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Clean Skincare: What It Is And Why It Works

The terms used in skincare these days can be pretty overwhelming. If you've been in the skincare aisle of a Whole Foods anytime in the past decade, you'll have seen products labeled primarily labeled with terms like "organic" and "clean." But while all of these terms sound good, what exactly do they mean—and what really matters in terms of finding good-quality skincare products that will actually get the job done? Here's a guide to figuring out what the major terms in the clean skincare space actually mean—and what will get the job done.

Organic Skincare Vs. Clean Skincare: What's The Difference?

Products that have been certified organic by the USDA are made with ingredients that were grown without pesticides or man-made fertilizers. Within the USDA's system, a product can be "100% Organic," which means all of its ingredients have been certified. It can be simply "Organic," which means 95% of the ingredients have been certified, and then there's "Made with Organic," which guarantees that 70% or more of the ingredients are organic. Any product that claims to have "organic ingredients" but doesn't have a seal from the USDA may contain organic ingredients, but it doesn't have to, since it doesn't have the certification.

However, just because a product has been certified organic doesn't mean they've been proven to anything beneficial for your skin—and can even harm it. You could make a moisturizer out of organically-grown poison ivy, for instance… but that wouldn't make it great skincare. For this reason, we're less interested in organic skincare products, and are more interested in the benefits of clean skincare.

There isn’t an official definition for clean skincare or a governmental regulatory agency that certifies for this term, so each company gets to make its own rules about what that means—and that means that consumers who care about using clean products have to pay attention to individual ingredients in their skincare, the same way they do in their food. A lot of companies claim their products are clean, and throw labels like "all-natural" on them, but those are really meaningless. Instead, we recommend looking for products that contain high concentrations of clean skincare ingredients that are beneficial, and avoiding skincare products that have been shown in scientific studies to be problematic.

What Clean Skin Care Ingredients Can Replace Traditional Skin Care Ingredients You Already Use?

There are a lot of great, clean skincare ingredients out there (here's the full list of the ingredients we believe in) but here are some of our favorite clean skincare alternatives that can achieve the same positive effects as the ingredients you already use—without harming your skin in the long run.

Swap Out Your Retinol For Bakuchiol

Retinol is one of the most-studied skincare ingredients on the market, and we can say that once skin adjusts to it, it absolutely works to diminish fine lines by increasing cell turnover. However, retinol also gets a pretty damning 9 (on a scale of 1-9, with 9 being the worst) from the EWG. While it's effective at minimizing fine lines, retinol is also associated with reproductive toxicity, may be connected to cell death and heart disease, and has been shown in some studies to cause tumor formation.

Instead, consider using a product that contains the ingredient bakuchiol, which has also been shown to diminish fine lines and sun damage in double-blind studies. However, unlike retinol, it earns a squeaky-clean 1 from EWG, and it’s much less likely to irritate sensitive skin.

Swap Out Your Hydroquinone For Vitamin C

Most of us deal with uneven skin tone and some dark spots, primarily produced by sun damage and old acne scars, that we wouldn't mind taking a brightener to. And for years, hydroquinone was the number one ingredient for brightening skin. However, while it's still legal in the United States, this chemical has been banned in the EU, largely because it's been linked to issues like skin cancer.

Instead, consider using Vitamin C, which has been shown in repeated clinical trials to act as a depigmenting agent. Plus, it has some other goodies, like having the ability to stimulate collagen production, which keeps skin looking younger and firmer. We're especially fans of tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, which is a stable form of vitamin C that dissolves in oil, which allows it to be absorbed into the skin's outer layers.

Swap Out Your Mineral Oil For Meadowfoam Seed Oil

Mineral oil is a traditional ingredient in skincare products, but it's also pretty problematic. Its extraction process is connected to the oil industry and thus bad for the environment, and it's also just not that effective. There is also some evidence that it can clog pores, and it's possible that mineral oil can enter our systems through our skincare products, then stay there and slowly build over time since it can't be metabolized.

Instead, opt for products that contain meadowfoam seed oil. Made from the extract of seeds from a flowering plant native to the Pacific Northwest, this oil has a unique molecular structure that allows it to easily absorb into the skin, which enhances its moisturizing properties without clogging pores. It also has a longer shelf life than similar botanical oils.

Why Is Clean Skincare More Effective Than Either Traditional Or Organic Products?

To us, clean skincare products incorporate only ingredients that have been shown to work and have not been shown to be harmful, and also avoid using any ingredients linked to harmful health effects. A lot of traditional skincare products you'll find in most department stores and pharmacies may be effective in the short term because the chemicals in them produce quick effects, but can be harmful in the long term because they can build up in the body, and may be harmful in the long-term. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a lot of organic skincare products may be safe to use and won't cause long-term healthcare problems, but they also won't actually help your skin—they'll just sit there. We're interested in clean skincare because it exists at the intersection of scientifically proven, effective, and safe—a trifecta we can believe in.

Next Up: Clean Beauty: What Exactly Is It And Why Does It Matter?