The Dirty Truth on Clean Beauty

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Author: Mariel Kennedy, Licensed Esthetician at Ildi Pekar Skin Care


Ildi created the I. Pekar line to make the products she wanted but couldn’t find on the market. Her version of clean beauty finds roots in Hungarian landscapes and culture, which inspired her to make her line from 100% organic, 100% naturally derived ingredients sourced as locally as possible, such as working with local bee keepers to source the organic raw honey for her creamy cleanser and glowing moisturizer. What’s more, her products are cruelty-free and packaged and shipped in 100% recyclable bottles and paper. But Ildi’s products are also manufactured in labs she has long-standing relationships with and trusts, so she knows her products are produced ethically and formulated to be shelf-stable for six months to a year as well as being gentle but potent and delivering on their claims. Nature and science never need to be at odds, as they are inherently interwoven. Look for the best of both aspects while looking for products to make an impact on two faces: your face and the face of the earth. 

Recently, Ildi shared with me an experience she had while shopping for new products to test. She found a lip balm that highlighted a great list of ingredients: all organic, naturally derived botanicals with proven records of beneficial effects for the lips and skin. As she was about to add it to her cart, she noticed a tab labeled ‘full ingredients.’ Upon opening it, she was disappointed to discover not only a long list of other ingredients but a long list of other ingredients that she would never use on her skin or her clients. Skin is the largest organ of the body, after all. This incident sparked a discussion on the trickiness of slugging through the world of clean cosmetics. 


Ildi recommends the Private Bar for sweaty armpits and feet as well as gentle areas. (We sell these in salon only)


What do you think of when you hear the term ‘clean,’ ‘green,’ or ‘natural’ describing skincare products and cosmetics? Do these descriptors conjure up certain bucolic images or hint at better health and ecological sustainability? Or maybe, you hear them and roll your eyes at what seems to be a marketing gimmick that everyone else has fallen for. Clean and green are also often associated with or incorrectly substituted by other terms, such as ‘natural’ (ingredients only derived from nature, not lab-synthesized or heavily processed), ‘organic’ (natural ingredients grown without the use of pesticides or other chemical means of aiding growth), ‘sustainable’ (another tricky one, but largely associated with having negligible to no effect on the ecological environment), and ‘vegan’ (free of any animal products, by-products, or testing). For over a decade, so-called clean beauty products have jumped off the crunchy granola shelf at your local health foods store and landed everywhere from national chain retailors to luxury brands. But what do these terms actually mean and are they really better for our skin, our bodies, and the environment?

If an array of associations, both positive and negative, come to mind when considering clean beauty, you aren’t necessarily wrong about any of them. Nor are you right, though. Legally speaking in the USA, these terms are meaningless as they are not defined in any way by the Food and Drug Administration; further, the FDA does not require cosmetic manufacturers to prove the claims of their ingredients. There are no stipulations or regulations when it comes to describing cosmetics as ‘clean’ or ‘green.’ This general lack of oversite opens the door for companies to greenwash their products or image—that is, to advertise a false image of sustainability without actually delivering on it. The lack of rules also opens the door to multiple interpretations of the same term. It is up to the brand or its parent company to outline what being clean means to them; this version of clean does not need to translate to or align with another brand’s ideology. Thus, transparency from businesses is tantamount to understanding their concept of clean to measure its similarity to your own beliefs and needs, and moreover, what the impact of that concept is on a larger scale. To trust products marketed as clean is to trust the person, brand, or corporation manufacturing them, so make sure to do your research when looking into adding clean products into your routine. Look into brands’ mission statements, histories, actual practices, labor relations, and leadership in addition to ingredient lists to find out what best suits you as a consumer looking to make an informed purchase. As important as our individual decisions are in creating and normalizing a more sustainable atmosphere, the real, large-scale change needs to come from above: from global conglomerates, governments, and moguls. No matter how ‘clean’ a product, if the company behind it doesn’t follow through with systematic sustainable goals on all levels and over time, how impactful is your purchase?  

The terms ‘clean’ and ‘green’ as marketing descriptors can be further problematic due to ascribed morality that creates a dynamic of good and bad among inanimate objects. To describe a product line as clean implies other product lines are polluted or tainted. Natural insinuates superiority to synthetic. Sustainability hints at inherent ecologic irresponsibility in other purchases. Safe battles toxic. But is this really the case? Creating this dichotomy wrongly places righteousness or lack thereof on objects that ultimately hold no moral value in and of themselves. Natural and health are not synonymous and conflating the two risks adding inherent value to a product that ultimately won’t change your health. For a product to have so profound a bodily effect, it would likely be labeled a drug and require proof of claims. Also, one must consider the physical and financial accessibility of a product to a wide range of consumers to assess impact. If the higher costs accredited to better ingredients and practices are financially unattainable to most, we risk turning sustainability practices into luxury commodities and virtue signaling. Brands must look to themselves to implement measures to ensure that sustainable products become attainable products that are increasingly available and affordable until they become the new norm. 

Implicit in green marketing is the dichotomy between natural and synthetic, which many use interchangeably with chemical. But chemical is not and should not be a dirty word, because everything on earth is made up of matter or energy. And all matter is made up of elements and chemicals. Not only are our bodies masses of chemicals, but so is every seemingly mundane necessity of life, such as water. And the chemicals we put on and in our bodies are meant to react with our natural chemicals to produce chemical changes that benefit us.  And whether these chemicals are derived from nature or created in a lab does not always matter.

reading skincare ingredientsNatural does not necessarily mean safe: think of the burn you can get from rubbing a lemon on your face, the unmitigated strength of an essential oil, or the allergic reaction most people have to substances like poison ivy or oak. Further, irresponsibly sourcing natural ingredients can have a plethora of harmful impacts, such as the carbon emissions resulting from production and shipping, deforestation, decimating the natural resources of a locale, upending local economies, and the atrocities of unfair and illegal labor practices. Even something as seemingly benign as water in natural products can be an issue, which is a reason that Ildi uses Organic Aloe Vera Juice as the base for I. Pekar products. Not only can there be concern over where the water comes from or if it is properly cleaned and purified before being added to a formulation but also the necessity of needing to incorporate more ingredients to keep the product sterile and stable. Water and oil are naturally repelled by each other. They are also the foundation, in some combination or another, of most cosmetics. Due to this lack of attraction between molecules, emulsifiers need to be added to keep the ingredients from instantly separating and rendering a product ineffective. Water is an ingredient that allows for the growth and spread of bacteria, so water-based products also typically require some form of antibacterial preservative in addition to a stabilizing ingredient. If you’re preoccupied with using products with only ingredients you know or with as few ingredients as possible, the chemicals necessary to make a product functional can scare you away with their scientific names or long list of ingredients. Or, their absence can dilute the effect. Looking at this conundrum from a purely selfish place: some ingredients and products are as good as useless if they are not stabilized or broken down in a formulation that can be absorbed into your skin.  

Synthetic ingredients and processed formulations are also not implicitly bad or harmful. In fact, many synthetically derived alternatives are formulated to be more stable, penetrative, or potent than their natural counterparts. Some also have a lesser ecological effect when being synthesized in a lab than when harvested from the environment. Others may have added chemicals to dull or nullify an ingredient more prone to causing sensitivity or allergic reaction. For example, Fragrance-Free and Unscented are two completely different labels that often get confused. A fragrance-free cosmetic will still have a scent; what it lacks is any added parfum or ingredient that’s only purpose is to scent the product. An unscented cosmetic means to have more chemicals added into the formulation to remove any natural scents that occur from the ingredients. So if you are sensitive to scent, you may still opt for the unscented formulation knowing it has a longer list of ingredients. Another example is the molecular weight or size of valuable ingredients such as hyaluronic acid or collagen. Both of these hydrators are molecularly large, and need to be broken down into smaller particles to be able to penetrate the skin or absorb into the acid mantle. Finally, formulations dependent on Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, typically require other ingredients and specialized packaging to maintain the potency of the notoriously instable ingredient that is known to oxidize quickly. That is why there are many vitamin c derivatives on the market—they are made to last longer and maintain stability when exposed during regular use.

Educating yourself on ingredients can help you decipher the INCI listed: the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient names that appear on the product’s packaging or description. INCI names are the standardized names for cosmetic ingredients across the US, EU, and many Asian countries such as Japan and China, and listed so sellers and consumers know what is in the formulation to reduce negative reactions. Remember that inclusion of a chemical, both natural and synthetic, as a cosmetic ingredient does not mean it is safe for use or is proven to work as stated by the manufacturer; INCI information is rather your stepping stone to see what is included in a product so you can do your own research on those ingredients.

Be mindful though: two considerations are the validity of a source and the accuracy of the INCI list. There are dozens of ingredient dictionaries and cosmetic-safety sources at our disposal, and while that gives us many options to compare, the sources we review are not always without noticeable bias. Check your sources while researching ingredients. Some things to look for are affiliate fees and sponsored content (does the source get a % when someone buys a product they promote or for promoting a product or ingredient in a positive light), the background of the organization or author (is this group or person an authority on the topic, and if so, how), and the donors who finance studies into the effects of a cosmetic or ingredient (what do they have to gain from the results, either positive or negative, of the experiment they are funding). Further, INCI lists are not always complete. Ingredients relating to the smell or taste of a product can be labeled as trade secrets and thus the formulations for these aspects need not be fully listed. Some brands, like the one Ildi encountered, also hide the full INCI on their websites and only highlight ingredients that are deemed as good or effective. The link for full formulations will be found smaller at another point on the product page. 


Ildi recommends the European Deep Cleanse Facial to clarify the skin and address concerns such as clogged pores, breakouts, and dehydration.

Our facials always begin with a consultation on your current skincare routine and product use in addition to your skincare goals post treatment. From there, we only offer suggestions for products or ingredients when we see a noticeable gap or absence in your existing routine but will always offer additional advice when asked. We love an inquisitive client and are always happy to discuss products—I. Pekar or other—inside and outside of the treatment room. Take advantage of your time with us and ask any and all questions you have. We’re happy to keep this conversation going. 

Ready to book an appointment? Check availability here.

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