more likely to be recalled from shelves due to the formation of mold and instability (separating). The brand Herbivore recently did a recall for moldy products, as did May Lindstrom. The paraben-free preservative system they have chosen isn’t holding up. The last thing anyone wants to see when they open a jar of face cream is mold (yuck!) let alone adding bacteria to your skin and completely putting your microbiome (healthy bacteria) in a major state of shock. It is incredibly unfortunate when this happens and I hope they can get it corrected to provide a safer experience for their customers. I’m hearing about this more and more as brands (particularly the smaller, newer indie ones) experiment with less studied ingredients. I mean think about it…if a product was well-researched and had gone through scrutinous micro testing, these products would never have been released to the public. Essentially, your face might be the guinea pig and when there is a problem, they are like, “Oops, well that didn’t work out so well! Now we know!”

While I have taken many cosmetic chemistry classes through the years, including at UCLA, and consider myself fairly well-versed in ingredients, I do rely heavily on my trusted chemists for guidance. They are experts on ingredients and are constantly staying up on top of their related studies. If a new study about an ingredient’s safety or performance becomes available, they promptly inform me.  

The Issue of “Green-Washing” In Beauty

While a lot of brands choose to go the route of “clean beauty” because of their values and beliefs, other companies are simply capitalizing on this movement with misleading marketing. I see and hear about it constantly, and it’s really disappointing. For example, a brand may try to make a product seem more appealing by excluding ingredients that have long names and are difficult to pronounce. They pass them off as harmful even if there is no research showing that these ingredients adversely affect people’s health. As I mentioned with chemicals, some brands sadly use fear to market their lines by making you afraid of ingredients that have no proven negative side effects. Terms I mentioned earlier, like “non-toxic” or “all-natural,” aren’t regulated and don’t have any official meaning, which means companies can use them in a misleading way.

Another example is when I recently saw that a brand launched a new retinol product, and when I went to their website to check it out, I noticed the following listed on every single one of their product pages:

“WHAT IT IS FORMULATED WITHOUT: Animal Fats/Oils/Musks, Benzalkonium Chloride, Benzophenone, Bisphenol A (BPA), Butoxyethanol, BHA, BHT, Chemical Sunscreens, Coal Tar Dyes, 1,4-Dioxane, -Cones, Detergent, Essential Oils, EDTA, Ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA), Formaldehyde, Fragrance, Hydroquinone, Liquid Paraffin, Liquid Petrolatum, Methyl Cellosolve, Methylisothiazolinone, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Mercury, Mercury Compounds, Mineral Oil, Oxybenzone, Parabens, Paraffin Oil, Phthalates, Polyethylene Glycol (PEGs), Resorcinol, Retinyl Palmitate, Siloxanes, Sulfates, Thimerosal, Toluene, Triclosan, Triclocarban.”

I rolled my eyes when I read this, simply because many of the ingredients they listed wouldn’t logically be included in the type of product being promoted on that page anyways. It just rubbed me the wrong way that they would list every ingredient under the sun to make it seem like they went to great lengths not to include them. On my product pages, I only list the formulated without ingredients where I could have done so if I wanted to. 

This greenwashing report from 2009 is a great read if you’re interested in learning more about this topic. At the end of the day, a brand can make their own definitions as they see fit and pass it off as fact.

The Issue of “Science-Washing” In Beauty

Just as much as there can be some shadiness when making claims on the green side of beauty, the same holds true on the science side. The minute a brand starts diving deep into talking about their scientific findings, it can be over the average person’s head to really know the validity of the claims being made. As someone who “attempts” to understand scientific research, I know personally how very, very challenging it is to decipher scientific papers. I see and hear claims being made that may not be exactly how they are presented.  

Ingredients I Choose To Avoid In Renée Rouleau Products

When I formulate a product, I consider the intent of the product (which problem it needs to solve), the ingredients I want to use to drive results and which ingredients I want to avoid using. I have many different reasons for avoiding the use of certain ingredients in my range: It may be a gut feeling based on the history of an ingredient’s use. It may be the fact that an ingredient is harmful or sensitizing to the skin, or it may be that an ingredient is simply not beneficial to the integrity of the skin.

When it comes to researching ingredients, there is no shortage of websites that discuss them in both a positive and negative light, and I recognize that it can be confusing to decide which source to trust. As a skincare formulator, it’s my job to sort through all of this information and review related scientific studies to ensure I’m delivering safe products for my customers. Furthermore, I personally study ingredients closely and make this a part of my continuing education so I can stay up-to-date on the latest advancements and findings.

Common ingredients I currently avoid using in Renée Rouleau products:

  • Quaternium-15
  • Mineral Oil
  • Petrolatum
  • SD Alcohol 40 and Denatured Alcohol (the “bad” alcohols, not to be confused with the “good” alcohols. Did you know Vitamin E is an alcohol?)
  • Sodium Laureth/Laurel Sulfate
  • Ammonium Laureth/Laurel Sulfate
  • Polyethylene beads (plastic)
  • *Parabens (Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Propylparaben)
  • Phthalates (Dibutyl Phthalate, Diethyl Phthalate, Bisphenol)
  • Hydroquinone (although I am not against this ingredient for those who have really stubborn melasma)
  • Synthetic dyes
  • Artificial fragrances
  • Apricot kernels and seed/shell powders

*Note: I do have one product in my line that contains methylparaben which I formulated back in 2000 back when methylparaben was commonplace in formulas: Weightless Protection SPF 30. This sunscreen is one of our top-selling products because it’s so lightweight and wearable for everyday use. It’s perfect for those with clogged the pores and won’t cause breakouts in sensitive, oily skin types. In this particular product, if I removed the methylparaben, the formula would change entirely and wouldn’t feel as great on the skin, which would make our customers really unhappy. While parabens have gotten a bad rap in recent years, the truth is there just isn’t any solid evidence proving that they’re harmful. Many people will tell you differently, but true experts will say it is still unknown. There is a lot of talk in the chemistry world of bringing them back into cosmetic formulations because not only is there not valid proof of their unsafety, they lend formulas stability that is missing from some of the “natural” brands. Some of the lesser studied, paraben-free alternatives are what has allowed microorganisms to grow in products. Clean beauty should certainly mean safe beauty, and you want to feel confident that you’re not putting bad bacteria on your face.

Also, one other thing about our Weightless Protection SPF 30 since some of you have asked us. There was a recent ban in Hawaii for the sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. They are thought to pose a risk of degrading coral reef when worn while swimming in the ocean. This ban applies to water-resistant beach sunscreens only, which our sunscreen is not. Weightless Protection SPF 30 is a daily use sunscreen for under makeup. (Pro tip: When at the beach, wear long-sleeve UV protecting swimwear to lessen sunscreen getting into ocean waters in the first place.)

I do like using silicones in certain formulas where it makes sense to do so. Silicones are being debated so here are some common misconceptions.

Why I Consider My Line “Clean Beauty”

Based on my own definition, I would definitely consider my line to be “clean beauty” because I am very conscientious about the safety of the ingredients I use. However, if I had to pick a label for my brand, I would actually say we are a “clean science” brand. What this means is that our products are thoughtfully formulated to be solution-focused and that they combine the finest of what both nature and science have to offer.

Lightweight sunscreen that won't clog pores

Why I Would Never Make My Line “All-Natural” (Science is needed!)

At the end of the day, everyone wants results from their products, and I believe tapping into science is the best way to achieve this. That being said, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to compromise your health in order to use products that tap into scientific advancements. I think a lot of brands are missing out on great opportunities when it comes to science-based skincare, and because of this, their products may not be very effective. Trust me, when you have serious skincare concerns like loss of tone, brown spots, wrinkles or stubborn acne, rubbing a simple, all-natural skin oil will only get you so far.

Another reason I would never make my line “all-natural” is that this is such an exciting time for beauty, thanks to the incredible advancements that have been made in skincare technology. There is tremendous scientific brainpower dedicated to research and development, and in the past 25 years, we have learned so much about how the skin works. Product formulations are becoming more sophisticated than ever, allowing us to create real, meaningful change in people’s skin. Being the skincare nerd that I am, I would never want to miss out on all this and making it accessible to my customers!

As I’ve said, I believe there are benefits to harnessing both science and nature in skincare, so in my line, I will continue to embrace the best of both. There will undoubtedly continue to be medical advances that expand into the field of skincare, and I’m so excited to keep sharing them with you.

A Few Final Thoughts

  • One of the reasons some people are choosing to buy from smaller, indie brands is that they are direct-to-consumer. This means their products are not sold in retail stores, which allows them to maintain better quality control. For example, whenever you buy a product from like Nordstrom or Sephora, you can’t know how long the product has been sitting on a shelf. If you’re buying products from retail stores, you’ll really want to pay attention to expiration dates (if they are listed) to ensure you’re getting a fresh product.
  • Since we are a direct-to-consumer brand, we ship it right from our facility to your front door. This gives us much more control when it comes to the safety and efficacy of our products. However, from time to time we’ll hear some people getting worried about ordering from us in the summer since we ship out of Austin, Texas. They are concerned about their box sitting in the back of a UPS delivery truck for hours at a time. Well, no need to worry at all. Read what happens if your skincare products get hot.
  • Please know that we don’t cut corners or use poor quality ingredients and would never sell anything that we wouldn’t use on ourselves. Ultimately, it’s up to you as a consumer to decide what’s best for you, but I do hope that this blog post helps give you some things to think about so you can make an informed decision.
  • That said, understand that regardless of an ingredient’s source or how it’s made, your skin’s receptors will never know where it came from. An ingredient either performs or it doesn’t once it’s applied to the skin. (Speaking of doesn’t, read why I’m not a believer in at-home, DIY recipes.)
  • Scientific studies have limits. For example, in vitro testing. This has been a major advancement in beauty due to the decreasing usage of animals for testing. (Yay! And for the record, my line is certified with Leaping Bunny as a cruelty-free line.) However, using skin tissues in a petri dish to absolutely confirm that an ingredient will work exactly how it’s supposed to is not always accurate. Human skin when out in the world and all that it is exposed to on a daily basis will act a different way then what can be determined in isolated glass. This is why, no matter how much research you try to do on a product, sometimes you just have to try it and see how it works for you. 
  • What I love about the focus on clean beauty is the awareness it brings. Because of that, there will certainly be more money spent on research and as always, the skincare industry will continue to evolve.

-If you’re interested, a good and easy resource for keeping on top of regulations and ingredients is GCI Magazine.
-If you want to learn more about ingredients, here are 20 of my favorite ingredients and read about ingredient percentages and what product labels won’t tell you.
-Want to learn more about my skincare beliefs? Read my philosophy and where I think the skincare industry is headed.

I sincerely hope you found this post helpful. It’s all very confusing but I hope this brings a bit of clarity for you from my brain to yours! 🙂

Renée Rouleau

Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”