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Letter from the editor | May 24

Dirty, dirty beauty: the toxic truth about the skincare industry

An illustration of a magician examining some potion bottles. // Illustration by Milo Openshaw

For those of you who are more familiar with buying makeup and skincare, you’ll have heard the terms “clean” and “nontoxic” beauty thrown around a lot. 

Let’s look at Sephora, one of the biggest beauty retailers in the world. They have a little round green stamp of approval for products that meet their “clean” standards on their website. 

The “clean” seal is a beacon of hope for skincare and beauty junkies. Of course we don’t want to put toxic ingredients on our faces. We only have one, after all! Seeing a “clean” label soothes our inner hippie. If it’s been thoroughly vetted and proven to only contain the distilled nutrients of the earth, it must work!

Sephora claims that they have “the highest standards across the industry” when considering their clean seal. Then they throw around a lot of big words – ingredients that they require brands are free of in order to earn the green stamp, including but not limited to formaldehydes, oxybenzone, hydroquinone and parabens. 

Ooh. Big scary chemical words. Big scary chemicals putting on face no good!

I can hear the “touch grass” ladies now. The white mothers who refuse to vaccinate their kids because they “don’t know what’s in there”, who go out of their way to buy organic fruits and vegetables at Fred Meyer because they want to be “all-natural”. Yes, friends, I hear them now, the cries of despair and confusion when they learn that skin care is not supposed to be natural.

Let’s break down some of the dirty ingredients on Sephora’s list. 

Michigan State University has a great article about how formaldehyde and parabens are used to preserve. Have you ever left takeout in the fridge for too long? Have you noticed that it attracts flies, that it smells and molds, that bacteria begins to grow? Now imagine you put it on your face. Preservatives are not only useful in our skincare, but in most of our foods. 

In small amounts, it has no effect on the human body. Could there be the occasional allergic reaction to specific preservatives? Of course, just like allergic reactions to shellfish or pineapple. But for the most part, these chemicals are more helpful than harmful, whether you’re ingesting them or putting them on your face.

Oxybenzone has been found in multiple studies to help filter harmful UVA and UVB rays from the sun. The Environmental Working Group loves to fearmonger about chemicals like this. (Another article for another day.) They cite scientific studies on their website, saying that common sun-filtering chemicals like oxybenzone are “systemically absorbed into the body after one use”. 

This is true! But … the skin absorbs a lot of things on a day-to-day basis, most of which are far more harmful than a small amount of oxybenzone in your sunscreen. Would you rather risk a lethal case of skin cancer or rub some lotion on your back before you go to the beach?

Finally, hydroquinone. According to Healthline and WebMD, this handy chemical is used to treat hyperpigmentation, most often caused by acne scars. In small carefully-formulated amounts, it can temporarily “bleach” skin, helping reduce the appearance of scars. You can imagine how this could get blown out of proportion. Nobody wants to put bleach on their skin. Again, just like with preservatives, this is an acceptable and helpful chemical in small amounts unless you are the minority and your genetics make you allergic.

So … why are these ingredients in Sephora’s Burn Book?

Simple: to sell more.

It always comes back to capitalism, friends.

If you’re looking for a new moisturizer, which one are you more likely to buy: one that markets itself as “clean” or one that doesn’t mention it? After all, if you don’t say you’re clean, you must be dirty, right? Nobody wants to cleanse the most sensitive part of their epidermis with a dirty soap.

Sephora and “clean beauty” brands want to sell you more expensive products under the guise of being healthier and more effective. In reality, they can be even less effective than big-name drugstore products, if not equal. 

And this isn’t just extended to big-name brands. When you go to a farmer’s market, sometimes you see people selling skincare that they made in their kitchen. 

Now, I love entrepreneurial spirit just as much as the next guy, but there are a few problems with this: how can individual people obtain effective ingredients, or are they simply scrounging around their refrigerators for avocados and oats to mash up and sell as a face mask? (Looking at you, Kendall Jenner. I haven’t forgotten.) How can they formulate their skincare properly without proper lab equipment? How sterile can they be, and what bacteria can potentially contaminate the products?

Part of this can of course be attributed to a love of skincare, but I would like to posit that it’s all part of the “clean beauty” trend. By using local and/or simple ingredients, vendors can sell you on the notion that their skincare is superior to brands that are created by chemists in labs, which is objectively untrue. 

All this to say, please just learn which ingredients you put on your face. Be wary of buzzwords like “non-toxic” and “natural”. If something is irritating to your skin, don’t use it. You can even visit a dermatologist and try to isolate which ingredients work for you and which ones don’t. Don’t worry about which ones are deemed “clean” or not.

I’m not asking everyone to be a massive nerd and learn all of the major components of skincare and what their uses are. What I am asking is for you to be skeptical, to question everything, to learn, because we only get one skin and we need to take care of it. Whether you have a twenty-step skincare routine morning and night or you get by with sunscreen and nothing else, you are special and important and you deserve to know what is best for your body.

And if what’s best is to get down and dirty, then get dirty, baby!

Milo Openshaw

Milo Openshaw (he/him) is the opinions and outreach editor. Again. 

You can reach him on Instagram @miloohno or email him at if you're interested in submitting a creative piece to The Front.

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