Life & Style

Going overboard with clean living?

Wellness may have got its ‘new luxury’ tag in 2016, but the last few months have seen it reach peak green. Just think back to the numerous healing webinars, kadha (the immunity-boosting drink with ingredients like tulsi and turmeric) recipes, DIY skincare and online guided meditation classes that many of us sat through in the last few months. The pandemic has amplified every aspect of holistic living.

The good news? The goal has shifted from the outer aspects of weight loss to internal benefits such as immunity. But wellness has also become a fertile, money-making ground. Legacy brands are tapping into our fear of chemicals by re-visiting their iconic products — removing parabens, silicones and sulphates (from Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream to Laura Mercier’s Tinted Moisturiser). Green beauty is flourishing like never before; a Deloitte India report states that though Covid-19 may mark a downturn for offline beauty stores, demand for in-home skincare is expected to increase. Unfortunately, no reports have been shared yet on the rise of pseudo experts and their half-baked advice – especially on social media. And green living, which began as a tool to simplify life, is now a lot more complicated.

Diets, dairy and pitfalls

For instance, in addition to feeling guilty about straying from a trending diet, or fearing products loaded with ‘toxins’, one faces judgement for not living sustainably. The smallest infringement sees trolls descending, and the current cancel culture enables such opinions that neither respect boundaries nor personal choice. It is no wonder that beauty bloggers like Arjun Sudhir (@justaskarjun) have reservations labelling themselves. Known for reviewing skin-friendly products, he has opted for the ‘eco-luxe’ tag over ‘green beauty influencer’. “I’ve had people unfollow me because I posted pictures of food containing meat,” recalls the Melbourne-based beauty expert.

@justaskarjun on Instagram

@justaskarjun on Instagram  

Sudhir tells me he has never liked the word clean because “it implies that everything else is dirty”. He isn’t the only one re-examining why we want to go ‘clean’ or ‘green’. Bali-based ashtanga yoga teacher Deepika Mehta got into the lifestyle much before it became a trend or a business proposition. Back in ’98, after reading a book called Fit For Life, she switched to raw food and was vegan for a decade. “Initially, it gave me a huge burst of energy, but the intense discipline was coming in the way of social interactions and family time,” she recalls. Today, to balance things out, she allows herself the 70/30 rule, eating clean 70% of the time and reserving 30% for indulgences. Now along with her primarily plant-based diet, she also enjoys eggs and dairy. She calls it following the middle path. “I feel healthier when I’m not obsessed.”

In its extreme, the fixation with health food is known as orthorexia, the latest eating disorder where one feels panic for not eating clean. Jordan Younger, who first went as @theblondevegan, changed her handle to @thebalancedblonde when she realised that veganism was detrimental to her health. “I had gotten into the vegan lifestyle so I could be the healthiest version of myself, but I was wreaking havoc on my body [she was diagnosed with orthorexia], and I knew it,” she wrote for Refinery 29. In June 2014, when she announced she was ‘breaking vegan’ (also the title of her book), Younger was trolled heavily with someone commenting, “I’ll come down to barbecue your family later”. Fashion designer and beauty entrepreneur Masaba Gupta points out that a green lifestyle can also be “enormously expensive”: “Clean living is becoming a heavy load for followers who can neither afford nor abide by its stringent rules,” she says.

Deepika Mehta

Deepika Mehta   | Photo Credit: RADESH 9000544450

Beyond the fine print

Even though wellness runs on the principles of kindness and acceptance, these days the expectations are fairly rigid: absolute perfection or nothing else. I regularly receive messages expressing ‘disappointment’ not only when I post a mainstream brand, but also for green products where a single ingredient could cause offence. Most recently, it was maltodextrin in my collagen powder (which I'd posted as something I was trying out but didn’t recommend).

While one roots for sustainability, the argument that ‘cleaner is safer’ isn’t always right. Yes, there are carcinogenic compounds and endocrine disruptors, but to label everything chemical as a ‘toxin’ creates a breeding ground for fear and intolerance. As a former beauty editor, I have learnt that ‘natural’ ingredients aren’t always inherently safer. For example, lemon juice in skin brightening serums can cause more harm than good (it increases skin’s sensitivity to the sun); mineral make-up can use a higher concentration of ingredients with heavy metals (lead contamination is a fallout); and the word ‘handmade’ can often mean that the products haven’t gone through the stringent quality checks they would otherwise undergo in a lab.

Arjun Sudhir and Mamta Mody

Arjun Sudhir and Mamta Mody   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement and Dhruvin (for Mamta Mody)

But green beauty, with its promise of ‘no nasties’, is the fastest growing sector within the personal care industry. In the last few months alone, several ‘conscious beauty’ retailers have burgeoned online, including Vanity Wagon, Verth and Sublime Life. Lavanya Krishnan, the founder of The Boxwalla, a US-based green beauty box service, uses clean products, but says that “it is more for the joy of using plant-based skincare rather than the fear of specific ingredients”. In fact, in the past couple of years, she has noticed an increase in fear-based rhetoric to sell such products. “People often conflate safety with sustainability, therefore discussions end up being black and white which is simply not accurate,” she says.

With little regulation around it, ‘clean’ in the personal care industry is open to interpretation. In India, there are hardly any certifying authorities nor guidelines to keep the industry in check. Without this, there is no way of knowing which products are following protocols despite mnemonics of cruelty-free, vegan or fair-trade printed on packaging. “Consumers have to take responsibility to research before spending because there’s no way to confirm product claims even with traditional brands,” says Mamta Mody, beauty and health director, Elle India. She gives the example of a popular soap brand that claims to contain 1/4th moisturiser. “How do we confirm that?” she asks. As a beauty journalist she can only write an email or have a conversation with the brand or formulator; “the rest is based on trust and individual experience.”

Chains join in
  • India’s wellness industry (according to FICCI estimates) is worth approximately ₹490 billion, of which cosmetics commands a 10-15% share. Tapping into the consumer consciousness for clean beauty is only set to grow this.
  • Recently, we’ve seen several overtures, including beauty and wellness brand Nykaa’s new skincare range, Nykaa Naturals. Meanwhile at Sephora, the multi-national beauty chain’s clean seal of approval helps customers weed out products with unwanted ingredients.

We also need to focus on other aspects. Wild-crafted (foraging from forests, but with a focus on regrowth) is a favourite word with many brands. But in many cases, like the jatamansi (muskroot) plant, wildcrafting is a terrible idea. Since the plant is prized for its fragrant roots, the entire shrub is pulled out from its natural habitat in the Himalayas. And as collectors don’t focus on replanting, the herb is on the brink of extinction. In such cases, chemicals can actually be a better alternative — synthetic sandalwood over pure essence from the endangered tree.

Ultimately, when you view wellness as a deeply personal journey, you’ll realise that clean living is important, but it is also key to respect personal choice. “For me, real wellness is not just what I post on Instagram [smoothies, my yoga practice or meditation]; it is what I do when no one is watching, how mindful and present I am with everything I do in my life,” says Mehta. In the long run, imperfections are sustainable and tolerance is the greenest option of them all.

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Printable version | Sep 30, 2020 7:56:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/going-overboard-with-clean-living/article32579712.ece

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