Clean beauty’s crusade against chemicals has waged war on certain ingredients being used in beauty and personal care products for the better part of the last decade, and now The Ordinary is fighting back.
Last week, the beauty brand renowned for its affordable, science-forward formulations announced a new collection of haircare products, including a shampoo, conditioner, and scalp treatment. The product that has the beauty industry up in arms is the shampoo, The Ordinary’s Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Hair & Body. It’s a not-so-subtle shot at the clean beauty movement, which has lampooned the use of sulphates in beauty products due to its effectiveness as a cleansing agent. Some clean beauty enthusiasts believe that this can lead to overstripping the hair and skin of its natural oils.
Sodium laureth sulphate (also called sodium lauryl ether sulphate or SLES) is one of clean beauty’s biggest targets. After decades of being included in personal care products such as shampoos, cleansers, and body washes to produce that lather that many people equate with the feeling of being “clean,” the clean beauty movement shunned the ingredient. It was named as one of Drunk Elephant’s Suspicious Six and subsequently placed on Credo Beauty’s Dirty List. Clean beauty programs at Sephora and Target followed suit banning the ingredient, and now almost every hair product on the shelves today is labeled “sulphate free.”
The Ordinary’s pro-sulphate campaign aims to bring this once ubiquitous ingredient back to center stage, and in doing so, undermine clean beauty’s chief argument that chemicals are bad. Because if the movement mistakenly maligned sulphates, what else could they be wrong about?
Here, we go inside the resistance to better understand the sulphate controversy and the beauty brands leading the anti-clean revolution.
The Ordinary’s anti-clean beauty campaign
In June 2021, The Ordinary’s parent company DECIEM came out as anti clean beauty in a post on social media, stating, “Everything is chemicals, including ‘clean’ beauty.” The brand, who refers to itself as “the abnormal beauty company,” says this stance is part of their effort to remain a transparent, science-first beauty brand.
The launch of their “Everything Is Chemicals” campaign was a declaration of war against the clean beauty movement, which is often criticized for its unclear definitions and a seemingly ever-growing list of banned ingredients. DECIEM has made it their mission to provide clarity on the ingredients that clean beauty has demonized, starting with one of haircare’s most maligned ingredients: sulphates.
The Ordinary Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Hair & Body uses sodium laureth sulphate-2 (SLES-2), a biodegradable surfactant, to break down and remove dirt and other impurities from the hair. “Most of this dirt, including sebum, is water insoluble and cannot be effectively removed by water alone,” said The Ordinary in a statement to the press ahead of launch. “Therefore, a shampoo, or cleanser, containing a mild surfactant such as SLES-2, helps effectively clean.”
Surfactants can help dissolve the barrier between dirt, oil, and water. By breaking down this barrier, the surfactants in shampoos emulsify oil and dirt on the hair and scalp, allowing it to be washed away with water.
“SLS is a very good economic cleanser,” says Akemi Ooka, Head of Global Supply Chain Resources at the Independent Beauty Association. “It’s a very good degreaser, but it’s all about how you formulate it. You use co-surfactants and other ingredients to dial down the irritancy properties.”
Sulphates have been on the “no” list in clean beauty since the movement originated, but DECIEM argues that the health and safety claims made by certain marketing campaigns do not align with the peer-reviewed scientific evidence available today. So, how did it end up there?
Sulphates start causing problems when they’re used at too high of a concentration, which could lead to a compromised skin barrier or a dry, irritated scalp. Used at a 4 percent concentration, The Ordinary claims that the sulphate in their shampoo is safe to use, and is even effective at cleansing color-treated hair without stripping hair color.
Cosmetic chemists and product formulators agree: sulphates are a safe, nontoxic way to remove dirt and oils. Cosmetic scientists Michelle Wong and Heleen Kibbelaar have both dispelled the myth that sulphates are harmful to your health. Science podcaster The Eco Well has also taken to social media to correct the record on sulphates.
“The overarching message we'd like to get across when it comes to judging ingredients is the core principle of toxicology—the dose makes the poison,” Dionne Lois Cullen, Chief Brand Officer at DECIEM, told BeautyMatter. “Ingredients can’t be named as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without the context of how they are being used.”
“We want to encourage the consumer to question the ways in which the industry is speaking to them,” Cullen continues. “With the echo chambers created by social media, it's often difficult to know who the opinions we have absorbed actually belong to. Where did they start? Are they backed by evidence? Who is benefiting from the narrative? For us, it's about stripping everything back to present the simple facts, and allowing the consumer to come to their own conclusions.”
The Ordinary’s honest and transparent approach to helping consumers understand science-based claims is not an easy journey, but it’s something the brand has made part of its mission since it was founded back in 2012. With this launch, DECIEM hopes to change the conversation around clean beauty, making room for scientifically sound research to correct cosmetic misinformation.
Through the brand’s straightforward approach to naming its products based on the active or hero ingredient, consumers have no choice but to ask the question: What is this ingredient, and what does it do for my skin?
Isla Beauty joins the fight
The Ordinary isn’t the only beauty brand fighting back against the clean beauty crusade. Isla Beauty is a beauty brand whose mission is to be “the most transparent brand in beauty,” and avoids the word “clean” on any of its marketing materials or social media. The brand offers best-in-class formulations at fair prices, made possible by trading inflated marketing claims for real formulation transparency that builds trust and delivers results.
“From the outset, we have been very aware that the way the whole industry got here with “clean” beauty is through massive sweeping generalizations and creating an enemy out of certain competitive products,” Isla Beauty co-founders Charlie Denton and Tracy Dubb tell BeautyMatter.
Isla Beauty doesn’t have a “no” list of ingredients they promise to never use in their formulations. Instead, the brand offers a full breakdown of active ingredients, source ingredients, and source country of every single product.
“The issue is that no one takes the time right now to talk about concentrations and formulation. The whole narrative is about ingredients, which is missing a large piece of the story. We are trying to put the conversation back on formulation, proven advancements in science, expert-backed data, and backing up claims.”
While The Ordinary has positioned itself as solidly “anti-clean beauty,” taking a science-first approach, Isla Beauty is attempting to build a bridge between the two worlds through transparency—without being an explicitly “clean” or science-forward beauty brand.
“We think that by doing so, and if you know how, you can take the best intentions of the clean beauty movement (such as high ingredient integrity and restraint around ingredient concentrations) and apply them in a scientifically backed way to make extremely high-performance product that is perfectly safe to use and is conscious of the environment.”
The Ordinary and Isla Beauty both share a common commitment to transparency, which is potentially the next evolution of clean beauty. Denton and Dubb suggest that consumers are experiencing “fear-mongering fatigue” from being told which ingredients are good and bad, all while still searching for a product that lives up to its promises.
“Because we’ve never been really a participant in the clean beauty movement, we plan to continue to be an advocate for transparency and formulation expertise in the industry, and we hope that with greater transparency and understanding about product formulation and ingredients, comes greater trust,” say the Isla Beauty co-founders.
The uncertain future of clean beauty
As the battle for space on your bathroom counter continues on, clean beauty won’t go down without a fight. It presents itself as a movement based in the science of health—but without the scientific evidence to back up its serious claims, clean beauty may very well crumble.
Clean beauty’s biggest problem has historically been getting brands and retailers to agree on what is considered “clean,” causing widespread confusion for consumers. While some clean beauty programs are getting stricter, like Sephora’s new Clean + Planet Positive Program, other retailers like Ulta Beauty are expanding the definition of what they consider to be “clean.” The beauty retailer’s Conscious Beauty program doesn’t include sulphates on its “made without” list.
In Business of Fashion, Allen Sha, chemist and founder of Sha Consulting Group, a product development firm for beauty and personal care brands, predicts a rise of non-clean beauty brands over the next two to three years.
Knowledge is power, and if The Ordinary and Isla Beauty can keep up the good fight against misleading marketing claims in the pursuit of scientific truth and transparency, consumers may start to undo some of the clean beauty conditioning they’ve been taught over the last decade.
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