Clean beauty has gained popularity in recent years, but the ingredients that qualify are difficult to define, and product labels can be misleading. This can be frustrating for the average customer, but for those with chronic illness, it can be dangerous to their health. However, through community platforms and partnerships with brands, consumers are finding ways to make sense of murky industry standards.
Chronic diseases are broadly defined as long-term conditions that last one year or more, and require ongoing medical attention or other treatment, and may limit activities of daily living. Millions of people across the world live with chronic conditions; the CDC estimates that more than 80 per cent of women in the US will experience at least one chronic illness in their lifetime. Certain beauty and skincare ingredients can exacerbate chronic conditions, including those with high alcohol content, fragrance, dyes, botanical oils and parabens, to name a few. Some of these ingredients can interfere with treatment too—for example, parabens, BHA and phthalates can disrupt hormone production, especially for people who have oestrogen receptive cancers such as breast or ovarian cancer.
Clean beauty has become a popular category within the skincare industry, which is expected to reach $181 billion by 2025, according to market research firm Euromonitor. However, many beauty brands currently fail to provide enough information about what their ingredients are and how they work. For consumers, the lack of transparency alienates those fearful of damaging consequences. A survey by medical aesthetics community RealSelf shows that while 80 per cent of beauty consumers want informative details when considering skincare products, only 30 per cent are able to find them where the products were sold. And according to Global Web Index, 44 per cent of beauty consumers in the UK and the US try to buy natural or organic products, but despite regulations, many of these products contain harmful ingredients to people with certain conditions.
“The whole concept of clean has become so divisive,” says Shabana Ebrahem, global beauty trends consultant. “It undermines the concept of what clean was really supposed to be about, which is about using products that do no harm.”
Some brands have already taken strides to fix this by creating products with chronic illnesses in mind, and excluding harmful ingredients. Among them, is Rare Beauty launched by actor Selena Gomez in August 2020 after the effects of Lupus caused her skin to flare up; the products, which omit ingredients that can interfere with radiation treatment, are now stocked in Sephora (both Rare and Sephora declined to share sales figures). Guide Beauty, founded by former Dior make-up artist Terri Bryant, after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, are designed to help people apply their makeup with precision despite tremors, muscle stiffness and slowed movement that affects those with Parkinson’s and other nervous system disorders. According to the brand, sales are up threefold compared to the previous year.
Many consumers cite makeup and cosmetics as a key aspect of their self-care while suffering with chronic illness. “It is the only kind of minority group where we will all ultimately end up as we go through life, so why not design for that now,” says Bryant. “If it’s the right thing to do and the smarter business decision, why wouldn’t you?”
“For me, it’s about better signposting,” says Helen Addis, co-founder of The C-List, a platform that helps people find safe beauty products when they are going through treatment for cancer. “There are more people that receive a diagnosis for cancer than there are vegans—but there’s no signposting for us.”
The C-List has been working with brands to curate products on its website that are safe to use for people undergoing chemotherapy. The C-List community recommends products and then Addis reaches out to the brands to get them added to the site. For those that accept, The C-List then takes a cut from each sale through an affiliate partnership. (The company did not respond to requests to share revenue.) Not all products are included for their ingredients, Addis notes, pointing to magnetic lashes for those who’ve lost them. There are also gentle products such as the Manta hair brush, designed for minimum breakage, created by professional hairdresser Tim Binnington when his wife was regrowing her hair after losing it to a life-threatening illness.
“There’s nothing sexy about cancer, was what I was told by business advisors,” says Jennifer Young, founder of Beauty Despite Cancer, a beauty brand and network of therapists providing products and services for cancer patients.
The company carries six product lines and prior to COVID-19, 96 per cent of business was B2B. However, according to the brand, turnover from June 2020 to June 2021 increased by 45 per cent, citing that its major growth area is now its direct-to-consumer e-commerce store, showing an increased interest in consumers directly searching for these products.
Young, with a background in biology and occupational health, was asked by her local hospital to help them to create a skincare range for cancer patients. “[Beauty] is a trillion-dollar business and there was nobody that was making any skincare for cancer patients,” she says. She notes that many people going through cancer treatment are refused appointments by beauty therapists, as the majority of the time they are not trained for it, further excluding these consumers when they need beauty services most. “I was being taught not to touch cancer patients and when I asked why, I was never given any good answers.” Young and her team worked with patients and nurses to develop products that were safe and lessened the discomfort that patients experience during treatment. The products are sold online on their website and wholesale through their spa network.
Happy 2nd Birthday, launched in April 2021 by brother and sister duo Jae Ro and Juliana Brewer, is another beauty brand making products that can be used by people with chronic illness. Their father had been battling lymphoma for several years, and they found it difficult to find skincare that was safe while he was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. Chemotherapy causes skin discolouration, sensitivity, rashes and extreme dryness, so avoiding exfoliating ingredients such as glycolic acid is key, as well as products with vitamin C, as they can interfere with radiation treatments. He wanted to continue using products from the brands he loved, but had to search elsewhere. “We want to start a conversation of inclusivity, where skincare products can feel luxurious and give you all the fantastic benefits that improve your skin health,” says Brewer.
By making their products safe to use, Happy 2nd Birthday are not just inclusive to those who are immunocompromised but also for other people searching for safe products, such as those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. “But to be truly inclusive, we need the industry to start implementing standards across the board,” Brewer says.
The dangers of “cleanwashing”
Making small changes can make a huge impact. In 2019, American beauty brand Kiehl’s achieved a $5 million increase in sales when they reformulated their Ultra Facial Cream to remove parabens, according to a case study done by e-commerce tech provider Yieldify. Though reformulating products can cost a lot of money, taking a look at existing inventories can prove fruitful.
Clean beauty marketplace Beautycounter (which was valued at $1 billion earlier this year), is finding ways to increase awareness around the cleanwashing of beauty. They are using their platform to create new regulations around clean beauty and also have a pocket-sized guide, the “Never List”, that helps consumers understand the chemicals that may be harmful to their health.
“[Beauty brands] need to think of consumers with chronic illness as hyper alert and hyper allergic,” says Fahed Essa, co-founder and CEO of Mayv, a community for integrative chronic pain management. Mayv offers a line of CBD products that are used in conjunction with its app, designing routines and rituals to help their community manage chronic pain. He notes that beauty and wellness solutions for those suffering from chronic pain have been on the fringes for so long because of the shame associated with it.
Publicis-owned forecasting agency Zenith predicts that decreased consumer demand for cosmetics and fragrances will suppress the recovery of beauty and personal luxury advertising post-lockdown. Hyper-engaged online communities can help fill the void. Essa believes the best way to do this is to speak to them directly and allow them to figure out what works for them. “We’re a community where the number one source of information is other patients, because we have a lived experience of it,” he says. “What we need to move towards is a place where people can be facilitated to take ownership of their own journey.”
For beauty brands to clean up their act, Ebrahem says it’s about understanding who is using your products and how that might affect them. “Brands need to be thinking about how they are using the terminology of clean and if it’s not truly clean, peddling a concept that’s harmful for their consumers won’t prove sustainable for their business in the long-term.”
This article originally appeared in Vogue Business.