Hairstory sustainable beauty summit

Synthetics & Preservatives in Cosmetics & Beauty: Why Clean Beauty is Complicated

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Industry leaders say synthetic ingredients can be cleaner than natural ones, preservatives are a must, and “clean” certifications are not always what they seem.

If you’re an eco-conscious label-reader who wants to know exactly what is in a product before you buy it, wrapping your head around 'clean' beauty can be confusing. You might believe that 'clean' is synonymous with 'all-natural,' but when you discover that many virtue-signaling products include synthetic ingredients and even preservatives, your heart sinks. How can these brands claim to be clean? 

The Hairstory Sustainable Beauty Summit in April 2021 was a forum for clean beauty leaders to address these issues. Moderated by Jenny Jin, beauty director at Pure Wow, a focus was on consumer misconceptions about ingredients – and what clean really means to them.


“Synthetic ingredients can be some of the cleanest ingredients; it's all about how they're processed,” explained Hillary Peterson, the CEO, and founder of True Botanicals. “And, natural ingredients can be toxic, depending on exactly that same thing. Was CO2 extracted? Was it cold-pressed? Were there solvents involved in the extraction? For True Botanicals, clean comes down to safety for people and the planet.”

Synthetic ingredients are controversial, and not always rightly so. When Ilia Beauty founder Sasha Plavsic first launched her brand in 2009, she “got some flack” for including synthetics. But as the line grew she noticed that some products' performance was compromised without the relatively consistent nature of synthetics.

“Over the last five years, I started reformulating my products with a mindset of what clean is,” she said. “And I think, overall, it's where the best of natural and the safest of synthetic collide. It's where they meet in the middle. It can be a little bit different for each brand. But in general, it's the collision of the two together where you're creating efficacious products, let's say for the skin. Generally, there's a purpose to protecting the vibe of skin, if it's an active ingredient.”

The same goes for preservatives, which all five panelists agreed are necessary. Whether it’s fermented natural extracts or a chemical compound created in a lab, without preservatives, beauty products could easily spoil or become contaminated.

“You can use phenoxyethanol at a very, very low percentage truly for antimicrobial and antifungal purposes and to hold the product together,” Joe Cloyes, CEO of Youth to the People explained. “You can go in at very low percentages and be safe, but it depends on the pH of the product as well. We're using more of the fermented preservatives right now, again based on the pH of the product and what we're putting in there. Preservatives are controversial, but there are so many options and so many things that go into how you make the product.”


As Cloyes indicated, scrutinizing individual ingredients can be misleading; how ingredients work together in a formula should also be considered. But that's not easy to understand unless you’re a chemist or cosmetics expert, and every panelist agreed upon the importance of education for conscious consumers. While the demand for clean beauty has grown, education has lagged.

“We can do better as brands, manufacturers, and labs to contextualize a blend versus a single ingredient,” points out Sarah Lee, co-founder, and co-CEO of Glow Recipe. “There’s of a lot of information out there. Skincare enthusiasts, especially on social media, make very quick conclusions about whether a product is good or bad based on one ingredient or its percentage. And there's a lot of nuance and context behind each and every formulation. So, I do think that there is some work to be done in order to educate. It's not black and white.”


Consumer education should also address the confusion around the many certifications products may receive. One brand might boast MADE SAFE, another may be Clean at Sephora, and in potential greenwashing fashion, a third may have no certification at all even though they claim to be 'green,' 'organic' or 'cruelty-free.'

“I just don't think these certifications are any good unless the consumer understands what they mean”
Rose-Marie Swift
founder of RMS Beauty

In addition, the United States doesn’t have a clear and strict set of regulations for the clean beauty industry. And, based on Swift’s personal experience, other regulations, such as USDA Certified Organic, are also questionable. While searching for a fragrance to include in the body oil she was creating, Swift received a recommendation for a certified organic supplier in Hawaii. However, when fragrance was tested, they learned it was synthetic. 

So, while there’s definitely work to be done around regulations and explaining what each certification means, brands do align with ones that speak to them. For example, all True Botanicals products are certified MADE SAFE.

“As someone who had recovered from cancer, I was really interested in how the beauty industry could better serve people,” said Peterson. “I learned a lot from scientists who shared their concerns around ingredients like nanoparticles and sub-ingredients in beauty products that weren't even listed on the labels. All of that led me to MADE SAFE because some of the top green scientists in the world have informed the MADE SAFE certifications. For me, MADE SAFE stands out because it's an independent certification. And that's something I'd really love to see going forward, more certifications that aren’t based on self-reporting.”


But if some brands use self-reported certifications and some include synthetic ingredients or preservatives, what does it actually mean to be a clean beauty product? The answer is, once again, complicated. As of now, each brand has its own definition of clean. 

“I actually like to call myself green, only because I feel I’ve really held to my value system by keeping it as raw as possible, as organic and clean as possible,” Swift explained. “Sometimes, I almost take it a step too far, because I'm kind of a purist. It seems like so many people have a definition, and different stores all have their definitions of clean. I don't know exactly where I stand on that. Because I always say there's clean, there's cleaner, and there's cleanest.” 

Clean beauty brands may be equally concerned about how ingredients are processed – and how their products are packaged.

“Clean is beyond just the ingredient list,” Lee said. “It's the approach to clean beauty in general – the approach to how people shop and how we educate as a brand. We want to think about how we can affect it in every aspect of product development. This might be sourcing or how it affects our skin and the earth. We want to be really cognizant of how we impact a community.”

Plavsic agreed with Lee. She said that over the last couple of years, she’s seen a stronger focus on packaging and sustainability throughout the industry.

“From a values standpoint, social responsibility includes packaging,” she explained. “Everybody was very focused on the formulas the first 10 years, but in my eyes, it’s becoming so much bigger when we're producing so much. I don't think that zero-waste is possible; I think that there has to be offsetting. How do we offset what we do? We're producing so much, and what is our responsibility as brands to the planet? That is the bigger conversation for any corporation today.”

As clean brands work to expand their mission beyond just good and bad ingredients to include how they are grown, harvested, and processed, they are also examining their impact on farmers and other workers along the way, and how their business as a whole adversely affects the environment. 

“No one can say they're the most sustainable or the cleanest," says Cloyes. "It's all about doing the best you can, and learning from peers and other organizations. If we can all be transparent, do the best we can, and align and help each other, that's what's going to make things better. We are making things that people buy, and at the end of the day, that's not ultra-sustainable. But that's what we do; we’re going to do the best we can to be as sustainable as possible.”