Clinical Skin Care Is Merging with Clean Beauty to Create Products That Actually Work
These "cleanical" hybrids — nontoxic formulas with clinical power — are your answer to cleaning up your skin-care routine while getting real results.
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 touted as a gentler retinol alternative — 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, $22, 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 Power
Ingredient advancements are behind the upgraded class of clean, safe skin care. Brands and chemists are discovering new skin-improving properties of obscure botanicals and creating formulations that work with the skin's biology, making them easier to absorb. The latest from True Botanicals, Chebula Active Immunity Serum (Buy It, $90, nordstrom.com), harnesses the power of chebula, a plant long used in traditional Indian medicine but new to skin care. "It is the most bioactive and potent antioxidant — a full-spectrum anti-inflammatory — that I have ever seen," says Peterson. "It has been clinically proved to address roughness and dryness, even skin tone, brighten dull skin, improve skin elasticity and firmness, and smooth fine lines and wrinkles."
The vetting process to ensure that the plant extract was up to muster was "incredibly challenging and rigorous," says Peterson. This involves sourcing natural ingredients that are hypoallergenic and can be easily absorbed by the skin. Ingredients that meet performance benchmarks are then vetted using the Made Safe certification process, which looks at the entire supply chain and screens an ingredient for its effectiveness in the environment, how long it stays in our bodies, and contamination risks.
Shape Brain Trust member Dendy Engelman, M.D., a dermatologist in New York, is a fan of Ambari Beauty, a new line that uses ancient ingredients in a modern way: combining potent alpha hydroxy acids and polyhydroxy acids with cannabidiol and adaptogens to calm the skin and boost cell turnover.
"It has high-performance concentrations of chemical exfoliants and is void of ingredients like parabens and PEGs [polyethylene glycols] and fragrance," says Dr. Engelman. The Gold Perfection22 Mask (Buy It, $92, ambaribeauty.com) contains 22 percent AHA, plus CBD and reishi, while the PM Active 12 Serum (Buy It, $98, ambaribeauty.com) incorporates AHAs, bakuchiol (a natural retinol alternative), niacinamide, and shiitake mushroom.
Biophile, the brainchild of cosmetic chemist Alison Cutlan, homes in on the beneficial process of fermentation to deliver active ingredients and protect the skin barrier. The three-product lineup — Root Bionic Refining Essence (Buy It, $78, verishop.com), Bio-Shroom Rejuvenating Serum (Buy It, $68, verishop.com), and Bio Barrier Nourishing Oil (Buy It, $118, biophileskin.com) — is founded on the biological activity of pre- and probiotic bacteria, botanicals, fungi, and superfoods. These work together to balance the skin's microbiome and stabilize pH — both are important to keep skin strong and healthy and prevent irritation — while also reducing wrinkles and pigmentation.
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, $65, beautycounter.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, $50, 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 Gel (Buy It, $21, 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."
Breakthroughs in hair care have brought luxe-feeling shampoos without sodium lauryl sulfate (which can damage hair proteins and cause scalp irritation). In addition, these high-performance products have little to no environmental impact. Shampoo bars like Odacité 552M Soap Free Shampoo Bar (Buy It, $29, nordstrom.com) and Love Beauty and Planet Murumuru Butter & Rose Shampoo Bar (Buy It, $19, walmart.com) hydrate and cleanse with coconut oil and dispense with plastic packaging.
A new brand, Everist, has perfected no-water paste formulas for shampoo and conditioner, which activate with H2O from the shower. These clean, botanical-based formulas are highly concentrated; the equivalent of a whole bottle of shampoo can fit in a 100 mL travel-friendly (and recyclable) aluminum tube. (Check out these zero-waste deodorants to reduce more of your personal waste from beauty products.)
One high-profile brand to stake a claim in nontoxic, sustainable hair care is R+Co, which has a new vegan luxury line, Bleu, that is paraben-, sulfate-, petrolatum-, and gluten-free. The styling products beautify hair using micro-encapsulated sugar molecules to gradually deliver the formula's active ingredients over time, which gently restores the surface of the follicle to a healthy state. Beyond that, every bottle, jar, and cap is made from post-consumer recycled plastic, and the tubes are sustainably made with sugarcane bioresins and are recyclable. As a finishing touch, each box contains a seed card that sprouts wildflowers when planted. (Related: The Best Shampoo Bars for an Eco-Friendly Shower)
Perfume lovers concerned about potentially hazardous ingredients like phthalates in their favorite fragrances have an array of options. Natural perfumes have often been less effective — and are arguably less sophisticated — than more complex synthetic scents, but new ways of working with raw materials have helped elevate these products, making them able to compete with established mainstream leaders.
"We've been making clean perfume since 2010, before it was cool," says Barb Stegemann, the founder of The 7 Virtues, the top-selling clean-fragrance brand at Sephora. "So we've been able to crack the code on what makes a long-lasting natural scent."
Nonclean brands may use phthalates, parabens, sulfates, formaldehyde, and UV inhibitors to make their scents last. Instead, The 7 Virtues doubles the fragrance oils, says Stegemann. Its Eau de Parfums (Buy It, $79, sephora.com) have 22 to 30 percent fragrance oils, and its Perfume Oils (Buy It, $69, sephora.com) contain organic jojoba oil and 25 percent fragrance oils. It also sources essential oils (from independent farmers) that are natural fixatives, like vanilla, vetiver, and rose. Because there are such high levels of those fixatives in the formulations, 7 Virtues scents impart beneficial moisturization, so they stay put and evolve beautifully on skin. (And they come in recyclable glass bottles.)
But a clean fragrance doesn't have to mean an all-natural one. Innovations have resulted in lab-made aromas — like sustainable sandalwood and vegan musks — that don't harm the planet. Givaudan, one of the world's largest fragrance manufacturers, has developed a range of clean, sustainable fragrance molecules. "They are very strong, so you don't need to use a lot," says Stephen Nilsen, a senior perfumer. "And many of them are upcycled: We use what's discarded from processing a food or flower to develop the scent molecule." Expect to see more fragrances with notes like upcycled vanilla or Ambrofix, a synthetic amber scent note that substitutes for clary sage.
St. Rose, a new luxury fragrance brand, uses naturally derived molecules and pure botanical oils in its elegant organic sugarcane- alcohol formulations. And British cult favorite Floral Street, which boasts a lineup of spirited, sophisticated clean florals composed by star perfumer Jérome Epinette, contains synthetic and natural ingredients — the brand stresses the importance of educating consumers about the safety of both.
At the end of the day, it's about finding the healthiest clinical skin care formula for you.
Shape Magazine, April 2020 issue