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The 'clean' beauty myth with Dr Michelle Wong.

Dr Michelle Wong is the author and personality behind Lab Muffin Beauty Science, a popular beauty blog and YouTube channel. Dr Michelle started Lab Muffin almost 10 years ago with the goal to provide her audiences with easy-to-understand explanations of the science behind beauty products. 

Dr Michelle is qualified in organic medicinal chemistry, with a minor in physiology and pharmacology.

She is also a qualified cosmetic chemist, which means she knows how to formulate a wide range of cosmetic products, and ensure products are safe and compliant with regulations. 

During this session, Mamamia's Executive Editor, Leigh Campbell, asked Dr Michelle Wong all about "clean" beauty.

What does clean beauty mean? 

Dr Michelle Wong: There isn't one definition of clean beauty, which is part of the problem, really. In general, a beauty brand will say they're 'clean', or their products are 'clean', if they don't contain particular ingredients that they deem 'dirty'. The problem is that the list of ingredients on the 'good' list differs for every brand. 

What ingredients are often deemed 'dirty'?

Dr Michelle Wong: It's usually things that are synthetic chemicals, so manmade things are usually in the 'dirty' list. Whereas if something is natural, it usually goes on the 'clean' list. 

The big problem with this is that things don't really fall neatly into these two categories. For example, water is pretty good for us, but if you have too much, you end up with hyponatremia. That is where all the electrolytes in your body are too diluted and your nerves don't work properly. People die from that. So water is safe, but only in particular circumstances. And it's the same with pretty much all ingredients. There are amounts and ways that you can use any ingredient that will be safe. 

'Clean' and 'dirty' is not really a good way of categorising things. It doesn't really reflect the actual reality and science of how things work.

The clean beauty trend is really taking off. Why is it becoming so popular?

Dr Michelle Wong: I think there are a few reasons. First off, we have this bias toward thinking that things that are natural are better for us. It's just part of how our brains work and how our brains have evolved over millions of years. We get 'stranger danger' mentality when something is synthetic, or if something feels weird and unnatural. We are immediately more suspicious of it. 

I think we need to really try to get out of that mindset because Botox, for example, is completely natural. It comes from bacteria that is in botulinum toxin. It is the most toxic thing in the world, but it's 100 per cent natural. 

I also think the mentality comes from the United States. The American Chemical Industry does not have a great reputation for having safety in mind. But when the government brought in more regulations, things became a lot safer. But I think there's still a lot of suspicion towards stuff like that. 

The reality is, these days, we have so much more understanding of how the human body works, including what is good and what is bad for us. It is illegal in pretty much any developed country with a functional legal system to make unsafe cosmetics and sell them. 

Within the clean beauty movement, there are lots of individual buzzwords. What does organic mean?

Dr Michelle Wong: Organic is one of those words that doesn't mean much. Organic on its own means that something was farmed without using certain chemicals such as certain pesticides or fertilisers. There is a certifying body for organic products in different countries, and they each have a list of things that you can't use when you're farming a certified organic product. The problem is the list isn't that great. 

Many people think organic means that they don't use pesticides, but that's not true. They can actually use pesticides. Certified organic also doesn't necessarily mean more sustainable. It isn't really that meaningful for consumers. 

What are sulphates and why are they considered a bad guy in the clean beauty movement?

Dr Michelle Wong: Sulphates mostly refer to sodium lauryl sulphate, which is a cleaning ingredient that helps lift dirt and oil off skin and hair. 

The reason they've gotten a reputation as a bad guy is because sulphates work really well. So sometimes, if you have a sulphate cleanser or sulphate shampoo, it can strip more than you would want. But these days, it is possible to make great sulphate products that are really gentle and cleansing. 

There's nothing you really need to worry about with sulphates when it comes to your health in the long term. 

What about parabens? 

Dr Michelle Wong: Parabens are preservatives. In other words, they keep your products free from bacteria, mould, and fungi. Back in the day, that was actually a big issue. People ended up going blind or having really long-term infections without them, so preservatives are important. Parabens were the most popular preservatives, because they're quite cheap, and they work really well. 

There is a myth that the EU has banned parabens, but they haven't. They've actually assessed the safety of parabens, and they've confirmed a lot of them are safe. They've also put limits on others that were a little bit more suspicious.

Synthetic fragrance is another thing that people are starting to move away. What's the difference between natural and synthetic fragrance?

Dr Michelle Wong: It's just where it comes from. A lot of the time, natural fragrances are things like essential oils, which you can get from a flower, for example. But at the end of the day, there isn't that much of a difference between synthetic and natural fragrances. 

Synthetic fragrances do tend to be more sustainable because things in nature don't smell that strongly. To get a fragrance out of a flower and put it into a bottle, you would need many flowers to make just one bottle of perfume. 

Sandalwood is another big issue. It is super popular in lots of fragrances, but it comes from an endangered tree. People have used the tree to extinction for its fragrance. In terms of sustainability, I would say synthetic is usually the way to go. 

Did you miss The Skin Summit presented by Mamamia? Get on-demand access to the best skin experts in the world. Whether you love nerding out over a 12-step skincare routine or still use a bar of soap, the summit is the secret to the best skin of your life. Streaming directly to your couch. Catch up on-demand here. 

You can find Dr Michelle Wong at Lab Muffin. You can follow her on Instagram and YouTube. 

Feature Image: Mamamia.

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