“Clean Beauty” 101 with Annie Gabillet

Hi everyone!

I am SO excited to be sharing this post with you today. “Clean beauty” is something I was introduced to several years ago, but before that, I had no clue that I even needed to be conscious of what I put on my face and body. I remember being astonished, by doing just a little bit of research, at how the US barely regulates the ingredients that go into our personal care products (compared to other countries), which then go on to our skin and straight into our bodies. As a woman in her young 30s, I was especially aware of the research pointing to how cosmetics can impact our hormones and fertility, and I slowly started to clean up the products I used.

However, I’ve also found this “clean beauty” world to be overwhelming at times, and I’ve heard that from you, too. Of course we want to be healthier, but how do we make sense of all of this and apply it in a simple, easy, manageable way? How do we know what research to trust? How do we know what products to use? What ingredients to watch out for?

With everything else going on in our lives, how do we understand this clean beauty world and make changes in a manageable way?

That’s why I decided to interview my friend Annie Gabillet who is a clean beauty expert. I’ve heard her talk about safe beauty several times and always found her way of speaking about it to be smart, digestible and relatable. I wanted to create a resource for all of us that was clear and simplified, so I compiled a bunch of my own questions (and the ones you guys asked me on Instagram!), and she’s answered them here.

This is an awesome resource and I hope you find this helpful!

First of all, meet Annie!

(photo credit: Renee Lynn Frojo)

Annie is a longtime lifestyle editor who reviews nontoxic makeup and skincare on her website Safe Makeup Project. In her past work at POPSUGAR, she recommended products to millions of women and followed the trends. There was no denying it: “organic” and “natural” makeup were on the rise. But based on her research and conversations with experts, Annie concluded that consumers must look beyond the latest beauty buzzword and pay more attention to what we put on our bodies.

Annie’s quest to clean up her cosmetics started two years ago when she did a clean beauty experiment and kicked into high gear when she became pregnant in February 2017. She called it her “Safe Makeup Project” and founded SafeMakeupPoject.com to help women who want to do the same. For her site, she researches product ingredients, tests and reviews safe makeup and skin care, and talks to experts and innovators in the clean beauty world.

Jamie: What does “clean beauty” really mean?

Annie: The term clean beauty refers to cosmetics that don’t include “dirty” ingredients that could potentially interfere with our body’s normal functions. The term is often associated with cosmetics that include “green” or “natural” ingredients. I prefer the term “safe” beauty. Both natural and synthetic ingredients can potentially cause harm, and not all chemicals are bad. I like putting the emphasis on an ingredient’s safety, rather than its origin.

As American consumers realize regulators have little oversight of cosmetics, they’ve become more critical of the products they use, driving the clean beauty trend. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit and consumer activist group, manages the helpful Skindeep Database that evaluates product formulations, uses, and ingredients based on the current research. On my site, Safe Makeup Project, I only test and recommend products that get a “low hazard” score from EWG. That helps me differentiate truly “clean” products from those that are just marketed as such.

Jamie: What do conventional products do to us? What is the potential impact on our health?

Annie: Hormone disrupting chemicals — like phthalates, parabens, triclosan, and benzophenone-3 (BP-3) — are found in many mainstream products. We know that these chemicals can pass from the products to our bodies, and studies suggest they may cause cancer, infertility, and developmental harm. The risks are greater during times of development. Children, teenagers, and pregnant women should use extra care.

The good news is that a little effort goes a long way. A study from UC Berkeley found that when teenage girls chose products with fewer ingredients and no potentially toxic chemicals, levels of those chemicals in their bodies went down after just three days. The evidence suggests you can swap out your products for safer ones and see a relatively quick reversal in potentially dangerous chemical levels. If you want to know more, here are 10 reasons you should use safer cosmetics.

Jamie: What does the evidence show about clean beauty, vs. this being a fad?

Annie: It’s true that there is a clean beauty fad happening and you have to be careful to avoid “green washing” or products that boast about being free of one bad ingredient while containing other problematic ingredients. I’m not really into fear mongering, either. You’re not guaranteed to have a health problem if you use conventional cosmetics, but with a little attention you can help reduce your risk and feel better about the products you put on your body.

As for the evidence, research suggests parabens could be linked to breast cancer and interfere with male reproductive functions. Phthalates, which are often hidden behind the generic ingredient “fragrance / parfum,” are linked to reproductive issues like female infertility, lower sperm counts, birth defects, as well as obesity and thyroid problems. Other research has linked phthalates to cancer. You can find out more about the possible risks involved with this rundown of 10 potentially-dangerous ingredients.

Jamie: Why are FDA restrictions so lenient in the US compared to other countries? Do you see this changing at some point soon?

Annie: The federal law governing cosmetic safety has gone largely untouched since 1938. While the FDA bans about 11 chemicals, the EU bans or restricts more than 1,300 chemicals that are linked to cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm, or birth defects. The EU also has more pre-market regulation and registration requirements for cosmetics. The EU takes a conservative approach, while in the US we put the burden on consumers to report problems with cosmetics, instead of testing things first.

A proposed US law, the Personal Care Product Safety Act, wants to require that the FDA study at least five chemicals per year. It would also require companies to report serious issues with their products to the FDA within 15 days. More transparency and oversight would go a long way. Brands like L’Oreal, Revlon, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble have joined groups like EWG to support the bill, so maybe something could change. In addition, Herbal Essence just partnered with EWG to create an EWG Verified shampoo and conditioner that will be released soon. There are signs that consumer demand is having an impact on the industry.

Jamie: What are the most harmful, “must avoid” ingredients?

Annie: Hormone disruptors are probably the most important category of ingredients you want to avoid. Our natural hormones control bodily functions like reproductive development, brain development, and fat metabolization. Chemicals like phthalates and parabens can behave like hormones, blocking the role of natural hormones. That can cause long-term health problems.

Again, you can check out my list of 10 potentially-dangerous ingredients to avoid here, which lays out where you can find each and what the health risks are.

Jamie: How do we know if the products we currently use are OK?

Annie: I use EWG’s Skindeep Database, which includes over 74,301 products, ranked from 1 (low hazard) to 10 (hazardous). EWG also has a Healthy Living App on iPhone and Android, but I usually just search Google with “Product name EWG” to get the same results. If your product isn’t in the database, you can use the Build Your Own Report tool. There you enter the directions and ingredients of a specific product and can get a score.

Using EWG, I’ve found that some of my favorite drugstore makeup, like this foundation or these mascaras, are safe. In fact, a ton of drugstore makeup gets a safe rating from EWG, which means you don’t have to spend a lot to make healthier choices.

Jamie: Which products are most important to be “clean?”

Annie:

  • Lipstick: There’s no surprise that we end up eating a lot of our lipstick, which can contain hormone disruptors like BHA and BHT. I’m really into lip products from clean beauty brand Spela at the moment, and here are some safe drugstore choices.
  • Lotion: We spread lotions and creams all over our bodies, but they often have ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA), which are linked to cancer, as well as hormone disruptors like parabens and phthalates. In addition, scented lotions with undisclosed fragrance can mask a combination of hundreds of different ingredients, including phthalates. I personally love using sweet almond oil as a safe body and face lotion. It has no scent and is packed with natural vitamin E.
  • Sunscreen: Oxybenzone and octinoxate are common sunscreen ingredients that are also linked to hormone disruption. Instead, look for mineral sunscreens that use zinc oxide as a natural mineral barrier. I reviewed a few, and Derma E is my favorite.
  • Products you use every day: You should take a good look at your everyday skincare routine (here’s mine) and make sure you’re using safe ingredients. You should swap in the products you use everyday, like mascara, for safer alternatives, too.

Jamie: What are your favorite clean beauty brands?

Annie: I love RMS Beauty and Juice Beauty. They both feel luxurious and perform well. Here’s my complete list of favorite clean beauty brands you can buy on Amazon, which includes my favorite product from each line.

Jamie: What are your thoughts on Beautycounter? Is it legit?

Annie: I’ve interviewed Beautycounter’s CEO and founder Gregg Renfrew before for stories and found her to be very knowledgeable and passionate about safer cosmetics. Beautycounter follows strict ingredient standards and you can generally feel good about what’s inside their makeup and skincare. Plus, the packaging is pretty.

While you can buy products directly from Beautycounter’s website, it is also an MLM, or multi-level marketing business. (Other traditional beauty MLMs include Avon and Mary Kay.) An MLM uses non-salaried workers to sell products. These distributors earn commissions on their own sales, but also when the people they recruit join or make sales. MLMs are sometimes referred to as “pyramid schemes” because participants make more money as their recruits make sales and bring in new participants. The more people you have below you in the pyramid, the more money you make. Some people prefer not to support MLMs because they feel they are predatory toward distributors and consumers.  

Jamie: Is there “safe” nail-polish remover? What do you recommend?

Annie: Making the switch to nontoxic nail polish is complicated. A polish can be labeleds as 3-, 5-, 7-, 8- or 9-free, but that doesn’t mean that it is free of all other worrisome chemicals. I like SOPHi by Piggy Paint, which gets a 1 on EWG. Be sure to use their primer and sealer set for better results.

For nail polish remover, I actually use the Walgreens brand acetone option that gets a 1 ranking from EWG, which considers how a product will be used when giving a rating.

Jamie: Have you found clean beauty brands that offer powder blush?

Annie: Many clean beauty brands are all about the cream blushes… looking at you Kjaer Weis. But powder blush is awesome, too. Mineral Fusion (which you can find at Whole Foods or on Amazon) actually makes a lovely matte powder blush.

Jamie: What’s your favorite sunscreen? Mascara?

Annie: I tested a bunch of zinc options and found the Derma E mineral sunscreen to be the most effective and easy to rub in. There’s no horrible white film.

As for mascara, my absolute favorite is the Lily Lolo Natural Mascara. It adds both length and thickness. You can add more coats to build up the effect, and it doesn’t fall down under your eyes.

Jamie: For someone who is just getting started… what are your top 3 tips to start?

Annie:

  • Check your own products in the EWG Skindeep Database. You might be safer than you think.
  • Swap out the products you use every day — like lotion and mascara — for safer alternatives.
  • Opt for “fragrance free” It’s an easy way to avoid hidden phthalates and other problematic ingredients.

We hope you found this interview helpful! To read more from Annie, head to SafeMakeupProject.com for so many more useful articles. I’ll also be sharing some of the products I personally use over on my Instagram this week so be sure to follow along over there!

And of course, please ask us any questions in the comments below, or tell us your take on “clean beauty”! Any favorite products YOU have? xx!

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