More than skin deep: The clean beauty trend
Everything you need to know about clean makeup — and why it matters for Black women diagnosed with breast cancer
Shelli Clay was only a few months removed from her breast cancer diagnosis when she started taking a hard look at her potential exposures to harmful chemicals in what she ate, in what she drank, and in the makeup that she wore on her face.
When it came to the last, Clay, a 55-year-old Atlanta resident, was so surprised by the presence of toxins in her beauty kit that she decided they weren’t fit for any living creature. Literally. She gave all her makeup to a funeral director that she knew with a commitment it would only be used on the faces of the dead.
“I love my makeup,” said Clay, who was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in August 2019. “But if it's going to be an environmental factor for me, that's not going to work.”
What would work, she soon learned, was a sizable and growing array of clean beauty products — makeup lines that are created without chemical ingredients that have the potential to cause cancers or other adverse health effects.
Billion dollar beauty business
Beauty is sizable and fast-growing business, with skin care alone projected to become a $181 billion industry by 2025, according to consumer research firm Euromonitor. Accelerating that growth is clean beauty, a market which is expected to reach $22 billion by 2024, according to Statista Research.
While the term “clean beauty” is said to have been around for more than a century, the current movement seems to have emerged out of a frustration over a lack over oversight of cosmetics and personal care products.
Despite the fast-growing category’s popularity, there still have been no formal definitions issued by federal regulators of what constitutes a clean product. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require approval of cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, before they go on the market.
In the absence of clear guidelines, independent researchers and others have begun setting the standard for clean.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, collaborates with the non-profit group Made Safe to certify products that do not contain a range of ingredients, including behavioral toxins, carcinogens, developmental toxins, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, neurotoxins, high-risk pesticides and reproductive toxins.
Another non-profit, the Environmental Working Group, researches the chemicals in cosmetics and publishes the results in its Skin Deep guide. The non-partisan organization also produces an app called Healthy Living. Its certified products must be devoid of any chemicals on its Unacceptable List — a document that is more than 1,000 pages long and includes various carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins and hundreds of other chemicals.
For Clay, the shift to clean beauty products is one she feels is particularly important for Black women. African Americans make up 14 percent of the population, but comprise 85 percent of the nation’s spending on hair and beauty products, according to “Black Impact: Consumer Categories Where African Americans Move Markets,” a 2017 Nielsen report.
We love to wear makeup. We all wake up in the morning, we’re putting at least 20, 30 different things on. I wear eyelashes, eyeliner, and mascara, all those things. So, I would just hope for the future for breast cancer survivors that we start being more conscious about what we're using.
That increased consciousness might start with having access to more information, including what exactly goes into labeling a beauty product as clean.
Carla Burns, senior director of cosmetic science for the Environmental Working Group, reiterates that there’s a lack of uniform standards around what constitutes clean products, so she urges makeup buyers to check labels and research the ingredients in the products that they use.
“It can be very overwhelming for lots of people, and it can be difficult to sift through ingredient labels,” Burns said. “You don't have a science background. Every consumer should not be expected to know every single ingredient on a label — there are resources out there.”
Clay was successful in finding beauty products that she can use, primarily by relying on resources like the Environmental Working Group’s “Unacceptable List,” but she said that they are not always easy to find.
“I was really surprised that some of my favorite products had all of these environmental factors,” she said. “I still wanted to love them. So, I kept on researching. I kept thinking, ‘It can't be true.’”
Clay’s disbelief is common — and it may stem from the fact that products made and sold in the United States typically have more harmful ingredients than they do in other parts of the world. One way to look at that disparity: the nations of the European Union have outlawed the use of more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics; the United States has banned about a dozen.
For clean beauty advocates, those figures suggest that Black women — who already have higher mortality rates from breast cancer — may also be exposing themselves to more toxins because they are consuming more products.
Advocating for transparency
It was the aforementioned figures that inspired Maimah Karmo, founder of Tigerlily Foundation, to start using clean beauty products after she was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago at the age of 32 — and why she continues to advocate for transparency in beauty products on behalf of other young women of color.
“How can you market to a population to sell your products, but you don't have the social responsibility to market to them to help them live better lives? I challenge people a lot on that,” she said.
Karmo — whose foundation provides education, awareness, advocacy, and support to young women before, during, and after breast cancer — uses beauty and bath products that are all natural.
Her knowledge of the harmful chemicals in beauty products is hard-earned. During chemotherapy, Karmo said she made a promise to God to create an organization committed to supporting young women affected by breast cancer. In the process of creating and leading the Tigerlily Foundation, she became well-versed in the array of chemicals that can be potentially harmful to young women. Now, she is now able to look at labels on products and determine what could be carcinogenic or toxic.
People don't know what they're putting in and on their bodies. If I can be an example of what to do better, and that can help change your outcomes, then that’s what I want to accomplish.
Changing outcomes led one doctor to start her own clean beauty line. Dr. Pooja Goel, of Rockville, Maryland, runs her own ecommerce store, HARA — a word drawn from her Hindu roots, which means “green.”
“There's many different avenues of trying to make beauty better, cleaner, safer, and more ethical, more sustainable,” Goel said. “The main thing that you're gaining when you go to clean beauty is you're cutting out ingredients that are leading to hormone disruption, you're cutting out ingredients that are known carcinogens. Yet they've been used for decades.”
Goel said that her interest in clean products started with one number.
“Women who wear lipstick daily ingest about 40 to 60 percent of it,” Goel said. “When it disappears, it doesn't evaporate. You eat it. If it's just a general commercial beauty lipstick, you look at the ingredients — their carcinogenic potential and their hormone disrupting potential.”
It was that staggering number that prompted Goel to consider changing everything that touches her mouth or her insides — from lipstick to toothpaste and mouthwash.
Other beauty products have also proven to be problematic for people diagnosed with breast cancer.
It’s been over a decade, but Juliet Robinson still remembers the pain she felt when she used nail polish for the first time after 11 months of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation.
“It burned so bad that I couldn’t wear it,” said Robinson, 71, her voice rising as she recalled the sensation from 2011. The treatment seemed to have made her nails more sensitive to the chemicals in the nail polish.
The episode led her daughter, Michelle Robinson, then a clinical administrator with a healthcare company, to start a new clean nail polish line in 2018 — DEMIblue Natural Nails, a brand that combines the name of Robinson’s granddaughter, Demi, and her favorite color.
“My mother had already gone through chemo and radiation so her nails were black and they were brittle,” Michelle said. “Then the chemicals from the conventional nail polish created a sensitivity which furthered her discomfort.”
Realizing the importance of polish — “nail polish is like the period at the end of a sentence that completes the look,” Michelle Robinson said — she created her own line that’s free of some of the harsh chemicals found in conventional brands.
“We have 10 less toxins, less harsh chemicals that are found in conventional nail polish like formaldehyde, acetone, fragrances — and things like that that are found in conventional products that have been linked to cancers,” she said. “They are not in our products.”
In the three years since Michelle Robinson founded the line in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, DEMIblue is now being sold through the Walmart marketplace, Fresh Thyme supermarkets, and more than a dozen other retailers in nine states. She is hopeful that the demand for her products will continue to grow as the market for clean beauty products expands.
Michelle Robinson, who is African American, said that she hopes to make her products more available to Black women, whether they have been diagnosed with breast cancer or not. She hopes to create an ambassador program in which women are paid commissions to sell the polish.
“You know, we normally partner with brands like Mary Kay or we partner with brands that don't speak to us,” she said. “And so I want my ambassadors and my distributors to work for a brand that speaks to them and that's created specifically as a call to action to address a problem.”
Black-owned brands rising
Barbara Jacques created Jacq’s, after finding a benign ovarian tumor.
Jacques, who’s based in South Florida, said she loves hair and beauty products and felt they were her escape as a Black woman in America.
“I felt they were a way for me to pour back into my self-worth, like my armor to protect myself to go out into this world,” she said. “Or these things that I could escape in like lashes or playing around with my hair or just taking a bath to unplug could be the very things that could possibly be aiding the issue that I was going through with my fibroids and my ovarian tumor.”
“Why is it that these things that we use right on a daily basis are the very things that are laced with ingredients that may be linked to long term health issues?” she said.
Those kinds of questions have driven the creation of a multitude of Black-owned clean beauty brands, and, Jacques said, the marketplace may just be witnessing the tip of the iceberg — that forces which have shaped the nation’s recent racial reckoning could alter the business landscape.
“I think they’re going to see the faces of real America,” Jacques said, of investors, industry observers, and the general public. “They’re going to see female bosses and gay bosses and just more of a landscape of what this country really looks like.”
“I just feel like it's an amazing time,” she added. “And I just pray that I'm around to be able to witness the growth that the industry will have and the opportunities that it will allow for little girls of any nationality to be able to dream big and succeed and be able to have to be champions in their own right.”
Discovering clean beauty
With a growing number of companies getting in on the clean beauty trend, it can be hard to determine what’s authentic and what’s green — or clean — washing. In addition to the resources already mentioned, there are e-commerce platforms aimed at taking out the guess work and narrowing down the plethora of choices. For those in search of clean beauty products created by or for black women or women of color, here are a few places to start:
BLK+GRN: An all-natural beauty marketplace from all-Black brands
CVTD BEAUTY: An online Black-owned beauty boutique committed to clean and indie beauty brands.
Pretty Well Beauty: A curated shop featuring clean beauty and wellness products.