When Tara Foley first became concerned with wellness, she focused on the things that get the most attention: food, exercise, mindfulness. She did yoga every day, cooked for herself, ran triathlons. But before long, another aspect of wellness, one that wasn’t getting any attention at all, began to capture her attention: clean beauty. As she became more aware of the harmful ingredients in conventional skincare products, and the lack of any conversation around it, she realized that there was a huge hole in the non-toxic skincare space. She was passionate about the topic, and so made it her mission to fill that hole, and ultimately became founder and CEO of the clean beauty brand Follain, which vets (and formulates) non-toxic makeup brands and non-toxic skincare products.
Looking for Non-Toxic Skincare — And Finding Nothing
When Foley graduated from college, she moved to New York City for a job that she ended up hating. In a new city and unhappy with her work, she didn’t know what to do, and so she began really focusing on her own health and wellness for the very first time. Self care was the only thing that was working for her, the only thing that felt good, and so it became central to her life. She started cooking for herself, learning about nutrition, practicing yoga, and training for races.
Before long, Foley’s wellness focus began to extend beyond just fitness and nutrition and into the world of beauty and skincare. After all, if she believed it was important to move her body in certain ways, and to be mindful of what she put in her body, shouldn’t it also matter what she put on her body? She began to skim the ingredient lists of products she’d been using her whole life, and was shocked to see that they contained pretty harmful ingredients. “Harmful for people, harmful for the planet, harmful in every capacity,” she remembers.
Fresh out of college with a degree in public policy and an activist spirit, Foley became passionate about the toxic ingredients she’d discovered lurking in everyday products. She began writing a blog on the topic, and it consumed her.
She told her friends and family members — “pretty much everybody who would listen,” as she says — and asked them all if they’d ever turned over their skincare or beauty products to read the ingredients and think about what was in them. Everybody she asked said no. “This was 2008, and the conversation hadn’t really started,” Foley says. She became “really fired up” over the fact that nobody was talking about this, and so she made it her mission to spark that conversation.
The beauty industry, she knew, was incredibly lucrative, and big beauty had created a set of beliefs and values that perpetuated demand for conventional beauty products. “What the big beauty industry is doing is saying, ‘You need to look a certain way, and, by the way, you need to use all of these toxic, awful ingredients to get there,’” Foley says. She saw this as incredibly disrespectful to women, and knew that companies would continue to create a demand for products that contained cheap, harmful ingredients that didn’t even really do anything — unless someone stepped in to make the industry change.
There had been no changes to regulations or policy with regard to ingredients in skincare or beauty products since 1938 (Yup. Almost EIGHTY YEARS!), so Foley knew that it would take a business, rather than lobbying, to implement any change. And that set her on the path of creating a clean beauty brand that prioritized non-toxic skincare.
How the Non-Toxic Skincare Movement Has Changed In the Past Decade
Since Foley’s first days of reading ingredient lists in 2008, she’s seen the movement and conversation around clean makeup and skincare change immensely. When she first became interested in non-toxic skincare, there were almost no clean beauty brands out there trying to make a change. By the time she opened the first Follain store in 2013, and were dedicated to only stocking non-toxic makeup brands and clean beauty brands, there were only 10 companies they trusted enough to sell.
Since then, things have changed. Foley has watched as consumers have become more and more passionate and educated about non-toxic skincare, and have subsequently begun to demand better choices. This, in turn, has compelled some big beauty companies to start cleaning up their act a bit, and creating lines and products that are better for people and for the planet (though there’s still a long way to go — the CEO of L’Oréal recently said that pollution was good for business). She also points out that it’s led to the development of more “green chemistry,” or innovation that allows for more effective, clean ingredients in products.
Today, Foley says, there seems to be a new clean beauty line launching every day, but it wasn’t always this way. She’s watched in amazement as the non-toxic skincare and makeup space has totally transformed over the years, and praises the people who helped make that happen. “It was truly because of these informed women and mothers,” she says. “They were basically pounding their fists and saying, ‘No, we deserve better.’ We’re in a much better spot now.”
The Three Most Toxic Ingredients in Conventional Beauty Products
If you look at the ingredients in any conventional beauty product, you’ll see a list that just goes on and on and on. A lot of the things in common items are harmful — either to your body, the planet, or both — but some are worse than others. According to Foley, these are the three worst offenders found in skincare and beauty products that people use every day:
Foley emphasizes the fact that there’s a total lack of regulation in the beauty industry in the U.S. One product of this lack of regulation is the fragrance loophole: see, because “fragrance” is considered a trade secret, companies are allowed to keep it a secret what, exactly, goes into their particular fragrance. So when you see the word on an ingredient list, it could be hiding up to 10,000 different ingredients — and you have no way of knowing what they are. These can include petroleum-based ingredients, which are incredibly harmful for the environment, as well as carcinogens, which are incredibly harmful for you. Note that you might also see the word parfum in ingredient lists — this is just a fancier way of saying fragrance, but it’s no less bad. Oh and by the way, we have a whole list of safe perfumes in the WellBe Spark Health Program!
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
Foley explains that this common ingredient is popular because of a brilliant, decades-old marketing campaign that convinced everyone that cleansing products (soap, body wash, shampoo, you name it) needed to create lots of foam and suds in order to get you clean. This campaign worked incredibly well, and created a massive demand for SLS, which is what causes products to foam. Foley told us that not only are suds and foam unnecessary to get yourself clean, they are also drying and potentially irritating to your skin.
Parabens are used as a preservative in many beauty and skincare products, and has major health implications — namely, endocrine disruption. Foley explains that there are many different kinds of parabens, with six or seven different classes and multiple parabens within each class, and that some are far more harmful than others. However, as she says, “if you can avoid them, just avoid all of them.” Which is totally possible, since Foley told us that there are tons of safe preservatives that work just as well.
So why, exactly, are parabens so bad? Well, let’s talk for a second about endocrine disruption, aka hormone disruption. Hormone disruption leads to a whole host of issues, because when the balance of hormones in your body is off, it can lead to a whole host of issues, from PCOS to fibrocystic breasts. Additionally, hormones are intimately connected to gut health, which is huge. Foley put the importance of this connection into words when she told us that “gut health is the foundation of all human health as we know it.” Hormone disruption can also lead to developmental issues and birth defects, which is why a lot of products are off-limits for pregnant and breastfeeding women (and, like, if something is damaging to a developing human, shouldn’t it be a red flag to us fully-developed humans that something isn’t right??).
How to Find the Right Clean Beauty Brand for You
So the info above is probably scary enough to motivate you to transition to non-toxic skincare. But how do you even begin? There are so many clean beauty brands and non-toxic makeup brands out there, how do you know who is really selling you non-toxic skincare that’s good for your body and the environment? Luckily, Follain’s rigorous vetting process means that anything you buy from one of their retail locations or online is up to snuff. But Foley also shared some basic guidelines with us.
First off, look for a simple ingredient list — sometimes, just one ingredients is all it takes! “It’s the same thing as food,” Foley says. “If you read an ingredient list, it should be fairly short and fairly recognizable, right? I just think that instead of looking for ingredients to avoid, I would find brands and products and ingredients that you know you trust and that you know work well for your body specifically and just stick with them.”
And Foley emphasizes the fact that these natural ingredients really work. “That’s the only reason why our business is growing and why this piece of the industry is growing,” she says. “Because it actually works.”
Still, she acknowledges that finding the right clean beauty brand for each person is a process, and a lot of what Follain does is hold people’s hand as they navigate that process. “So if somebody comes into the store and they say they have very sensitive skin and they’ve tried a lot of products that don’t work for them, we have a long conversation with them and we may end up recommending, for example, just a plain rosehip seed oil and that’s it,” she says. “But that may work better for them than anything, any ‘anti-aging’ or whatever product they’ve ever used in their life, because it’s just like food. Once your body finds something that it really likes, it’s going to make it glow and it’s going to make it thrive.” This makes sense, of course, given that your skin is your biggest organ.
(BTW — if you want recommendations for WellBe-approved clean beauty brands and other health-boosting items to have in your home, check out the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists! You’ll find 1,200+ vetted and researched non-toxic products, from food to sleep to beauty to home and more.)
Conclusion: Why Non-Toxic Skincare Matters and How to Find a Clean Beauty Brand that Works for You.
Foley shared a lot of incredible insight about non-toxic skincare and why it matters, but for anyone who uses any sort of conventional beauty or skincare products, it can feel both scary and overwhelming. To help out with that, we’ve broken it down into a few simple bullet points to remember:
Conventional beauty and skincare products are generally filled with all sorts of ingredients that are harmful to both your body and the environment.
Policy and regulation around beauty and skincare has remained stagnant for going on 80 years, so businesses like Follain have emerged to meet the increasing demand for non-toxic skincare and clean makeup.
The most toxic things to look for on the ingredient lists of your skincare and makeup products are fragrance (or parfum), sodium laureth sulfate, and parabens (which come under many different names, but normally end in -methyl or -ethyl).
When looking for non-toxic skincare products or clean beauty brands, look for things with minimal, familiar ingredients, and talk with an expert to find the right thing for you (not everything will work for everyone, just like food!)
Remember that perfect is the enemy of done. So don’t wait until you have the time to do a full audit of all of your products and make a complete switch to non-toxic skincare and clean makeup brands. If you’re too busy to do it all at once, just make the choice to replace conventional products with clean beauty products when they run out, and feel free to order online rather than talking with a consultant in-story. Any change is better than no change (which is the basis for why we built the WellBe Spark Health Program)!
Switching to non-toxic skincare can seem like a big challenge, but it’s totally worth it. As Foley said, “you deserve to use products that are healthy for you and healthy for the planet, and that actually make you confident and make you glow.”
Watch our full interview with Tara Foley to hear about what she thinks clean brands can learn from Estée Lauder, the one product that she recommends those just getting started with clean beauty swap out first, why makeup is just like food, what’s happening in terms of clean beauty policy and regulations, her personal beauty routine, and much more.
Tara Foley is the CEO and founder of Follain and holds an MBA from Babson College, and a B.A. from Trinity College. She is a board member of the Natural and Organic Health and Beauty Alliance. You can learn more about her here.
Have you made the switch to non-toxic skincare and clean makeup brands? Whether the answer is yes or no, tell us your story in the comments below!