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The Voice of Reason Amongst the Chaos of the Clean Beauty Backlash

August 30, 2021 BeautyMatter
August 30, 2021
Michael Dziedzic via Unsplash

Dan Sudman, founder of clean beauty retail platform Carbon Beauty, one of the largest beauty retailers on Amazon today with sales projected to hit $22 – 24 million for 2021, has thoughts on the recent clean beauty controversy that is playing out on social media and in publications like WWD, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal — and his thoughts may not be what you would expect.

“When critics of the clean beauty movement express concerns over companies cherry-picking data, publishing misleading claims, etc., they are rightfully concerned,” said Sudman. “This is a massive problem that tarnishes the credibility of the industry and results in customers being grossly misinformed and misled.”

However, Sudman pointed out, critics of clean beauty fail to mention that cherry-picking data and misleading marketing claims are rampant throughout the entire beauty industry. “Does this absolve clean brands from these misrepresentations? Certainly not. The entire industry needs to get its act together if it is to be taken seriously by the scientific community. Yet, for critics to point the finger of ‘misinformation’ only to clean beauty seems myopic and inaccurate.”

Accusations of cherry-picking data and fear-mongering have not stopped the segment from booming — the global clean beauty market's revenue was estimated to be $ 5439.6 million in 2020 and is expected to reach $1.155 billion in 2027, growing at a CAGR of 12.07% from 2020 to 2027, according to Brandessence Market Research and Consulting. 

“When it comes to beauty and wellness, many of the clinical studies referenced by brands have so many red flags to the point where most scientists dismiss them altogether.”
By Dan Sudman, founder, Carbon Beauty

Sudman, who partners with more than 80 clean beauty brands, sees clean beauty through a scientific lens, given his academic background in psychology and the biological sciences. When he first entered the clean beauty space, Sudman, a Massachusetts native who now resides in Puerto Rico, found it “mind-boggling what brands get away with” in respect to claims of efficacy and ingredient toxicity.

Sudman recognizes that clean beauty is well-intentioned but he also feels the industry needs to be built on science as opposed to ideology and/or marketing claims. “When it comes to beauty and wellness, many of the clinical studies referenced by brands have so many red flags to the point where most scientists dismiss them altogether.”

According to Sudman, many clinical studies that brands use to support their marketing claims have conflicts of interest, insufficient sample populations, and can be manipulated to create a low bar to achieve statistical significance. “These studies usually have not been reproduced and often rely upon subjective assessments or incorrectly extrapolate in vitro findings to humans. While I’m sure there are some brands attempting to perform quality research, it’s far from the norm.”

Despite this, Sudman believes that the clean beauty industry has valid concerns about problematic ingredients that may have a cumulative effect in humans. He thinks clean beauty “is a step in the right direction” to establishing a better system for product safety and determining potential risk, giving consumers more transparency for seeing through the bullshit. “I think that it's really about minimizing potential risk when it comes to a lot of these natural products and making sure that you're not exposing yourself to any sort of unnecessary damage that you'll regret in the long term.”

Sudman stressed that it’s important to view “risk” in a probabilistic sense. “I notice people often seek definitive answers to these types of issues and science largely doesn’t function that way. Instead of dichotomizing ingredients as “safe” or “dangerous” or “good” and “bad,” one should view ingredients as having varying levels of probabilistic risk assigned to them based upon available evidence, which is subject to change over time.” Sudman explained this is a reminder that scientific knowledge is provisional and will continue to evolve as we gather new information, attempt to replicate previous studies, and refine methods/techniques.

“Science is messy,” said Sudman. “And I think once it [the science] trickles down to these consumer categories, it either gets completely taken out of context or so oversimplified and distorted to the point where it doesn't even resemble the original research.”

Critics of clean beauty in the Cosmopolitan article said it’s illegal for companies to sell toxic products, so this should not be of concern to customers. “While technically true, this rather simplistic point misses a valid concern,” said Sudman. “Similar to how food companies have been incentivized to manufacture products with long shelf-lives, without necessarily considering how our bodies metabolize these highly-processed foods, beauty companies are not always fully invested in using time-tested ingredients that have solid safety profiles with long periods of testing. This isn’t the result of some evil corporation deliberately trying to harm its customers, but rather, market pressures that favor companies who can maximize profits wherever they can, even if that means using ingredients that have higher health risk profiles or more unknowns.”

While some mainstream beauty companies develop products that end up having questionable long-term safety profiles, on the opposite end of the spectrum Sudman sees clean beauty advocates excluding ingredients that they deem to be harmful “without necessarily having sufficient evidence to back up this assessment.”

Some may ascribe this to market pressures, but Sudman thinks another contributing factor is the false dichotomy created when classifying these ingredients as “good” or “bad” or “dangerous” or “safe”. This might make information more digestible to customers, Sudman added, but it comes at a huge cost “which is the gross oversimplification of a complex issue. Ideally, we would want to be able to assign probabilistic risk ratings to ingredients based on available evidence or lack thereof, which would also evolve over time as new data is published.”

Sudman acknowledged that some entities have attempted to create this rating system but his greatest concern is “whether these authorities are sufficiently removed from conflicts of interest / financial incentives that leave the door open for bias to enter the system. In this type of rating system, the authority should be completely impartial and have no stake in the ingredients/products examined.”
Sudman believes the key to navigating the murky waters of the beauty industry as a whole is that, we, the consumers, should all try to be better skeptics. “This is relevant to all marketing claims, whether it’s a clean beauty brand using a nonsensical term such as ‘chemical-free’ or a mainstream beauty brand misleadingly touting their ‘anti-aging’ benefits, we consumers need to better recognize dubious claims.