The term clean beauty has been contentious since it first popped up.
Why? Well, there’s no monitored or accredited definition, so what constitutes as ‘clean’ is up to the brands to decide for themselves. It’s a little murky.
Considering clean beauty often comes with a higher price tag, there’s a temptation to shoehorn a product into this category.
One thing that’s been particularly controversial is the clean beauty community’s dismissal, or even demonising, of preservatives.
Often listed as an ‘unclean’ or ‘bad’ chemical, it has made some consumers fearful or unsure of whether to avoid them.
The tested preservatives that are used widely in beauty don’t cause problems for most people – they’re helpful, even, extending a product’s shelf-life and keeping bacteria at bay.
Arguably, a more natural product over a synthetic one has more room for slight discrepancies batch to batch, owing to the fact that synthetic products are more tightly regulated.
So truly, it’s a grey area.
Over the last year our relationship with bacteria, viruses and cleaning products has intensified – most of us now walk around armed with hand gel and wouldn’t dare eat a meal without washing our hands after touching a Tube pole.
With that, WGSN, a trend forecasting company, now believe ‘trust’ will be reinstated in preservatives in the clean beauty industry.
Rethinking preservatives and shelf-life
Jenni Middleton, their director of beauty, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Preservatives have a bad reputation in clean beauty, with parabens to sulphates discredited for alleged health and environmental issues.
‘Limited scientific evidence supports this toxic moniker, however, with just one scientific publication in 2004 reporting a possible link between parabens and cancer, after which they fell out of favour.
‘Before now, one study was enough to deter consumers, but the impact of the pandemic has made people more curious and forensic about checking scientific evidence, and also more concerned about hygiene.
‘We’ve seen more consumers become focused on reducing contamination, and will embrace ingredients, such as preservatives, that help them do so.’
Of course, there will be some limits here as to how fast attitudes change – the first adoption might be the use of natural preservatives over synthetic ones, Jenni believes.
The road to ‘accepting preservatives’, as she puts it, will come down to ‘creating an open discussion between brands and the consumer about the role of the preservative.
‘Consumers will want to know if synthetic or natural iterations of preservatives will protect them from illness while being safe to use topically on their bodies.
‘Preservatives are designed to stop the growth of infectious microorganisms, which people will be more concerned about in the wake of the pandemic, so touting “preservative-free” slogans will no longer entice.’
As well as concerns around contamination and shelf-life stability, the pandemic will shape clean beauty in other ways.
Smarter ingredient choices
Transparency around ingredients has been trendy, namely since The Ordinary stepped into the beauty space and revolutionised how many average consumers knew the names of active ingredients and actually sought them out in their skincare.
Was your skincare shelf stocked with three types of acid before? Unlikely, unless you were ahead of the curve.
Other mainstream brands have followed suit or grown in popularity due to this, but now WGSN predict that will step up – going from being a ‘nice to have’ to a baseline minimum.
Our desire to know what we’re putting on our skin is expanding in a more holistic way now, with more information about the sourcing of ingredients needing to be available.
In clean beauty, when ingredients are natural, processes can vary more vastly.
‘We have been talking about the importance of end to end supply chain visibility for some time at WGSN,’ says Jenni.
‘In the wake of the pandemic, when people want brands to build back better and reassure them that they are not contributing to any environmental or ethical issue, this will become even more important. People want to enjoy their beauty favourites guilt-free.
‘For clean beauty, this means totally transparent supply chains, with the journey of every ingredient outlined, as well as information about product testing and environmental impact available.
‘It will no longer be enough to say that ingredients are organic or wild-foraged. Evidence of a claim will be demanded, whether through certifications or tech-enabled, third-party supply chain mapping.
‘Take inspiration from Beautycounter, which has partnered with Sourcemap to map its mica supply chain, creating a documentary that includes evidence of staff visiting every single one of its mica factories.’
More brands are seeking – and paying out – for official accreditations across beauty more widely, so this will trickle down into the clean space too.
With these changes will come a rise in bioengineering, it’s expected.
Jenni says: ‘Biotech replicates the DNA of plants to sustainably reproduce them en masse, stopping the need to tap the land.
‘In turn, the reliability of biotech helps limit ingredient waste, while ingredients can be tweaked to offer stronger, safer variations. Communication around synthetic naturals is key to success.
‘Covid-19 has made consumers starkly aware of the link between humans and nature.
‘This deepened connection is inspiring demand for ingredients that do not disturb the natural world, while still providing its properties.’
Naming this a ‘wake up call’, Jenni believes clean brands might be called upon to use smarter tech methods to produce products.
Sometimes a whole plant might be destroyed for just one small part of it – all in the name of a beauty item.
The consumer is being more proactive in educating themselves, and as the fashion industry gets ridiculed for greenwashing, it’s likely that beauty will begin to be questioned more too.
Bioengineering allows brands to get the results they want without damaging nature so much.
One other ingredient change the clean beauty space might embrace more wholeheartedly is switching to waterless formulas – which would also help with the preservative situation.
‘Waterless formulations reduce reliance on dwindling water sources and create lightweight products that reduce carbon emissions,’ Jenni notes.
‘Waterless formulations offer another key benefit, their shelf-life.
‘Any product containing water must include preservatives, as water is a hotbed for microorganism growth that leads to mould and bacteria.
‘When you remove the water, you remove the risk, a selling point that will appeal to a post-pandemic consumer and help clean beauty brands retain their “natural” credentials.’
We’ll likely see more water-activated powders and solid bars come into market as a result.
Potential flaws in the clean beauty world might just begin to be patched up due to a shift in the consumer mind.
What was once trendy over being scientific is getting an overhaul.
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