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<Criteria of Clean Beauty> Cosmetic Ingredients Report by ACTIVON Lab. Vol.11

Criteria of Clean Beauty

With the advent of consumer habits of purchasing cosmetics for their ingredients rather than glamorous advertisement, the term "clean beauty" has now become popular since 2020. Beauty select shops are coming up with an exclusive section for clean beauty, and many of the new cosmetics brands launched position themselves with phrases like "Zero OO" or "clean beauty formula." But how many out there can really explain what clean beauty means and clearly distinguish the standard?

There are even those that confuse clean beauty for green beauty, and some consumers believe clean beauty products should be all organic or only natural ingredients should be used. Moreover, some might say clean beauty encompasses even eco-friendly packaging, cruelty-free, vegan, or fair trade ingredients. But clean beauty is not a magical word that satisfies all those standards 100%. The condition of clean beauty is surprisingly simple. It should not contain harmful substances. According to GoodFaceProject, a mobile application that provides cosmetics ingredients analysis and guidelines for selecting cosmetics products, clean beauty is synonymous with "non-toxic beauty." Containing no toxic substances. In other words, safe products because it is for skin.

Cosmetic Ingredients Report by ACTIVON Lab. Vol. 11 will be dedicated to going through some of the myths about clean beauty and finding out in more detail what cosmetics products pursuing clean beauty must avoid.

Myth one, does clean beauty only mean natural substances?

Since the term clean beauty has become the talk of the town, it was oftentimes considered synonymous with natural beauty. But clean beauty does not necessarily have to be made of natural ingredients. Natural substances may be toxic; in fact, all cosmetics products must include safety-verified chemical preservatives. Even if it is a chemical substance, not natural, if it consists only of substances that are not harmful to skin and nature, it is clean beauty.

Myth two, does clean beauty have to be organic?

Organic beauty has also been confused with clean beauty in the same aspect as natural beauty. But we would like to reiterate that clean beauty means cosmetics products made of "safe" substances to skin. Inorganic ingredients can be as safe as organic ingredients.

Myth three, does clean beauty mean green beauty?

Those interpreting clean beauty in a broader scope associate it with green beauty. From plant-derived ingredients to vegan, cruelty-free, eco-friendly packaging, sustainable supply of ingredients... But it is not clean beauty if it contains a single toxic substance even though all these excellent conditions are met. On the contrary, even though you have not taken great care as to the way the ingredients are supplied or how the packaging is eco-friendly, if it contains zero harmful substance, it can be clean beauty, if not green beauty.

ACTIVON Lab summarized 8 substances proven by sufficient theses, out of around 20 substances categorized as harmful substances in Korea.

1. Butylated hydroxyanisole(BHA)

2. Sodium lauryl sulfate(SLS)

3. Triclosan

4. Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3)

5. Imidazolidinyl urea

6. Diazolidinyl urea

7. Formaldehyde

8. Diethanolamine (DEA)


1. Butylated hydroxyanisole(BHA)

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a form of synthetic anti-oxidant that has been used as preservative and anti-oxidant in the food and cosmetics industries. Isomers of BHA have been found to induce endocrine disturbance. 1)

Experiments with monkey vero cells showed decreased cell viability as the use of BHA increased, decreased cell viability at a lower concentration of 32 umol, and morphological changes related to cytotoxicity 24 hours after treatment at 250 umol concentrations. 2)

In addition, BHA acts as EDC in studies with mouse, thereby increasing the apoptosis of testicular cells and dysfunction of mitochondria. 3)

2. Sodium lauryl sulfate(SLS)

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a surfactant that has long been used in various industries as well as cosmetics, but many studies have recently led to growing controversy over its harmfulness. Studies (4, 5) have shown that prolonged accumulation in the body can cause genetic modification in the body or inflammation of the oral mucous membrane when using toothpaste containing SLS, whereas other studies show that SLS is not as harmful to be controversial. The KFDA’s “Sodium lauryl sulfate risk assessment (2018)” report shows that the risk of human harm was low in toxicity experiments, and IARC and EPA do not classify SLS as carcinogens. Nonetheless, the US Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR) recommends limiting the concentration below 1% in cosmetics products that are not washed off. This explains the possibility of irritation in this ingredient.

Studies have reportedly identified the apoptotic body in which the cell nucleus forms condense and cleavage forms 24 hours after treatment of 0.0075% of SLS in HaCaT cells and NIH-3T3 cells. 6)

Figure 2. .(A) control HaCaT, (B) SLS treated HaCaT, (C) control NIH-3T3, (D) SLS treated NIH-3T3

3. Triclosan (TCS)

It had been widely used as disinfectant but was banned from soap products in September 2016 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Regulations for triclosan at home and abroad are shown below (Table 1).7)

Nonetheless, it is still used in various personal care products (especially toothpastes, oral rinse, hand sanitizers, surgical soap, etc.).8)

Table 1. Domestic and overseas regulations for triclosan

Triclosan is known to be absorbed easily into the body through human skin and oral mucous membranes. The effects of the absorbed triclosan and its metabolites are widely reported. Accumulation of triclosan in the body is known to have affected endocrine hormones, especially thyroid hormones; although it is known to cause liver cancer in some animals, studies on human risk have yet to be identified. (Table 2) 7)Recently, however, studies of environmental impacts as well as human effects have been actively reported, so it is necessary to recognize the risks of triclosan and limit its use.

Table 2. Carcinogenicity of triclosan in animal experiments

4. Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3)

Oxybenzone is a sunscreen ingredient that is mainly used in sun blocks. According to a national report released by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, oxybenzone was found in the urine of about 97% of those who participated in the human exposure test for environmental chemicals. Oxybenzone also has concerns of reacting with chlorine in swimming pools and wastewater treatment plants and producing by-products. Furthermore, there is risk of ingesting marine products where oxybenzone has accumulated or accumulating residues that have not been removed during the water purification process.9)

Heuring et al. According to the research by Heuring, et al, oxybenzone was found in 68% out of 201 UV block products. Oxybenzone, which is used widely like so, can cause cross-reactions with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as octocylene and ketoprofen in the body, and its small molecular size means it is more likely to cause light-contact allergic reactions than PABA (p-amino-benzoic acid), leading to skin infections, hives, and allergies.10)

5. Imidazolidinyl urea / 6. Diazolidinyl urea

Imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea were two of the most widely used preservatives worldwide. Imidazolidinyl urea (Gennall 115) in particular became the second most widely used preservative in the cosmetics industry after parabens when it was used as preservatives in eyeliner beginning the 1970s. Nonetheless, the concentration of use is limited due to safety concerns such as contact dermatitis as it can break down into formaldehyde. 11)

Imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea were found to be toxic to HL60 cells (human leukemia) and to induce hemolysis reactions to red blood cells at concentrations of 12.5 mg/ml and 6.25 mg/ml, respectively (Figure 3).12)

In addition, clinical trials have shown that imidazolidinyl urea caused dermatitis allergies by increasing skin inflammation and decreasing cell viability.11)

Figure 3. Hemolysis reaction of imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea to red blood cells

Diazolidinyl urea induces eczema dermatitis. Four cases of contact allergies to diazolidinyl urea have been traced to hypoallergenic cosmetics brands, and the condition of dermatitis patients who are already sensitive to formaldehyde has worsened due to diazolidinyl urea. Patients allergic to formaldehyde from the use of cosmetics containing diazolidinyl urea have developed contact allergic reactions, suggesting that the sensitivity potential of diazolidinyl urea is greater than that of diazolidinyl urea.

Table 5. Relationship between sensitivity of diazolidinyl urea (DU) and uniform response patterns for formaldehyde release agents

7. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde prevents microorganisms from growing in cleansing products, such as shampoo and liquid soap. It can be safely used if kept within the limit in cosmetics, but caution should be taken when it is used in hair care products. It irritates the eyes and respiratory tract, and overexposure can cause deformities and mutations. Likewise, the most important factor accounting for the toxicity of formaldehyde is its concentration. 15,16)

Table 6. Level of formaldehyde measured during the use of hair smoothing product

8. Diethanolamine (DEA)

Diethanolamine (DEA) is used as surfactant and foam booster in rinse-off products.

Studies were conducted after several aerosol inhalation exposures to mice to explain the toxicity of DEA. Potential nerve dysfunctions were found after inhalation exposures, indicating toxicity to the upper respiratory tract. Significant level of lack of nitrosamine (NDELA) formation and depletion of choline-containing compounds in the liver were also found in repeatedly administered mice.17)

The expert panel concludes that diethanolamides are safe for use when they are made into non-irritating formula, and that they do not exceed the appropriate levels. 18)

Most of the eight substances studied above have been virtually suspended for use in Korea, but there have been cases among overseas brand products where they are still in use. Clear standards for the exclusion of substances for clean beauty are expected to be established in time as consumer demand and related data accumulate.

Figure 4. Olive Young Clean Beauty


1. Zhendong Sun, Xiaoxi Yang, "Butylated hydroxyanisole isomers induce distinct adipogenesis in 3T3-L1 cells", Journal of Hazardous materials, 379, 2019

2. V. Labrador, P. Fernandez Freire, "Cytotoxicity of butylated hydroxyanisole in Vero Cells", 23, 2007

3. Jiyeon ham, Whasun Lim, "Butylated hydroxyanisole induces testicular dysfunction in mouse testis cells by dysregulating calcium homeostasis and stimulating endoplasmic reticulum stress, "Science of the total environment 702 (2020)

4.Elder RL, “Final report on the safety assessment of sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate”, J Am Coll Toxicol, 2, 1983

5.Shin KY, Park CW, Lee CH, “Perturbation and recovery of the skin barrier function after tape stripping and sodium lauryl sulfate irritation”, Korean J Dematol, 38, 2002

6. Park SR, Kim YM, Choi BBR, and Kim JY, “Toxic effect of SLS in oral cleanser on HaCaT cell and NIH-3T3 cell,” Korean Society of Dental Hygiene, 15, 2015

7. Lee, Jung Dae, et al. "Risk assessment of triclosan, a cosmetic preservative." Toxicological research 35.2 (2019): 137-154.

8. Weatherly, Lisa M., and Julie A. Gosse. "Triclosan exposure, transformation, and human health effects." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 20.8 (2017): 447-469.

9. DiNardo, Joseph C., and Craig A. Downs. "Dermatological and environmental toxicological impact of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone/benzophenone‐3." Journal of cosmetic dermatology 17.1 (2018): 15-19.

10. Heurung, Ashley R., Srihari I. Raju, and Erin M. Warshaw. "Benzophenones." Dermatitis 25.1 (2014): 3-10.

11. Bilal, Muhammad, and Hafiz MN Iqbal. “An insight into toxicity and human health-related adverse consequences of cosmeceuticals—a review”" Science of the total environment 670 (2019): 555-568.

12. Noureddine, Halla, et al. "Erythrocyte toxicities of imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea." Journal of Materials Science and Engineering. B 3.7B (2013): 445.1

13. de Groot, Anton C., et al. "Contact allergy to diazolidinyl urea (Germall II®)." Contact Dermatitis 18.4 (1988): 202-205.

14. Perret, C. M., and R. Happle. "Contact sensitivity to diazolidinyl urea (Germall II)." Archives of dermatological research 281.1 (1989): 57-59.

15. Boyer, Ivan J., et al. "Amended safety assessment of formaldehyde and methylene glycol as used in cosmetics." International journal of toxicology 32.6_suppl (2013): 5S-32S.

16. De Groot, Anton C., et al. "Formaldehyde‐releasers in cosmetics: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy: Part 1. Characterization, frequency and relevance of sensitization, and frequency of use in cosmetics." Contact Dermatitis 62.1 (2010): 2-17.

17. Fiume, Monice M., et al. "Safety assessment of diethanolamides as used in cosmetics." International journal of toxicology 32.3_suppl (2013): 36S-58S.

18. Stott, W. T., et al. "Potential mechanisms of tumorigenic action of diethanolamine in mice." Toxicology letters 114.1-3 (2000): 67-75.

Reference site

1. Good Face Project website

2. Oliveyoung clean beauty sales promotion

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