Clean Beauty May be Non-Toxic, but it Still Sells Toxic Beauty Standards
What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.
I'm done with clean beauty.
That might be a surprising statement, coming from the keyboard of a clean beauty columnist. Or maybe it's not surprising, considering the subject matter of some of my clean beauty columns (clean beauty means nothing, clean beauty was stolen from Black and Brown communities, stop buying so many clean beauty products). Either way, it's true.
I was initially drawn to the "clean" space—call it natural, non-toxic, sustainable, insert nice-sounding adjective here—because I wanted to make the beauty industry a safer place to be. I still want that. I still believe that safe ingredients are important. I still believe that conventional cosmetics contain some questionable ingredients, ones I'd rather not have permeating my precious skin barrier, thanks. I no longer believe ingredients are the bad guys of beauty, though.
The most toxic thing the industry sells isn't phthalates or sulfates or silicones. It's beauty standards.
Studies prove that beauty standards directly contribute to anxiety and depression. They can trigger body dysmorphia and disordered eating. They can fuel low self-esteem, self-harm, and even suicide. All of these conditions have risen in recent years, and all of them are unequivocally connected to beauty standards.
So what are beauty standards, exactly?
As I've written before, "Beauty standards are the individual qualifications one is expected to meet in order to embody the 'beauty ideal' and thus, succeed in society, both personally and professionally." They are products of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. (Trace back a Western beauty standard, any Western beauty standard—light skin, "normal" skin, anti-aging, pouty lips, button nose, even washing your face—and you'll find it's rooted in one of those.) They are communicated to us from birth, basically, by television and magazines and advertising and dress codes and government policies and more. They reinforce racism, colorism, classism, ableism, ageism, and sexism. They bolster the gender binary.
Conforming to beauty standards confers a certain set of privileges, particularly for women: better treatment, better jobs, better pay. It can feel empowering because it offers literal power. However, it's a bait-and-switch: To earn that life, time, and money through beauty, you sacrifice your life, time, and money to beauty.
To this point, the large majority of standards require constant upkeep. They are impossible to achieve, or close to it—like erasing your pores (their size is genetically determined and their existence is essential), "preserving your youth" (a seemingly positive way to promote anti-aging ideology), or lightening your skin (do I need to elaborate?). Beauty ideals have progressed so far past what's humanly possible that we're not even idolizing humans anymore; we're idolizing glass and dolphins and dumplings.
This is deliberate. The more unattainable the goal, the more products can be sold—conventional, clean, or otherwise.
So while, yes, "clean" beauty may be free from so-called "toxic" substances, it ultimately sends the same toxic messages as the rest of the industry—and what's the point of "better" ingredients if they're pushing BS beauty standards?
Why ban physically "harmful" substances only to employ emotionally harmful marketing techniques?
How "sustainable" can a product be if it promotes an unsustainable ideal?
Doesn't ethical advertising matter as much as "ethically sourced" ingredients?
It all feels like a lie.
There's a lot about the clean category that isn't sitting right with critics and consumers right now, actually. With the sector facing more backlash than ever before, "science-backed" beauty has expanded to fill the space. But is it differently in any meaningful way? Not really. Just like clean, "science-backed" attempts to confer a certain sense of safety. Just like clean, "science-backed" is an empty marketing term unbeholden to an enforceable definition.
For instance, I recently saw an Instagram ad from a science-devoted skincare influencer promoting a serum from a science-backed skincare company. It'll "make you look like your face is filtered," she said. Besides being a decidedly unscientific claim, it's one that reinforces the notion that filtered, Photoshopped skin (which doesn't exist!) is not only something desirable, but something attainable (it's not!). Psychology is "the science of beauty," too. And what good is a "science-backed" brand if it doesn't account for the science that links the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards to our deteriorating mental and emotional health?
It's upsetting, but not unexpected. The entire industry—natural, synthetic, all of it—is engineered to sell impossible standards; standards that are so ingrained in society that submitting to them is an act of survival, standards that are so enmeshed in our existence that buying into them feels like empowerment.
That's the tricky thing. Because we live in a world where our worth is often measured by our proximity to the beauty ideal, it truly does make us feel better to inch closer to it. It does give us confidence to conform to aesthetic standards, whether we're "anti-aging" with retinol or bakuchiol, or plumping our pouts with injectable hyaluronic acid or an all-natural cinnamon gloss. There are plenty of well-intentioned brands, influencers, and editors who push beauty standards precisely for this reason: They want to make us feel good!
Conforming to capitalist, colonialist standards can only feel good for so long, though. It breeds confidence until it breeds anxiety. Or depression, or self-harm, or low self-esteem, or worse. Sugar is sweet until you have a stomachache.
I don't know how to fix it.
I don't know what comes next.
I do know this: Whether "safe" or "science-backed," a beauty brand, product, ingredient, or influencer is exactly as toxic as the beauty standards it sells.