Why the Anti-Aging Beauty Industry Is Turning to Clean Skincare

From healthy microbiomes to anti-aging herbs, the female founders behind some of our favorite clean beauty brands reveal how they’re combating the multi-billion dollar anti-aging sector with preventive products minus the toxins.

By Zoe Schaeffer

The term “anti-aging” seems to morph as culture shifts. Once a common reference to the mature skin category—now considered “anti-feminist” and “fear-mongering”—the phrase is slowly being replaced with more celebratory terms in today’s world of female empowerment (keep your skin looking youthful!). But no matter how we frame it, statistics show we’re all obsessed with slowing down time. The anti-aging beauty sector is expected to reach a jaw-dropping $85 billion by 2025—a number that’s even higher when at-home beauty devices are taken into account.

Unlike expensive and potentially risky in-office procedures, skincare topicals like serums and heavy-duty night creams have always been an easy and accessible way for women to keep wrinkles, dull skin, and age spots at bay. But what products actually live up to their age-defying claims? Most options found at your local drug store are ‘cut’ with fillers, processed with chemicals, or use ingredients grown using pesticides—all things that can do more harm than good for those wanting to turn back time. The good news is that there are dozens of clean beauty brands crafting effective products made from 100 percent clean and safe ingredients. We spoke to five female innovators to learn more about their particular approaches toward aging skin, and the preventative measures that can be taken to keep us looking like our younger selves.

Protecting your barrier system is the key to great skin

When it comes to understanding the underlying reasons for aging, Marie Veronique Nadeau knows more than most. A former chemistry teacher with degrees in math and science, she created a line of non-toxic skincare that draws from nature’s bounty along with science-driven ingredients, referring to her brand as the “new natural.” Born out of a need to address her own stubborn rosacea, her primary focus is to restore and protect the skin’s microbiome (the ecosystem to billions of health-regulating microorganisms) and barrier system (the moisture-regulating outer layer of the epidermis which is responsible for that coveted dewy glow).

Fortunately, damage is easy to correct and it’s fairly simple to self-assess if either is imbalanced, as skin will be out of whack—flaky, sensitive, or prone to rashes and redness. “Disrupting the skin microbial balance is easy to do—using alkaline soaps or cleansing too much can do it,” says Nadeau. (Over-exfoliating, pollution, poor sleep, and even certain moisturizers are other common barrier disruptors.) She suggests a simple splash of water in the morning, assuming all makeup and SPF are properly washed off before bed. And when it comes to ingredients, she feels that those derived in a lab have been vilified due to the increased demand for natural beauty, and worries that the terminology around the word “organic” is too lofty (what might mean pesticide-free to a customer simply means that carbon is present in the molecule to a chemist).

Air pollution damages our skin barrier function by breaking down collagen and generating free radicals.

Nadeau believes that by understanding that not all natural ingredients are harmless and not all synthesized ingredients are harmful, people will be released from obsessing over whether each component in their skincare regimen is considered natural. “Our products contain ingredients that are identical to those found in nature—most are organic or minimally processed, but with certain ingredients, to get effective quantities, we need to use concentrated versions that are best synthesized in a lab.” Vitamin C is a good example, she says, as squeezing orange juice on your face will prove ineffective for boosting collagen. Rather, it needs a lab-enhanced encapsulation system to boost its natural super-powers and penetrate skin without irritation—that doesn’t mean that it’s not safe or clean. “So the question you should ask when shopping is not, Is it clean? But rather, What will it do for my skin, how and why?” she says. Afterward, it’s important to make sure those same ingredients are not toxic.

In protecting your barrier system, it is important to acknowledge the environmental aggressors that may be causing deterioration. Air pollution damages our skin barrier function by breaking down collagen and generating free radicals, which accelerates aging through a process called oxidation. Small nanoparticles in the form of dirt, dust, or soot can also clog pores and cause break-outs. And since the majority of cities around the world don’t comply with the World Health Organization’s air quality standards, this is not good news for most of us.

Tatcha, a beauty brand inspired by the fastidious skincare rituals of Japanese women, takes this very seriously; their Silk Canvas is a skin-blurring, velvety balm that uses a trinity of Japanese superfoods (green tea, rice, and algae) to ward off environmental aggressors. The company has found that this nutrient-dense trio, rich in lactic and amino acids, helps to maintain moisture while promoting cell turnover. The balm comes in a compact for on-the-go use, but for those who like the ease of a serum, the beloved German aesthetician Dr. Barbara Sturm makes Anti-Pollution Drops that contain marine microorganisms to strengthen your skin’s defense against ultrafine pollutants. As with all of Sturm’s products, the drops are infused with her hero ingredient, purslane extract—a herb found to be an anti-aging dynamo that plays well with moisturizing hyaluronic acid, needed for ample barrier protection.

Keep it simple: the beauty of an (effective) two-minute routine

With a product for every skin concern and marketing ploy (is there really a difference between glow serum and brightening gel?), the world of topicals can overwhelm, leaving many craving a pared-down program. But the concern is that a minimal routine will compromise efficacy, as few products really do seem to do it all. Enter Vintner’s Daughter. In 2014, April Gargiulo disrupted the clean beauty space with her first product, Active Botanical Serum, which rose to cult status due to its raved-about, multi-correctional abilities in a singular blend. Last year she launched Active Treatment Essence as a complementary product and together, the two impart the number of benefits typically required of a multiple product regimen (a K-Beauty routine calls for at least ten steps, for example).

Gargiulo, (who is actually the daughter of a Vintner), says that this powerhouse duo offers everything from hydration to nutrients to potent plant actives. Plus, it eliminates the need to combine brands (which at times, don’t work synergistically with one another), and stack steps (which can get crazy expensive with a comprehensive routine like vitamin C serum, exfoliator, toner, retinol, daytime cream, plus hard-working night cream). “In nature, all nutrients are either water-soluble or oil-soluble and your skin needs both to be its very best,” says Gargiulo. “During a three-week process we capture the full spectrum of both water and oil-soluble nutrition which makes up these two products so when you use them in tandem, your skin receives everything it needs, in the perfect ratios.”

"The question you should ask is not, Is it clean? But rather, What will it do for my skin, how and why?

When it comes to the long list of ingredients (the serum alone contains 22, which include things like evening primrose and dandelion leaf), Gargiulo explains that the alchemy of the botanicals is key because when combined, they create what she calls “the ultimate nutritional diet for your skin.” “These extracted plant actives share a similar nutritive structure to our skin so they’re able to communicate with one another on a deeper level, allowing the products to work more effectively.” She suggests that when her “Push/Pull” method is performed (which literally means pressing the product into skin for 15-30 seconds with your hands), nutrients will be optimally delivered and can quell acne, exfoliate, firm and brighten. “This method also amplifies microcirculatory effects by creating a little suction or ‘pump’ into the skin, bringing oxygenated blood to the surface to help promote healing and regeneration.” Minimalists, rejoice.

Feed the skin like you would feed the body for a natural glow

As a sought-after aesthetician that counts names like Julianne Moore and Rachel Brosnahan as clients (both with enviable porcelain skin), Joanna Vargas is partly responsible for some of the most aspirational complexions. And it’s no surprise that her fashionable roster wants to look natural, natural, natural. “The clients who come to my salons just seek to look like the best versions of themselves—no one is looking for a cookie-cutter solution to their problems,” she says. Also true, the majority of these women aren’t as concerned with products that plump and pull as they are with radiating health. “We look at it from the perspective of healthy skin which glows, is hydrated and has great elasticity” (she recommends her clients eat avocado for their healthy fat content and skin-clearing phytonutrients).

While admitting that there is no magic solution for all, Vargas believes in feeding the skin as you would feed the body, should you want to get into tip-top shape. This requires “good nutrition,” using nourishing natural ingredients over their chemical (not to be confused with synthetic) counterparts, which act like fast food for the skin. “My favorite ingredient is galactoarabinan, derived from the larch tree because it causes more cell turnover than a glycolic but is also anti-inflammatory, so it doesn’t cause irritation” she says. “It’s the top-selling product in my salon because it works for everyone and is my secret weapon for dull skin” (her obsessed-over Daily Serum, referred to as “green juice for skin,” is just one of her products packed with the hero ingredient). Vargas takes a holistic approach to beauty—she’s obsessed with minty skin-hydrating chlorophyll shots, and promotes exfoliating with a collagen-stimulating dry brush—but touts that self-care looks different for everyone. “Really, the key is to use clean products based on what an individual needs for it to perform at the highest level.”

Use a tool for added boost

While topical products are a great baseline for skin health, they can be up-leveled with tools like stones, bars, and wands that assist with everything from relaxing fine lines to de-puffing (you might have seen a celeb rolling one across her cheekbones on social media). One practice that’s gotten attention as of late is actually nothing new—in fact, it’s ancient. Gua Sha is a massage-like ritual that uses a “Bian” stone that contains more than 40 trace elements and minerals. Formed when a meteor struck a mountain in ancient China, it’s thought to emit healing negative ions and far infrared rays as a result of the cosmic impact, while having anti-aging effects on cells and DNA.

Gianna De La Torre, acupuncturist, herbalist, and co-founder of Wildling Beauty, a popular brand of Bian Stone, says that for centuries, gua sha has been used to treat conditions like cold, flu, and heat stroke, and was something that might have been performed by a parent on a sick child. “It’s unclear when it transitioned into a celebrated beauty tool as it’s not well documented in medical texts,” she says. But skincare enthusiasts caught on and the practice has since been adapted for modern day at-home use. With its oblong shape and tiny ridges, when stroked from the neck along the center of the face and toward the edges, gua sha drains lymphatic fluid to reduce puffiness and loosens up muscles that contribute to expression lines. It’s most buzzed about benefit, however, is its ability to help smooth out fascia (the connective tissue between skin and muscle that hardens and reinforces facial expressions), causing some to tout it as a holistic alternative to botox.

While dramatic changes akin to injectables are unlikely, some would argue that by opening up the flow of energy in the body and relaxing the nervous system, a subtle outer glow is imparted. The tool also helps active ingredients from your favorite products to penetrate deeper into the skin, kicking them into high gear and making them more effective. “Our products activate the ritual with fresh, skin-plumping botanicals that reinforce the circulating and stimulating action of gua sha,” says De La Torre, whose Bian Stone arrives with the brand’s own complementary botanical tonic spray and face oil. She notes that if you use another preferred serum, it should include clean, high-performing ingredients in order to receive the full benefit.

How lifestyle keeps skin looking fresh

While incorporating anti-aging products and topicals into your skincare routine can be an effective way of keeping your skin looking its best, we also know that the biggest culprits of aging are unprotected sun exposure and smoking. Both are known to accelerate the breakdown of collagen and elastin, which ages skin at a faster rate by causing fine lines and sagging. So when it comes to the natural course of getting older, certain lifestyle habits can help keep our skin supple on a holistic level. For instance, hormonal break-outs can strike regardless of age, and when they do, check what’s on your plate. “Eat a diet rich in antioxidants and healthy fats and limit dairy and sugar, which are linked to increasing inflammation levels,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Yale, New Haven. “And try to manage lifestyle triggers that can spike cortisol (like stress) that can inflame skin.”

Robinson believes that topicals are “absolutely” an effective groundwork to anyone’s routine, so long as they contain high-performing ingredients like antioxidants, peptides and retinol (for sensitive skin types, she likes the plant-based alternative Bakuchiol, found in some clean beauty brands). She also stresses that in terms of defense, “SPF is your hero.” But since everyone’s needs are different, a professional opinion can be valuable. “I would start with your board certified dermatologist who can look at your skin holistically, keeping in mind health history and your aesthetic goals,” says Mraz Robinson. “But skincare is certainly your proactive foundation.”

In spite of narrative, at the end of the day, (typically the time when we layer on serums and creams), our feelings about aging are personal. Some like to celebrate it while others choose to keep it real. “As life progresses, entropy increases—and that’s really a one way street whether in humans, plants, political organizations or Wall Street—because eventually it leads to a system crash,” states Marie Veronique’s Nadeau. While she agrees that we can slow aging down, she maintains that there’s no pretty word for dissolution, which is inevitable for all. “I favor words like ‘decay’ and ‘rot’ over the word ‘aging,’ as I prefer not to gloss over the horror of the process,” she says. A sobering thought, she sums it up by joking, “To think there is such a thing as ‘anti-aging’ is just kidding yourself – old people know this, which is why we are so grumpy.” Because in the long run, a sense of humor might just be the most important ingredient to staying young.

Every product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase through one of our links, The Helm may earn a commission.


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