How to Start a Clean Beauty Routine

Overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing the right products and practices? Experts share tips for navigating the loosely regulated clean-beauty industry. 

By Cassie Shortsleeve
Woman with face mask smiling

In the beauty world, the label “clean” seems to imply all good qualities: pure, all-natural, non-toxic, healthy for the planet and definitely not tested on animals. With so many positive connotations, it’s no wonder clean beauty products are increasingly sought-after. Nearly three in four women aged 35 to 54 say purchasing natural products is important to them, according to a 2017 poll.

Making the switch makes sense. The wrong beauty products can cause a lot of damage over time, explains Claudia Colombo, an esthetician and founder of Claudia Colombo Skin Wellness. Many traditional products can include ingredients thought to be endocrine disruptors (man-made chemicals that can change the way that hormones work in the body, often in harmful ways) or skin irritants. Even scarier: Some of these ingredients are even banned in other countries, but still under review in the United States.

Some harmful ingredients are even banned in other countries, but still under review in the United States.

Endocrine disruptors can mimic the way our natural hormones work, tricking our body into thinking that they are hormones, while others block natural hormones from functioning properly. They have been suspected to be associated with interfering with the female and male reproductive systems and conditions such as infertility, as well as obesity, diabetes and even cancer. Other ingredients can mess with your skin’s barrier and causing irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin or a skin condition such as eczema. 

The catch: Finding truly clean products isn’t always easy. A multitude of buzzwords, including natural, cruelty-free, hypoallergenic and organic, aren’t regulated. In other words, there’s no official definition or requirements behind those labels, per the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). 

“Clean beauty is a really complex, misunderstood subject, mostly because the term ‘clean’ carries no definition, so it can mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another,” explains Sarah Brown, founder of Pai Skincare, an organic skincare company based in the UK and carried by THE WELL's retail shop. 

However, improving the safety of your beauty routine is still worthwhile (and doable) with a little guidance from the pros. “Clean beauty is important because it improves your overall quality of life and longevity,” Colombo notes. Consider this your introduction to better-for-you beauty, including the most common ingredient offenders and what to stock up on.

WHERE TO BEGIN

Because the beauty industry is still the Wild West in terms of regulations, the first step is to find brands whose standards you trust, suggests Colombo. For example, THE WELL has in-house standards for any beauty product we carry in the shop or use in spa treatments. All products are vetted to ensure that they're mindfully sourced, effective, as well as free of known endocrine disruptors, toxins and carcinogens.  

While it might be tempting to dump everything you own and start fresh, there’s no need to change all of your products immediately, insists Brown. Instead, consider replacing the products that you use most often, cover the most skin surface with and leave on for long periods of time (like your daily moisturizer, facial cream and sunscreen). Then, move onto cleaner versions of other products, such as your face wash, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, hand soap and makeup. 

As you transition, here are some ingredients to avoid — and what to swap them out for.

1

The offender: Sulfates

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) and other sulfates are harsh surfactants that strip oils from your hair and skin when you lather up. They're often found in foamy shampoos, cleansers and shower gels. “They usually test high as skin irritants, so it’s best to avoid them,” says Colombo. 

The swap: Plant-based surfactants including vegetable acids, oils and essential oils are more natural, says Colombo. Alaffia coconut reishi shower gel and R.D. Alchemy shampoo and conditioner fit the bill, she says. 

2

The offender: Parabens

Parabens are preservatives that prevent bacteria and mold from growing in your beauty products but they’ve also been linked with endocrine disruption and possible spin-off effects, such as thyroid issues, hormone-related cancers, obesity and even early-onset puberty in girls. Many (such as isopropyl-, isobutyl-, phenyl-, benzyl- and pentylparabens) have been banned by the European Commission, but they’re still under review by regulators at the FDA.

The swap: A go-to alternative is a combination of benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, glycerin and sorbic acid. All of the above are natural preservatives found in plants such as pine resin, rowan berries and willow bark, says Colombo. For paraben-free products, look for brands like Pai or Snow Fox, both of which are carried in the shop at THE WELL.

3

The offender: Propylene glycol

Also known as methylethyl glycol, 1-2-dihydroxypropane, 1,2-propanediol, 2-hydroxypropanol or propane-1,2-diol on the ingredients list, this petrochemical is used as a humectant (meaning it draws in and retains moisture) and emulsifier (which allows ingredients like oil and water to mix), explains Brown. You’ll often find it in foundation, moisturizers and hair products, but it can be irritating to your skin. “My skin really reacts to it,” says Brown.

The swap: Again, you’re best off sticking with plant-based alternatives like vegetable acids and oils, says Colombo. We like Peet Rivko's facial moisturizer, which is carried at THE WELL. 

Essential oil and a mirror
When added to carrier oils, essential oils can replace chemical fragrances — but watch out for adverse reactions.
4

The offender: Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens, by their very nature, absorb UV rays, but our bodies systematically absorb these chemicals as well, finds a 2019 study by the FDA. It’s not yet clear what effect they could have once they wind up in your bloodstream, but some of these chemicals have been linked to hormone disruption.

The swap: Mineral sunscreens contain two main ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium oxide, to block out the sun’s harmful rays. “They sit on the skin and act like a shield — without absorbing chemical ingredients that cause concern,” says Colombo.

Layered protection works best, as antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E can also help boost your protection. Colombo recommends Faith Lamellar Veil Moisture Serum which contains vitamin C-rich punica granatum fruit extract as a first defense, combined with Eminence Organics SPF 32 Tropical Vanilla Sunscreen, which contains zinc oxide and moisturizing shea butter.

5

The offender: Fragrances and perfumes

On their own, fragrances can trigger allergies and irritation. However, they also come with hazardous preservatives known as phthalates (a.k.a. DEP, DEHP, BBzP and DPB on ingredients labels), which have been linked to a slew of health issues including breast cancer and infertility, says Colombo. 

The swap: Essential oils make for a good swap, although they can also lead to sensitivity and irritation over time (and allergic reactions aren’t unheard of just because they’re plant-based, either), says Colombo. Overall, removing fragrances and perfumes from your skincare routine (look for ‘fragrance-free’ on a label) is a smart move, says Brown.

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