Although it is said that only 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, the words that you choose do hold a lot of power. Take it from someone with dissociative verbal diarrhea*, a condition where words will spill out of my mouth before my brain has a chance to fact check, often leading to unintentional offensiveness and much apologising. I’m never meaning to hurt or cause harm, the intention is entirely caring, but what is implied by the flipside of some words has the potential to harm.
Take “Clean” when talking about anything, a house, a person, eating,... beauty. The opposite of clean --> dirty
Clean Beauty is said to be an offshoot of the California wellness movement of the 1990s. It makes sense that this grassroots movement blossomed in America, where the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) have historically** banned only eleven ingredients from use in cosmetic products. No doubt, those spear heading the ‘clean beauty’ movement had health and safety and best interests in mind, in what was a largely unregulated environment.
However, flash forward three decades, and there are more often “no..." or "free from" lists on products than not, with sections of beauty retail giants, even standalone stores, and many, many sites online which solely offer “clean beauty", and it is positioned as the best, healthiest choice.
There is fear mongering around cosmetic chemicals ending up in your blood stream; there is talk of micro plastics in fragrance and in beauty products; cosmetic ingredients are said to cause cancer and disrupt your hormones; parabens have been ousted as they are the absolute worst preservative; chemical sunscreens have been demonised as they are killing both us and our reefs.
Bless the internet. Bless Google and everyone’s ability to dO tHEir owN reSeArCH. Our unadulterated access to information allows someone unschooled in an area to read one line of a scientifically rigorous study and take it out of context. Or accept a study as truth, without recognising that it is not scientifically rigorous, or that it is a complete outlier to the scientific consensus. The internet is great for giving a platform to fringe viewpoints, which are often disproven or unsubstantiated, and their voice becomes louder than it should be.
And of course, the beauty marketing wizards have taken this voice, this movement and run with it. Consumers now think that if beauty products are not “clean” they must be dirty. If they’re dirty, then they are bad for us, our loved ones, and they are ruining our planet. It’s a glorious example of fear-based marketing preying on (overwhelmingly) women’s psyches.
Women are constantly compared or encouraged to compare; our experiences belittled. And there is a pointy layer of judgement that surrounds everything we do. So much judgement. About how we live our lives, about our choices, our decisions. About the things we can control and the things we can’t. We’re judged on our emotions, or perceived lack of emotion, and always, always judged on how we look. In a world where the beauty industry is constantly telling us we should be younger and prettier, “clean beauty” is yet another standard that we’re expected to meet.
So, what exactly is this standard? What does it mean for a beauty product to be “clean”? This is where it all gets cloak and daggery, as there is no agreed upon definition or set standard for the term. There is no consensus from any legal body or authoritative organisation on which ingredients should be avoided for a product to be considered “clean”.
“Clean” has different meaning depending on who you are talking to. It can mean:
- the product is made from natural ingredients
- the product does not contain synthetic or lab derived ingredients
- that some kind of sustainability standards are upheld (again, an ephemeral and undefined target)
- “no nasties”
- “chemical free” (which is totally untrue in all cases where you have a physical product in front of you)
You may be told what is not in the product. No ingredients that are considered ‘harmful’. No parabens. The “clean beauty” marketing ploy has been so successful that ill-informed consumers now make it difficult for brands to speak out against the movement. Tiffany Masterson, the founder of Drunk Elephant, told the Guardian that the brand cut parabens from their products, not because she thought they were bad, but because they were consumer poison. Because of all the fear mongering around parabens, they are now one of the most well studied preservatives, and the data shows they don’t live up to their bad guy reputation at all.
Now, of course we’re all about the products we stock being safe to use, and the sustainability pathway of a brand is one of our key pillars when selecting the ranging for Iris. Both safety and sustainability in cosmetics are complex, nuanced, ever-changing landscapes as more research is conducted, and new evidence comes to light. We don't have the time or energy in our day to create our own constantly updated list of questionable ingredients and the ratios we’ll allow in products is never going to happen***. And IT DOESN’T NEED TO when there is already a resource created by experts which we can tap into.
New Zealand Cosmetic Regulations closely follow EU legislation, which is well known to be the most robust in the world with over 1300 ingredients banned from use in beauty products, and many many more restricted in how (and at what percentage) they can safely**** be used in cosmetics. Where New Zealand falls over is that we don’t have the same pre-market approval process for new cosmetic products, and don't require brands to hold a 'dossier' on each of their products which includes, among other things includes information about ingredient sourcing and safety. Rather, New Zealand relies on manufacturers and importers voluntarily complying with the Cosmetic Products Group Standard (CPGS). Having seen the inner workings of a cross section of manufacturers, importers and retailers over my career, it feels like this type of regulatory compliance could be easily overlooked. New Zealand is generally a touch behind the ball with updates to regulations, given we follow changes that the EU makes*****. Given the EU legislation is gold standard, at Iris we choose to stock brands and products which meet these standards.
Everything we do at Iris; we do with care. Using fear to sell to you is really not in our wheelhouse and we think should be left in the dust with 2023.
Let’s take the judgement out of beauty and bring the joy back. Are you with us?
*a self-diagnosed, made-up condition
** This number may have increased with legislation recently passed in the US, MOCRA, or the "Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2021," which aims to enhance the FDA's authority over cosmetics. It seeks to improve ingredient safety, increase transparency in labeling, and address issues like potential health hazards, especially regarding certain chemicals and their effects on human health.
There was a lot of confusion by brands and manufacturers around how the legislation would affect them, and I’ve not seen any clarity around this as yet.
*** Many "clean beauty" retailers and brands maintain their own lists of ingredients they won’t allow in their products, the reasons for which are rarely backed up by references from reputable sources.
**** There is another conversation to be had where we talk about how meeting regulations does not necessarily equal safe to use. The quality and source of the ingredients, plus how they are paired with other ingredients are key in discussing consumer and environmental safety.
***** However, a decision to update the New Zealand CPGS last month (30 January 2024) brought in not only updates to align our cosmetic regulations with those of Europe, but also a decision to phase out PFAS in cosmetic products. New Zealand will be one of the first countries to ban these "forever chemicals", about which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say there is still much to be learnt: "While there may not be significant cause for alarm over their use in cosmetics, research into the potential health effects continues and we’ve taken a cautious approach to regulating these chemicals.". Word is that the European Union is looking at introducing legislation to ban PFAS across all industries, in what will be one of the biggest chemical bans in history.