How clean is clean?

Everyone wants clean these days. Toxic-free beauty, organic food, herbal dishwasher soap. Chemicals are out, natural is in.

The “clean” movement promised us healthier products and pressured big companies to use better ingredients. It’s also become a marketing catch-all that can mean anything and everything. (Any brand can slap “clean,” “green,” or “natural” on its label.) And while many a consumer welcomes a more transparent shopping experience, there are issues plaguing this new category.

Last week, Sephora recalled a Herbivore Botanicals face cream due to mold. It turns out, if you believe this Reddit thread, the trendy natural skincare brand has a history of failing to ensure the quality of its inventory. A number of products have reportedly gone bad often as soon as opened.

The incident highlighted a growing problem: the efficacy of “natural” preservatives. In the rush for pure products, some brand have failed to institute adequate substitutes that can accommodate mass production. And that means we can get something far from clean--we get bacteria and mold.

Just take a look at the FDA cosmetic recall site. You’ll see dozens of product alerts regarding bacteria contamination.

Some, like the chemists behind The Beauty Brains (an excellent podcast I highly recommend), argue that the industry’s “fear-mongering” steered companies away from safe and effective preservatives / parabens. “Chemophobia,” a new term used to describe consumers' fear of synthetic chemicals, might be leading us to craft weak formulations.

That and the fact they are all, technically, chemical.

“The reality is cosmetics are not natural,” says cosmetic scientist and Beauty Brains founder Perry Romanowski. “They're all processed in some way. All of this natural stuff is just bells and whistles. You cannot go out into nature and pull a bottle of shampoo off of a bush. There are no lipstick trees.”

(An exception might be coconut oil, and even that has been chemically processed.)

I saw traces of chemophobia in another story I reported this month: the “clean meds” movement, which aims to make products like Tums and pain relievers with healthier, better-for-you ingredients.

Most consumers are unaware that the average over-the-counter medication is mostly composed of inactive ingredients like fillers, dyes, parabens, phthalates, talc, lactose, and gluten (which can trigger adverse reactions for some). One company called Genexa swaps over 60 artificial fillers for less-harsh alternatives like organic rice bran extract.

But pharmacists and physicians are skeptical, noting the amount of fillers consumed is generally minimal. Not to mention, many of these substitutes count as homeopathy, which cannot compete with traditional medicine’s efficacy.

“Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s safe, or that it even works,” says Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, MD, assistant clinical professor at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work, but it also doesn’t mean that it does.”
—Rina Raphael, Fast Company

More on the topic:


L.A. grocery stores are selling out of celery: Sales of the veggie jumped 400% due to the celery juicing trend. (LA mag)

Femtech expected to secure $1 billion by the end of 2019: The sector has attracted $241 million in VC funding so far this year. (TechCrunch)

Eight new cannabis wellness resorts in the works: Smoke while relaxing on a lazy river that taps into California’s natural hot springs. (Hospitality Design)

Yogurt sales fall after a decade of growth: Meanwhile, Instagram star oatmeal is on the rise. (WSJ / FastCo)

Amazon is using astrology to sell you more stuff: Amazon Prime is sending bizarre shopping horoscopes to its members. (FastCo)

Evian’s new plastic water dispenser uses drastically less plastic: It’s the first Evian product made fully from recycled plastic. By 2025, the company plans to make all its containers from recycled materials. (FastCo)

On the topic of water, there’s now a “pee-tracking” hydration app: Pee & See records how often you take a leak. (Well+Good)

Michelle Pfeiffer gets into the clean fragrance space: The actress launched a direct-to-consumer perfume company that sells $120 scents. (FastCo)

New bill would require the Defense Department to cover freezing sperm, eggs for combat troops: Troops with infertility related to their military service as well as those soldiers headed to a combat zone would be able to access a number of treatments. (

“Consent condoms” miss the point: An argument against a new condom that requires two sets of hands to open. (HuffPo)

Dirty Lemon releases “drinkable retinol”: As Liz Lemon would say, shut it down. (Byrdie)

Jessamyn Stanley launches a yoga app: The self-described “fat femme” fitness instructor expands her body-positivity empire with an app called The Underbelly. (Well+Good)


Thanks to Instagram, personal care products get a pretty makeover: Your razor, toothbrush, deodorant, floss …. everything needs to look like it came straight out of Glossier. (WWD)

Botox-on-demand expands: It started with the “Drybar of Botox,” and now, accessing fillers is easier than ever. Botox maker Allergan just launched an online booking platform for medical-aesthetic treatments. (Allure / FastCo)

Gen Z buys everything online—except beauty products: Ninety percent of beauty items are bought in store. (BoF)

Everyone’s excited about biophilic design: Find out why designing spaces with the outdoors in mind might just make us happier, healthier, and less likely to turn into crazy plant ladies. (FastCo)

Deeper dives:

Workplace wellness programs don’t do much, finds study
A new large-scale study looked at 20 BJ's Wholesale Clubs that offered a wellness program to all employees, then compared results with 140 stores that did not. After 18 months, they found that those who participated had healthier behaviors (such as exercising more), but that didn’t translate to differences in health measures (such as improved blood sugar or glucose levels). Nor did it affect how much the company spent on health care or how often employees missed work.  (NPR)

Inside the Trader Joe’s black market
Trader Joe’s has no e-commerce business, making it ripe for an underground reselling economy. That means some products have a 564% price increase on the black market. Their $1.99 Everything But the Bagel seasoning for example, goes for $22.44 on Amazon. People are hilarious. (Refinery29)

Menstrual surveillance”: Pregnancy apps have a big privacy issue
Pregnancy tracking apps have surged in popularity, helping women easily assess their fertility, sex life, and health. But they’ve also become a way for employers to monitor their employees. Watchdog groups warn that companies might use the data to scale back health care benefits and that private information could be exposed in data breaches. Not to mention, as one nonprofit founder argued, “There’s so much discrimination against mothers and families in the workplace, and they can’t trust their employer to have their best interests at heart.” (Washington Post)

This essential oils company is worth over $5 billion
DoTerra has become the most influential purveyor in a fast-­growing essential oils industry. The company was worth at $5.1 billion in 2017 and is estimated to hit $25 billion by 2024. What’s its secret? Employing non-salaried “wellness advocates” to sell its products over social media. (Bloomberg)

Amazon Alexa wants to be part of your health care
Amazon announced that your favorite kitchen gadget is now HIPAA compliant. Alexa will soon be able to book doctor appointments and monitor your health status. Yay? While voice technology might truly help people access care, the question remains: Can we actually trust Amazon and its partners to handle sensitive medical information? (The Verge)

Stop forcing your mindfulness on me
“Somehow in [the last] five years, ‘mindfulness’ has taken on an almost cult-like status, becoming nearly inescapable in conversations about mental health and personal well-being, especially within the tech world.” (FastCo)

Which is healthier--the original or the meatless Impossible Whopper?
Everyone’s excited that Burger King will now carry the Impossible Burger. But is the faux-meat version any healthier than the real thing? A dietician weighs in. (NBC News)

Quote of the week:

“Sooner than many realize, forest bathing / Shinrin-yoku or just a walk in nature may become more fashionable than spending hundreds of dollars in boutique fitness classes.” (GWI)

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