These "cleanical" hybrids—nontoxic formulas with clinical power—are your answer to cleaning up your skin-care routine while getting real results.

By Kate Sandoval Box
April 09, 2020
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At a minimum, a clean formula is free of potentially toxic chemicals. (What’s considered toxic is self-regulated by beauty companies. Note: "Clean" and "natural" beauty products aren't the same either.) A clinical skin-care formula has scientific research that proves its effectiveness. Combine the two and you get a new booming category known as “cleanical” skin care that’s safe and delivers results.

Why the sudden popularity in clean beauty products with scientific backings? Consumer demands for such formulas are at an all-time high. “That’s caused brands to source more sustainable raw ingredients and to rigorously test what they can do for the skin,” says Christin Powell, the CEO and a cofounder of Kinship, a new clean-beauty brand. “And it’s inspired cosmetic chemists to innovate and formulate more creatively.”

Another shift: “There has been a realization that some lab-made synthetic ingredients are perfectly safe and may sometimes be more sustainable than depleting a natural resource,” says Ada Polla, the CEO of Alchimie Forever, a clean beauty brand formulated by dermatologists. On the flip side, there’s also proof that plants can not only compete with formulas like traditional anti-agers but also surpass their efficacy. Take True Botanicals. Founder Hillary Peterson commissioned a randomized, double-blind study to prove that her clean, botanical-based Renew Pure Radiance Oil (Buy It, $110, truebotanicals.com) was more hydrating and reduced fine lines better than a popular traditional high-end cream.

Cleanical skin care takes all this newfound understanding into account. Here’s more on what goes into the latest clinically-formulated clean beauty products, plus how to use them. (Related: How to Make the Switch to a Clean, Nontoxic Beauty Regimen)

When Clean Beauty Meets Clinical Skin Care

Plants have proven powers. Certain natural extracts have been used to treat skin for centuries. And now we have clinical studies showing that, for example, cannabis can calm irritated skin, while bakuchiol—an extract from the Indian babchi plant—can soften fine lines and be found in moisturizers like Follain Moisturizer: Replenish + Protect(Buy It, $32, ulta.com).

In fact, “some of the most effective, proven, long-standing ingredient recommendations that dermatologists make can be natural,” says Daniel Belkin, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. “For instance, retinol can be derived from plants to rev collagen production; glycolic acid comes from sugarcane to exfoliate skin; salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid that treats acne, is from tree bark; and zinc, a mineral that blocks UV rays, is mined from the earth.”

Processing these active ingredients cleanly is the priority when creating this hybrid clinical skin care. But they’re often not the only compounds that go into a solution. “Usually what’s excluded from clean skin care are preservatives like parabens, plastics, and sulfate-based cleansers,” says Dr. Belkin. So today beauty brands have found alternatives to those things as well as some other synthetic ingredients that make formulas silky, mattifying, hydrating, and foamy. “We put coconut alkanes in our sunscreen instead of a common silicone that’s made from petroleum and has a questionable safety profile. It creates that slip we love without causing harm,” says Powell. “There’s also a non-petroleum-based cleansing agent that we substitute in our face wash." (Buy It, Kinship Naked Papaya Gentle Enzyme Face Cleanser, $20, lovekinship.com)

Still, some of these new alternatives don’t have the decades of safety testing that traditional ingredients do. “Our knowledge is evolving, and cleanical brands have to be nimble and willing to reformulate to keep themselves as safe and efficacious as possible,” says Yashi Shrestha, a research scientist and green cosmetic chemist at clean-beauty company NakedPoppy.

Clean Beauty Products that Pack Clinical Skin-Care Power

The most important rule of picking clean beauty products with clinical skin-care formulas: “Carefully curate your routine for your skin type,” says Sapna Palep, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. “If you have normal or dry skin and want an anti-aging regimen, I recommend a glycolic acid and a retinol.” Try Beautycounter Counter+ Overnight Resurfacing Peel (Buy It, $63, beautycounter.com) and Naturopathica Retinol Renewal Concentrate (Buy It, $38, dermstore.com).

You can also add hydrating oils or creams that pack the same punch as clinical skin care, like Codex Beauty Bia Skin Superfood (Buy It, $43, saksfifthavenue.com), as well as masks, like Alchimie Forever Kantic Brightening Moisture Mask (Buy It, $60, dermstore.com), to nourish dry skin.

“If you’re acne prone, I suggest salicylic acid,” says Dr. Palep. Find it in Ren Clean Skincare Clearcalm Non-Drying Acne Treatment Ge (Buy It, $20, dermstore.com). “But if your acne is severe, it’s important to see a board-certified dermatologist to help guide you further,” says Dr. Palep. “Same goes for severe rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, or sensitive-skin concerns; allergic reactions can happen with organic ingredients.”

At the end of the day, it’s about finding the healthiest clinical skin care formula for you. (And since there are *a lot* of options out there, you'll need this round-up of the best clean beauty buys at Sephora.)

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