Karlie Rust, a stay-at-home mother from Fresno, Calif., started becoming interested in “clean” beauty in 2013. She was caring for her newborn son and for her mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Rust, 44, said that she’d spend several hours a day researching clean living. That led her to Instagram, where clean beauty brands seemed to be everywhere on her feed.
Based on the advice of wellness and clean beauty influencers, Rust said she threw away all her plastic, dryer sheets and conventional beauty products; she believed that toxic chemicals could be found throughout her home. “Everything had to be natural,” she said. “I fully overreacted out of fear.”
Rust became an active commenter in wellness and clean beauty communities, she said, engaging with founders and influencers and sharing her mother’s battle with cancer.
But then red flags began to pop up. One brand founder, Rust said, told her “not to let my mother do chemo because it would kill her faster than cancer.” And once the pandemic hit, Rust noticed on Instagram some clean beauty founders latching on to anti-mask and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. That was Rust’s breaking point.
“It’s just such dangerous rhetoric,” she said. “It feels like [some clean beauty founders] are saying not to wear a mask and that if we take the right supplements and eat organically, we won’t get covid.”
Rust isn’t alone in distancing herself from clean beauty brands — other women have spoken out in light of anti-vaccine rhetoric, especially after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which brought conversations about conspiracy theories to the mainstream.
According to a Gallup poll published in January, about 35 percent of Americans said they would not get an FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine if it was offered at no cost to them. Some reports have charted worry among medical professionals that wellness culture may add to hesitancy among women — especially millennial women — about getting the vaccine, though that’s just one of many theories.
Gwyneth Paltrow recently made headlines when the national medical director for England’s National Health Service urged the Goop founder to stop spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Paltrow’s most recent blog post suggested long-term symptoms of covid-19 can be treated with intuitive fasting, kimchi, kombucha, supplements and infrared sauna blankets, much of which can be purchased on Goop.com.
“On a site like Goop, one must absolutely assume everything they are reading is marketing material to sell Goop products,” said Bonnie Patten, executive director of the consumer advocacy nonprofit group Truth in Advertising. Patten and her group have filed several complaints against Goop over the past few years for “deceptive health claims,” she said.
Goop declined to comment for this story.
Clean beauty brands may be common among mainstream retailers, including Sephora and Ulta, but the industry started out as a niche, selling in farmers’ markets and in the aisles of health food stores like Whole Foods in the early aughts. Now, clean beauty has morphed into a $19 billion-dollar industry. But there is no regulatory definition of “clean.” The term is fluid, depending on who is selling you the products — they could market the products as natural, pure, organic, green or non-toxic, all of which stem from a fear of “toxins” allegedly found in conventional beauty products.
Banning these ingredients is a major driver in the clean beauty movement — clean beauty retailer Credo boasts they ban 2,700-plus ingredients, while multi-level marketing clean beauty brand Beautycounter bans 1,800 ingredients on their “Never List.”
Annie Jackson, co-founder and chief operating officer of clean beauty retailer Credo Beauty, said in an email that Credo does not perpetuate fear. Lindsay Dahl, senior vice president of social mission for Beautycounter, said in an email, “Our Never List is part of our Blueprint for Clean – a resource that shows consumers exactly what we mean when we say clean.”
An integral aspect to many clean beauty brands are the lifestyles of their founders, who are overwhelmingly White women. Some have tens of thousands of followers on social media, and are celebrated not only for their natural products, but for the aspirational life they portray in their marketing and on platforms like Instagram.
Before the pandemic, these founders’ Instagram feeds were populated with plant-based recipes, supplement recommendations and meditation selfies with captions wishing their followers “love and light” and “good vibes only.” Now, some clean beauty loyalists are finding themselves muting their favorite brands on social media because of controversial conspiracy rhetoric: innocuous images accompanied by captions with strong anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiments.
“I had to unfollow a clean brand I loved in March 2020 because the founder posted that she believed covid was created to detract from 5G towers and that we are all sheep for believing the lie,” said Nicole Cannon, a 38-year-old New Jersey-based lactation consultant and mother of three. “That’s what really opened my eyes and made me question why these founders are touting themselves as health experts.”
According to a Facebook spokesperson, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) updated their “claims that violate our COVID-19 and vaccine policies” in early February to provide context around what their users can and cannot post as it relates to covid-19, face masks and vaccines. Since early 2020, Instagram has taken measures to prevent covid-related misinformation, including providing educational resources, labeling all posts related to covid-19 and the vaccine, and blocking hashtags that contain “verifiably false vaccine information,” the spokesperson said.
“They have a tendency to heavily follow their intuition rather than use analytical thinking,” van Prooijen said. “There is a strong correlation between people who are more spiritual and those who believe conspiracy theories — they are both rooted in intuitive thinking.”
Van Proojen added that the pandemic has created an environment for conspiracy thinking to easily spread: “Historically in times of crisis, when many people experience bad things, conspiracy theories take a stronghold.”
Claire McCormack, an editor who covers the clean beauty movement on the site Beauty Independent, said brand founders’ skepticism of the coronavirus vaccine has been on her radar for some time. “It isn’t shocking to see these clean beauty founders make the anti-vaccine jump,” she said.
Brooklyn-based Aja Singer, who writes a newsletter on branding, direct-to-consumer trends and mission-driven companies, said that she is seeing more and more that consumers are value-driven and look to clean beauty founders for more than just skincare advice. “When you put something on your skin every day, you are trusting the founder who made it,” she said. “Now, people look to these founders’ Instagram feeds for health and wellness advice, yet they are getting opinions from these founders on why not to get the vaccine.”
Green beauty influencer and New York City-based attorney Lola Gusman said there was a massive “grim” turning point this past year in clean beauty: “Watching founders I know and like post harmful [ideas] has been very difficult.”
Gusman said that she did, however, understand why some founders may have gotten to this point. “In green beauty and wellness, you would be very hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t mildly uneasy about vaccines,” she said. “I understand it’s an emotional response to what is happening in the world. It’s easier to say it’s all fake.”
Before Jan. 6, clean beauty brand director Merrady Wickes was also hesitant to speak out about the conspiracy rhetoric she was seeing from some of her favorite clean beauty brands, she said.
“I work for the industry and I didn’t want to feel witch-hunted or alienated,” Wickes continued. “But after [the attempted insurrection], I didn’t care about the ramifications.”
On Jan. 12, Wickes also published a post on Instagram. It read: “Where is the line between caution and conspiracy?”
“I wanted people to know we are not all covid-denying anti-vaxxers,” she said.
For many in the industry, the pandemic has given rise to questions about the future of clean beauty. McCormack, the journalist, said she worries “that factions may begin to form within the industry: those founders who believe and those who don’t.”
She continued: “It really is a microcosm of our country. It will be interesting to see if consumers start making demands on retailers based on the brand founders’ beliefs.”