beauty lessons:

An education 
in clean
skin care

Why going green could give you your best skin yet.



One of the most frequent requests we get at VIOLET GREY HQ is for help deciphering what constitutes“clean” or “green” beauty. Consider this our decisive answer. In the above video, we sat down with the founders of five of our most beloved clean beauty brands to learn more about their ingredient and manufacturing philosophies. And in the below story, we consulted even more experts to see how to “greenwash” your medicine cabinet (and learn what’s really inside conventional products). Because there’s nothing more beautiful than being well-informed. 

Even the most casual beauty observer has likely noticed a surge in products prominently labeled clean in recent years. As the word has become a frequent presence in the beauty realm it has, along the way, also managed to lose much of its original meaning. A point of frustration and confusion for a beauty-buying public more keen than ever before on greening their skin care routine. We asked a few of our favorite experts in the field to help us cut through the noise around clean beauty.


Just as we’ve become more conscious about our diet and what we consume, skin care is a natural extension of that. “Consumers are hungry for something different and there’s so much more information available now about what goes into our skin care and how it affects both our complexion and the full state of our health,” says May Lindstrom, founder of the eponymous brand. “Your skin absorbs whatever you put on it into your bloodstream, so I follow the same philosophy for skin care as I would with my diet.” Besides a renewed interest in a full-picture healthier lifestyle, the products we’ve been using have, says Pai founder Sarah Brown, also helped to force the clean conversation. “More people are becoming sensitized to mainstream skin care and cosmetics because we’re using more products that are more powerful and with more frequency than previous generations,” she says. “We’re overburdening the skin which is pushing people towards naturals.” Since Brown started Pai a decade ago, there have been major strides made in clean skin care; now brands with higher quality ingredients and advanced, sophisticated formulations are more readily available. “The goal is to make skin care products that don’t pose any health risks, are safe for people to use when pregnant, and that also keep the environment in mind,” says esthetician Kristina Holey. “And if you can still get the results you want, of healthy skin, without using potential allergens or endocrine disruptors, why wouldn’t you?”


“Clean has become a marketing catchphrase with no weight to it,” Lindstrom claims. The industry’s rampant greenwashing, with clean becoming an omnipresence on product labels, is due to the fact that it remains a largely unregulated term in the United States; in other words, anything can deem itself clean, even when the formulation is far from it. “Many brands will label themselves clean just because they’re using an essential oil, but it could still be made poorly with unwanted ingredients in there to stabilize or preserve,” Holey points out. The key to deducing what’s what starts with flipping the bottle. “The ingredient deck is where the magic happens and there’s less room to hide,” adds Lindstrom.


Ingredient labels may seem impenetrable at first glance, but there are a few simple rules of thumb to follow. First, size matters, and, in this case, bigger is not better. “Look for words with a copyright or patent protected symbol because who knows what that is, and also for anything that is super chemical-sounding or hard to pronounce,” Holey advises. Brown likes to call out three key ingredient categories to be wary of: preservatives, detergents (like sodium lauryl sulfate), and fragrance— “Fragrance can be especially tricky because there are hundreds of ingredients that manufacturers can hide under that term without disclosing,” she explains. Here, a mini compendium of some frequent offenders:


An abbreviation of parahydroxybenzoic acid it’s a popular and effective microcidal preservative that, while generally well tolerated by the skin, has posed enough potential toxicity concerns that the EU banned their use in 2012. “Incidences of contact dermatitis are more of concern than their potential to disrupt endocrines,” says Holey. L.A.-based dermatologist Dr. Annie Chiu adds that besides personal care products, parabens are also found in the majority of grocery items. “So even making sure they’re out of your skin care routine doesn’t mean they’re out of your bloodstream, and this cumulative exposure could overload the body and cause a variety of health and hormone related issues,” she explains.

Ethoxylated compounds

While parabens have been widely called out, the alternatives many companies, some who even bill themselves as green, are using, may be worse. “Preservative substitutes like phenoxy ethanol, phenethyl alcohol, and polyethylene glycol (or PEG) pose more serious risks than parabens,” explains Holey. “Like parabens they can induce irritation, but what’s worse is processing with them may result in contamination with 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen.”


A preservative and fragrance enhancer it was used as a paraben substitute for a while. “It has become less popular as studies have emerged showing it has the potential to harm developing fetuses,” says Holey.

Sodium Lauryl and Laureth Sulfate

The product of ethoxylation, it’s a surfactant, aka the stuff that makes your foaming cleanser foam. “It has been linked to cancer, skin irritation, endocrine disruption and a variety of toxicities,” says Chiu. Holey explains that Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) was developed by chemists because SLS caused irritation. “Modifying the molecules actually made a small problem worse,” says Holey. “SLES was less irritating but also more of a carcinogenic risk. Thankfully much safer surfactancs like decly polyglucoside have taken the place of SLS and SLES.”


Compounds like aluminum chloride, aluminum chlorohydrate, and aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex glycine, they are commonly found in antiperspirants, but show up in small traces in some skin care products. But there is conflicting research about the potential concern that comes with overexposure. Chiu points out that the Mayo Clinic, FDA and EU have all found that minute amounts cannot penetrate the skin’s outer layers.


A product of phthalic acid, phthalates like DBP, DEHP, DEP, and DMP are plasticizers and, says Holey, often hidden under the “fragrance” label. Carcinogenic and a major cause of allergic reactions, Chiu adds that they are also believed to cause birth defects in males.

Mineral oil

A byproduct of petroleum distillation it is a skin irritant for some, though many dermatologists stand by it for its moisturizing properties. “It is often maligned but it’s not the same as petroleum oil,” claims Chiu. “It forms a barrier on the skin that prevents water loss and can help it heal and stay soft. I just don’t recommend regularly using it if you are prone to acne because the barrier it creates can trap comedogenic ingredients.”


When pondering how to clean up your skin care regimen, the age-old advice about less being more holds weight. “It’s really about simplifying and using fewer, higher quality-products with wider versatility,” explains esthetician and skin care founder Tammy Fender. “We all tend to over-treat the skin and these transitions should be about doing less and giving skin a break and time to breathe.” An ideal gateway product is cleanser. “Cleanser is a great one to start with if you’re wanting to build your clean skin care confidence,” she says. “A lot of people are using cleansers with a lot of alcohol or detergents which is stripping your natural oils and changing skin’s pH. A really nice clean cleanser that doesn’t have those ingredients will start to bring your skin back into balance.” Holey emphasizes doing your research on brands as well. “Don’t get swayed just by a story or marketing, but look into the actual products, sourcing, the ingredients, and whether it’s being sold in really high quality shops with integrity that you trust,” she says. Ask for samples to try then, suggests Brown, keep a skin diary to document what your skin likes and doesn’t. And, most importantly, give them time to work. “Skin likes consistency, and change—even a good change—can freak it out at first,” says Lindstrom. “There is an expectation that I often see when clients are transitioning that the firsts clean product will be ‘the one’. Let go of that; it can take time to find new products that are an ideal fit for you.”


Essential oils may sound innocuous but they can, in fact, be a major source of skin irritations and the conversation around their harmful effects has been ramping up. “What is not well understood by the clean beauty industry is that essential oils are as likely to cause allergic reactions as synthetic fragrance to the sensitive individual,” explains Holey. “Switching to natural essential oils does not eliminate the allergy risk.” And the list of potential essential oil irritants is long. Holey cites all citrus oils, cinnamon and its constituents, rose, jasmine, bergamot, cypress, camphor, chamomile, geranium and ylang ylang, and Chiu further adds lavender, rosemary, neroli, sandalwood, peppermint, and eucalyptus. If you’re sensitive, before you use a new product with any of these in the formulation, do a patch test first. Though Holey points out that as questions about essential oils rise some companies have become sneakier about hiding them. “For example, rose essential oil becomes rose flower oil,” she says. “This blurs the distinction between carrier and essential oils making it harder for customers to assess a product’s suitability for their particular skin.”


“Just because it’s synthetic doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, and just because it’s clean doesn’t mean it’s good,” says Chiu. “I suggest studying each ingredient, natural or synthetic, and deciding how it can contribute to your individual skin care goals.” And Holey would never dismiss the value of retinoids—the clean options instead of the typical RX versions like Retin A, which are formulated with a number of unwanted ingredients—as vital for addressing anti-aging concerns. “For the customer looking for an effective retinoid in a natural base, clean over the counter retinols [like the one by Marie Veronique] are an ideal choice,” says Holey, who suggests that all women over 30 who are not pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive, use one. “The results take a little longer than prescription retinoids, but the fact that they can be used for a long time without causing reaction is a big plus.”