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What's a 'clean' beauty product? No one can say for sure

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at what 'clean' really means when it comes to beauty products and what effect extreme heat has on rail travel.

Also: Extreme heat is doing a number on train tracks

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • What's a 'clean' beauty product? No one can say for sure
  • Extreme heat is doing a number on train tracks
  • Scientists find 39 potential new deep-sea creatures

What's a 'clean' beauty product? No one can say for sure

A woman applies cream to her face.

If you buy beauty products, you've likely seen cleansers, lotions and creams marketed as "clean," a term that can mean natural, chemical-free, organic, non-toxic and also: nothing. 

"It's a marketing phrase that implies more than it defines," said Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy and professor in the school of law and public health at the University of Alberta.

"What they're really selling is an idea. They're selling sort of a gestalt. They're selling a vibe. They're not selling reality," said Caulfield, who is the author of Relax: A Guide to Everyday Health Decisions with More Facts and Less Worry.

There's a dizzying choice of beauty products available to consumers. For example, retailer Sephora sells 723 moisturizers, 441 cleansers and 502 skin-care "treatments" on its popular website, and if you filter search "clean skincare," you get around 1,030 results (they also carry clean makeup, clean hair-care and clean fragrance).

Generally, when a beauty product is "clean," the intent is for it to be less harmful to humans, animals and the environment. Whole Foods, another major retailer of clean beauty products, bans 180 ingredients that could have "possible impacts on the environment and human health." 

But the problem with the clean beauty industry is that while all cosmetics sold in Canada must meet the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and the Cosmetic Regulations, there are no regulations around the term "clean." 

This leaves companies (and consumers) to create their own definitions. "Clean beauty" is ambiguous, experts note, defined by equally ambiguous terms such as "natural," "non-toxic" and "chemical-free" (technically, nothing is chemical-free).

"The claims are expansive, and the term [clean beauty] is tossed around, but really, it's not a science term," said Dr. Shannon Humphrey, a clinical assistant professor in the department of dermatology and skin science at the University of British Columbia and the medical director of Humphrey Cosmetic Dermatology. 

Last year, financial technology company Klarna surveyed 15,000 U.S. skin-care consumers and found that, among the youngest generations (Gen Z and millennials), the biggest consideration when shopping for beauty products was that they had "natural," "non-toxic" ingredients. Statista estimates that by 2023, the global market value for natural and organic beauty products will increase to $35.14 billion US.

Meanwhile, conflicting information and misinformation about ingredients are just a Google search away, Humphrey notes.

"The waters have really become muddied because certain preservatives and ingredients that have been studied in animals in massive, massive quantities — more than people would ever be exposed to in a lifetime — appear to be harmful," Humphrey said.

"However, the same is not true when tiny amounts are used for safety reasons to preserve stability of products in humans. So it's very difficult for the average consumer to find accurate information on the safety of ingredients in topical products.

"Over-the-counter ingredients in Canada are not toxic," Humphrey said.

For instance, there are some studies that have raised concerns about parabens — chemicals used as preservatives in personal care products. And a 2021 study on polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) made waves when it found high levels of fluorine, a key element in PFAS, in half of the cosmetic products it tested from the U.S. and Canada.

But, again, "most studies have not made a definitive connection to human health issues despite the fact the clean beauty industry often makes dogmatic statements that there's a clear connection," Caulfield said. "There's not."

As Health Canada notes, "health effects have not been observed as a result of exposures to parabens at concentrations found in cosmetics." As for PFAS, Health Canada prohibits three groups of PFAS that have been well studied because of their risk to the environment (they don't degrade naturally; traces have even been found in Arctic ice cores) and is considering a more extensive ban. Exposure to two types of PFAS — PFOS and PFOA — has been associated with health effects in humans, but these types are prohibited in Canada.

Clean beauty products tend to rely on the belief that a product that comes from nature is better for you, but that's not necessarily true, Caulfield said. 

For example, people can have skin reactions called allergic contact dermatitis to the ingredients found in "natural" products, Humphrey notes. Studies have shown an uptick in skin reactions to essential oils, for example.

Because "clean" isn't a regulated term, Caulfield notes regulators like the FDA or Health Canada can't require companies to prove their product is clean at all.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to make sure cosmetics products aren't toxic or unsafe for the environment, Caulfield said. And what the clean beauty industry is doing right is pushing for transparency about what exactly is in all our lotions, creams, cleansers and balms.

For instance, another major clean beauty retailer, Beautycounter, has been lobbying the U.S. government for higher safety standards, including requiring more transparency from brands, and called for clear definitions for "widely used but underrated terms like 'natural,'" according to their 2021 media release.

That said, "don't get fooled by the marketing that is really just used to build on those concerns to sell products," Caulfield said.

If you're concerned about the ingredients in your skin-care products, both Caulfied and Humphrey recommend turning to the experts, whether that's Health Canada, the FDA or a dermatologist. 

Natalie Stechyson

Reader feedback

Bruce Brasnett:

"I am writing to respond to a letter in your last issue. Maude Page wrote to decry an article that 'perpetuates the myth that the climate crisis can be solved if we move to renewables.' While I agree that renewables (wind and solar energy) alone will not solve the climate crisis, renewables will nevertheless play a central role in averting a climate disaster. The letter points out that wind and solar energy are not always available. However, the intermittency of wind energy can be mitigated in at least two ways. In a country as vast as Canada, the wind is always blowing somewhere. Sending electricity from regions where there is surplus power to regions where there is a deficit will make wind energy more stable and reliable for all. 

"The other way to mitigate lulls in production is energy storage, where many promising new technologies are being developed. The letter also points to the difficulty in replacing natural gas for heating. Wind power will be vital to this transition, since wind energy production peaks in the winter months, with about twice as much electricity produced in mid-winter as in mid-summer. This makes wind energy a good fit for Canada as we decarbonize the heating of buildings over the next decades.

"It serves no purpose to dwell on the limitations of renewables. If Canada is to be a net-zero emitter by 2050, we need to get on with the job."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

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Also, check out our radio show and podcast. As we count down to COP27 in Egypt, we look back at last year's climate conference in Glasgow, where it fell short and why trust is an important part of climate negotiations. What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The effect of extreme heat on train tracks

Climate change is leading to more extreme heat events — we know this. But we often fail to realize that soaring temperatures and humidity imperil more than just our physical health. A sizzling summer in places like the U.K., continental Europe and Japan, for example, has provided more proof of what heat can also do to infrastructure — particularly train tracks.

Commuters in London have recently been asked to reduce rail travel, as operators were finding that the tracks were at risk of buckling. The steel that makes up the tracks expands and contracts within a reasonable range, but as temperatures have tested seasonal norms, they have bent the metal. In the blazing sun, steel rail beds will be roughly 20 C hotter than the air temperature. The expansion of the steel puts strain on the ties, which is exacerbated by the force exerted by trains running on the tracks. All of this can cause tracks to buckle and potentially become permanently damaged. San Francisco experienced a more visceral outcome of this in late June, when warped tracks led to a derailment, leading to minor injuries. 

This is not a new phenomenon, having been reported, for example, in New Jersey in 1978. It's also not necessarily an insurmountable problem. But like all things related to our changing climate, retrofitting rail systems to handle higher temperatures is a vast and expensive undertaking.

Train tracks.
(Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Scientists find 39 potential new deep-sea creatures

A deep-sea creature that looks like a cross-training sneaker.
(DeepCCZ expedition/Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation/NOAA)

There's nothing quite like exploring unfamiliar terrain and discovering something entirely new.

It's a feeling Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras of the U.K.'s Natural History Museum knows well. She's the lead author of a new study that documented 39 species of deep-sea creatures believed to be new to science, including types of sea cucumbers, starfish, corals and sponges.

"It's always exciting every time," Bribiesca-Contreras told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "But the truth is, when we're doing deep-sea studies … maybe 90 per cent of the animals we find are a new species to science. And that's just because it's so unexplored."

The findings were published this month in the journal ZooKeys.

The researchers used a remotely operated vehicle to explore marine life in the deepest depths of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a five-million-square-kilometre area in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. At its deepest, the CCZ descends 5,500 metres — making it almost as deep as Mt. Kilimanjaro is high.

Operators controlled the vehicle from a vessel on the surface of the water, slowly scanning the sea floor with a camera from two metres above. 

"There's always scientists in the control room, and every time they see something exciting, they just start yelling and shouting," Bribiesca-Contreras said.

The team took detailed images and videos of the creatures they found, then collected them to be further studied by zoologists around the world. 

In total, they collected 55 specimens from 48 species. Seven have been confirmed as new discoveries, says Bribiesca-Contreras. Another 32 are believed to be new, but more work needs to be done to confirm.

All are classified as macrofauna: bigger than microscopic organisms, but still only centimetres or even millimetres in size. That makes these findings particularly exciting, says Bribiesca-Contreras, as most scientific knowledge of deep-sea macrofauna is derived exclusively from photographs.

"It's very hard to decide, you know, what's a different species just from a photo," Bribiesca-Contreras said. "It's not the same as having the specimen and actually being able to count how many tentacles they have or, you know, to even get some information from their DNA."

Even the microfauna that aren't new to science are rare. For example, the team collected a Psychropotes dyscrita — a 30-centimetre-long yellow sea cucumber that the team dubbed a "gummy squirrel" (see photo above) — which Bribiesca-Contreras says is one of only two known specimens in existence.

Verena Tunnicliffe, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria and a Canada Research Chair in deep ocean research, said the team's findings "contribute to a major advance in a region where we know so very little."

"I love new species," Tunnicliffe said in an email. "Each tells a different story about adaptation to a unique and specialized habitat. A name can help with general adaptations, but 'new' means something that is, indeed, novel."

The CCZ is of particular interest to scientists — partly because so much of its ecosystem remains undocumented, but also because it's rich in highly valuable minerals used in modern technology, including cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper.

These minerals are key to powering green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars. Already, Bribiesca-Contreras says companies are eyeing the area as a possible site of deep-sea mining.

"Obviously there's a lot of commercial interest in the area," she said. "So it's very, very important that we, as scientists, understand the ecosystem. And the first thing to, you know, really understand the ecosystem is to know exactly what lives down there, [and] to describe the diversity."

Tunnicliffe estimates that as much as 80 per cent of the megafauna in this part of the ocean is still unknown to scientists. "Biodiversity loss is a major concern," she said.

As scientists get a better picture of life in the deep sea, Bribiesca-Contreras says they can start identifying which areas should be set aside for marine conservation.

"This is part of a massive effort from scientists around the world that we're all in a rush to describe the ecosystems down there," she said. "We definitely need to keep doing more exploration."

Sheena Goodyear

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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