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What's the Difference Between Clean and Natural Beauty Products?

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Photo: Leonori / Shutterstock

All-natural, organic, and eco-friendly products are more mainstream than ever. But with all the various health-conscious terms out there, finding the items that best suit your needs (and ethics) can get a little confusing. That's especially true when it comes to clean and natural beauty.

While it's easy to assume that "clean" and "natural" mean the same thing, they're actually pretty different. Here's what beauty and skin pros want you to know about purchasing items in these two categories, plus how your product choices could affect your skin and overall health. (BTW, these are the best natural beauty products you can buy at Target.)

Clean vs. Natural Beauty

"Some use these terms interchangeably because there's no governing body or general consensus around the definitions of 'clean' and 'natural,'" says Leigh Winters, a neuroscientist and holistic wellness expert who helps formulate natural beauty products.

"'Natural' is mostly used to describe the purity of ingredients. When consumers are looking for natural products, it's most likely the case that they're in search of a formulation with pure, nature-derived ingredients without synthetics," Winters says. Natural products generally contain ingredients found in nature (like these DIY beauty products you can make at home), rather than lab-made chemicals.

While many people are familiar with the concept of clean eating, or primarily eating whole, unprocessed foods, "clean beauty" is a bit different, since it's more focused on third-party testing to ensure the safety of ingredients—as well as an interest in being eco-friendly and sustainable, Winters says. The ingredients can be either natural or lab-made, but the key is that they're all either shown to be safe to use or there's no evidence that they're not safe to use.

One of the easiest ways to explain the difference between the two is an oft-cited example: "Think about poison ivy," Winters suggests. "It's a beautiful plant to look at walking in the woods, and it's even 'natural.' But it has no therapeutic benefit and can harm you if you rub it all over your skin. Poison ivy highlights this idea that just because a plant or ingredient is 'natural,' that term alone does not make it synonymous with 'efficacious' or 'safe for topical use in humans.'" Of course, that doesn't mean all natural products are bad. It just means that the word "natural" isn't a guarantee that every ingredient in the product is safe.

Because the term "clean" is unregulated, there's also some variation in what qualifies as "clean" across the industry. "To me, the definition 'clean' is 'biocompatible,'" explains Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant, a skin-care brand that makes exclusively clean products and is essentially a gold standard in the clean skin-care world. "That means the skin and body can process, accept, recognize, and successfully use it without irritation, sensitization, disease, or disruption. Clean can be synthetic and/or natural."

In Masterson's products, there's a focus on avoiding what she calls the "suspicious 6" ingredients, which are found in many beauty products on the market. "They are essential oils, silicones, drying alcohols, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), chemical sunscreens, and fragrances and dyes," Masterson says. Yup, even essential oils—a natural beauty product mainstay. Even though they're natural, Masterson believes they cause more harm than good in skin-care products, as they're often not completely pure, and fragrance of any kind can cause skin irritation.

Though Masterson's brand is the only one that avoids all of these ingredients throughout their entire product offering, many clean brands primarily focus on steering clear of ingredients like parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and petrochemicals.

The Benefits of Choosing Clean Beauty

"Using products void of toxic ingredients can lower your risk of irritation, redness, and sensitivity," says Dendy Engelman, M.D., a dermatologic surgeon based in NYC. "Some toxic ingredients have also been linked to other health issues like skin cancer, nervous system issues, reproductive issues, and more," Dr. Engelman says. Though it's difficult to establish definite causality between chemicals in beauty products and health problems, clean beauty advocates take the "better safe than sorry" approach.

It's also crucial to note that going clean doesn't mean you need to go 100 percent natural (unless you want to!), because a lot of synthetic ingredients are safe. "I am a big supporter of science-backed skin-care. Some ingredients made in a lab can deliver great results and be perfectly safe to use," Dr. Engelman adds. While some natural products are great, those who are interested primarily in using the safest products for the best possible results are more likely to find success focusing on clean products above natural ones.

Most important, derms say, is to check out the ingredients list before using a product. "You really need to know what you are putting on your skin, as your skin absorbs these ingredients like a sponge and is directly absorbed into the body," says Amanda Doyle, M.D., a dermatologist at Russak Dermatology in NYC.

In terms of the health of your skin, another benefit of going clean is that products tend to be more universal. "Clean products, under my definition, are good for all skin," Masterson notes. "There are no skin 'types' in my world. We treat all skin equally and with few exceptions, all skin responds the same. Every single issue that I can think of with regard to 'problematic' skin improves tremendously—if not disappears—when a fully clean routine is implemented."

How to Find Clean Products

So how can you tell if a product is really clean or not? The safest way is to examine the ingredients list, then cross-reference it with the Environmental Work Group's (EWG) website, according to David Pollock, a beauty industry consultant and formulator for carcinogen-free beauty products.

If you don't have time for that, you still have options if you're trying to go clean. Pollock suggests avoiding parabens, glycols, triethanolamine, sodium and ammonium laureth sulfates, triclosan, petrochemicals such as mineral oil and petrolatum, synthetic fragrances and dyes, and other ethoxylated materials that produce 1,4-Dioxane.

Another option is to find a brand you trust and go with their products as often as you can. "There are several brands on the market that do a great job of offering nontoxic beauty products, and more are up-and-coming," Pollack says. "The key is to get to know a brand. Ask questions. Get involved. And when you find a brand with a philosophy that aligns with yours, stick with them."

Unfortunately, clean beauty products tend to be a bit more expensive than regular ones (although there are exceptions!), but that often means you're getting more for your money. "Since fillers are not used, that leaves space for more active ingredients and so, clean products will be more expensive," says Nicolas Travis, founder of clean and adaptogenic beauty brand Allies of Skin.

If you're limited to what you can switch because of price, it's still worth it to make small changes over time. As for what to start with, "I would say whatever you use the most of," Dr. Doyle says. "Think body moisturizer, shampoo, or deodorant. What swap can you make that would make the most impact?"

Dr. Engelman prefers ruling out ingredients rather than switching just one or two products at a time. "If you're using a toxic lipstick but clean shampoo, the toxins are still being absorbed by your skin regardless of where on your body. That said, areas of the body that have higher superficial blood flow (scalp) or are close to mucosa (lips, eyes, nose) are riskier than areas with thicker skin (elbows, knees, hands, feet). So, if you need to choose, apply safer products on your head and face."

 

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