Is clean beauty a skincare revolution – or a pointless indulgence?

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Their lids gleam under the shop lights: bottles made of elegant black or vivid green glass stand alongside white tubes with bold, minimalist lettering. These beauty products make many claims: to “defy” age, minimise pores, block pollution, plump skin. They promise radiance, illumination, hydration, brightening and perfecting. In many ways, they are no different from the beauty products that have come before them, except that they all claim to be somehow morally better, or cleaner. This is the new era of “clean beauty” – one that promises “no nasties”, and a “chemical-free”, “nontoxic” skincare regime. It is one that attempts to divide beauty products into good and bad, clean and dirty, toxic and nontoxic. But is there any scientific evidence for this? Do we really need to “clean up” the products we use on our faces? Are the products we may be using harmful – or is this just another way to sell us (often very expensive) creams that we don’t need?

There is certainly money to be made. Women in the UK are spending more than ever on facial skincare. According to the market research firm Mintel, 92% of us use a facial cleanser, 66% a day cream and 48% a night cream (up from 39% in 2017). Last year, the UK beauty industry was worth £1.15bn, and is expected to grow by 15% in the next five years.

The term “clean” in cosmetics is woolly. “Within ‘clean beauty’ there are many, many different elements,” says Sarah Meadows, the head buyer at the beauty chain Space NK. “Whether it is about sustainability, whether it is vegan, conscious living, free-from … playing into any of those would make you a clean brand. It can be fairly confusing for the customer.”

With shoppers keen to reduce their environmental impact, it makes sense to focus on sustainability – for example by using recyclable packaging. But the argument is less clear when it comes to the growing market in “free-from” products, which omit ingredients that the brands have deemed bad for some customers. The French cosmetics firm Officinea has even developed an app that can scan a product’s ingredients list to flag “controversial” chemicals.

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