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Is clean beauty really clean?

While natural, organic and eco-friendly products continue to flood the market, dermatologists aren't convinced it is a wholly positive trend

Clean beauty has become increasingly popular over the last few years
Clean beauty has become increasingly popular over the last few years (iStock)

The first time she used the shampoo, a well-known brand that claimed to be plant-based and antioxidant-rich, her ears started tingling a bit, remembers Jobi Vijay, a Chennai-based fitness coach. However, she didn’t connect it to the product she had switched to recently to combat hair fall. The allergy, however, returned: over and over again. She visited a couple of dermatologists who prescribed medicines but couldn’t identify the cause. Finally, one day when the allergy flared up almost immediately after she washed her hair, she made the connection.

Five minutes after her head bath, her ears started itching, the rash spreading to her hands, neck, legs. “It was so bad,” remembers Vijay. Her dermatologist told her to stop it immediately, prescribing a medicated shampoo and conditioner instead. “Something in the shampoo triggered the reaction,” believes Vijay. “Usually, I am not allergic at all.”

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“Clean” beauty has become increasingly popular over the last few years, with products purporting to be eco-friendly”, “cruelty-free”, “natural” and “vegan” taking over drugstore shelves, online marketplaces and social media. Several of these are home-grown—including Kama Ayurveda, Indus Valley, SoulTree and Mamaearth—and as the market continues to expand, more will enter. According to an April report in The Financial Express, beauty and personal care will be a $30 billion (around 2 trillion) market in India by 2025; experts, it adds, forecast that organic and natural products will constitute 5-10% of the overall category.

As a concept, it stems from the right motives, ones that are hard to argue with: better health, a cleaner world, no animal testing. But it can come with its pitfalls unless you do your homework. You could be allergic to an ingredient or it may trigger a reaction owing to an underlying condition. And, of course, there are the perils of greenwashing, with some brands making claims that may do more to mislead than to heal.

Nevertheless, the trend favouring better, more conscious choices good for both you and the environment is a promising one, says Pallavi Yadalam, the founder and CEO of Clean Beauty Booth, a curated marketplace for cruelty-free, toxin-free products. Regular cosmetics, she points out, often contain ingredients that aren’t good for you. Clean beauty products, on the other hand, are formulated with natural ingredients and are free of unsafe parabens, talc and preservatives, adds Pooja Malhotra, a make-up artist at KIKO Milano, which has a line of eco-friendly, vegan make-up and skincare. “Consumers who support such brands want to clean up the environment and put an end to animal cruelty,” she says. Naina Ruhail, the co-founder and CIO of Vanity Wagon, another clean beauty marketplace, adds that the concept essentially boils down to two aspects: products that are safe for the environment and user’s bodies. In short, “any product that your body can process, accept, recognise and successfully use without irritation, sensitisation, disease, or disruption is clean”.

There’s no arguing with the logic, and anecdotal evidence suggests such products do work for some people. Like Bindya Talluri, a clean beauty enthusiast and Instagram blogger, who switched to organic and mineral-based make-up brands four-five years ago. “As you grow older, you get more conscious about these things,” says the Chennai-based former model, adding that the chemical make-up she once used, especially the added fragrances, was leading to skin reactions. Nearly 70% of the products she now uses fall in the “clean” category.

One problem, however, is the moral high ground that clean beauty often takes, sometimes using pseudo-science to back claims that clean equals safe. For example, in a 2016 interview with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, actor Gwyneth Paltrow claimed that since all the products in her Goop line contained organic, food-grade preservatives, one could technically eat them. The two then proceeded to dip French fries into a skin cream and eat them.

Such messaging can sway impressionable consumers. Also, full disclosure, some might choose to count me as one of them: My bathroom shelf is packed with a shampoo containing apple-cider vinegar, a collagen hair mask with shea butter and black seed, a body wash infused with strawberries, a coconut-oil-based moisturising cream. While I will not eat skin cream-laden French fries, I am somewhat convinced that the products, all purportedly natural and cruelty-free, are benign.

Some people do well with mineral-based and organic makeup
Some people do well with mineral-based and organic makeup (iStock)

Yet dermatologists believe this is simply not true—they have all treated patients with moderate to severe reactions to products claiming to be somehow ethically, environmentally or cosmetically superior to their “chemical” counterparts. Vanita Mathew, senior consultant dermatologist and aesthetic surgeon at Apollo Hospital, Bengaluru, is openly sceptical. “There has been a flooding of products in the market labelled organic, herbal and therefore safe to use,” she says, adding that she doesn’t necessarily agree that these are better than regular products. While some brands do maintain standards, it’s important to understand ingredients to avoid a flare-up, she adds. Just because a brand claims to be botanical-based, preservative-free or low-allergen does not automatically mean it is so, agrees Deepika Lunawat, consultant dermatologist at Fortis Malar Hospital, Chennai. “We have seen an increase in cases of contact dermatitis due to these kinds of products,” she says, referring to allergic skin inflammation. In short, no cosmetic product can be given an automatic safety pass because it carries the right words on the label.

So, while aspiring for a clean beauty routine is commendable, it remains important to be aware. For if some companies do observe regulations, others don’t, indulging in a term that is becoming common: greenwashing. “Many of the terms used on so-called clean beauty products are used confusingly and interchangeably,” says Shwetha Rahul, a Chennai-based dermatologist, aesthetic physician and founder of Hydra Dermatology. Natural, herbal and Ayurvedic products, for instance, may contain some ingredients of botanical origin but that doesn’t mean much when affixed to a label. These terms are too general and the product could still have chemicals and heavy metals. Also, just because something contains herbs doesn’t make it automatically hypoallergenic, points out Dr Rahul. Moreover, if you have an underlying medical condition, you may have to treat it first before trying out a “clean” product. “You can’t go to a doctor with psoriasis and ask for eco-friendly options,” says Dr Rahul. If you do want to use a “clean” product, ensure it’s certified by the right agency—Ecocert, for instance; this implies it has been researched and tested. “I am all for environmentally-friendly, cruelty-free and organic products if you have all the certifications in place,” says Dr Rahul.

Chennai-based Dakshana Rajaram, the founder of Studio Daksh, an exclusive online clothing store, learnt her lesson the hard way. Last year, she says, she switched completely to brands that ticked the right boxes, in an attempt to check hair fall. “It worked a little. But not as much as I would have liked it to work.” She reached out to a dermatologist friend, who told her to immediately consult a doctor if there was a specific concern she needed to address. “She told me I could switch to organic, cruelty-free products only after I had sorted out the issue,” says Rajaram.

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At the end of the day, knowing what suits your skin and lifestyle, researching extensively and getting expert help if you need it is possibly the best way forward. “You need to do your homework,” believes Dr Mathew, adding that this could include consulting a doctor, if necessary. “And if you have problematic skin, simply don’t try it out,” she says.

Jobi Vijay doesn’t intend to: The entire episode was too traumatic, she says. “This was my first and last time trying out a product like this.”

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