Shady Ways Clean Beauty Targets Women

  • Rina Raphael, author of The Gospel of Wellness, said the wellness industry can lure women into buying unnecessary items.
  • Some mothers feel pressured to purchase organic produce, despite no research indicating its superior health benefits.
  • Women gaslit by medical providers may turn to natural remedies, which can pose serious health risks.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped catapult the wellness industry into a trillion-dollar enterprise — but part of that success is built on a well-documented scam problem that lures many women into buying unnecessary, overpriced products.

That’s according to a new book, The Gospel of Wellness, by Rina Raphael, a longtime wellness and women’s health reporter. 

“Wellness has become an aspirational lifestyle,” Raphael told Insider.

In her book, Raphael outlines how wellness brands use certain techniques to prey upon women’s anxieties to drive up sales, under the guise of promoting health and happiness.

“We believe if we buy the supplements Gwyneth [Paltrow] buys, we will look and become like her,” Raphael said. “A lot of times, [products and practices] are based more in fear-mongering that’s terrifying consumers about certain ‘toxic chemicals’ without fully explaining the nuance there.”

Here are three ways the wellness industry disproportionately causes women to buy useless — and sometimes harmful — things, according to Raphael.

Marketing to women who feel dismissed by their doctors 

Raphael said womens’ legitimate concerns about the healthcare system might drive them to seek natural remedies. Women are more likely to report facing medical gaslighting, or when clinicians dismiss a patient’s symptoms. 

“For many women, traditional Western medicine seems built to make a buck, not to significantly care for their needs,” Raphael stated in her book. 

But many alternative medicine companies are making a buck, too — by selling products with no scientific evidence they actually work.

Take Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s buzzy wellness and lifestyle brand. On its first day, Goop’s supplement line sold $100,000 worth of expensive products that had little proof of efficacy, Raphael reported. Paltrow had to pay $145,000 in civil penalties in 2018 for product advertisements that lacked reliable scientific evidence. 

Raphael said the rise in supplements could be the most harmful of all wellness trends for its potential to cause serious health complications. 

The supplement industry is under-researched and does not require pre-market FDA approval, meaning doctors have no consensus on safe dosing or known side effects for alternate treatments. Cardiologists told Insider they’ve seen a rise in heart problems in young people stemming from herbal supplements.

“A lot of alternative medicine can be very dangerous because it robs people of real therapeutic treatments that could actually help them,” she told Insider.

Promoting “natural” products that may cause more harm than synthetic products

The natural beauty movement took off in the last decade as more women began to reject lab-made ingredients, Raphael reported. Three-quarters of millennial women said “natural” ingredients are an important factor in their purchases, according to a 2018 survey

With it we saw the rise in popularity of cult favorite Supergoop! and Jessica Alba’s Honest Beauty. These brands, among others, marketed themselves as free from the synthetic ingredients, like parabens and phthalates, that are used as preservatives in cosmetics. Long-term exposure to high levels of these chemicals is linked to disease.

But studies reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not found significant health risks from the amount of preservative phthalates or parabens in cosmetics. Unlike the supplement industry, the federal government does regulate cosmetics, and bans products with harmful ingredients, cosmetic toxicologist and founder of The Eco Well podcast Jen Novakovich told Insider. 

Removing these ingredients for less effective natural alternatives can lead to bacterial contamination, according to Raphael in The Gospel of Wellness. Reuters reported dermatologists have seen an increase in itchy rashes, bumps, and other allergic reactions linked to botanical or natural ingredients in beauty products. 

“I’m seeing a lot more skepticism when it comes to clean beauty,” Raphael said. “A lot of the early reporting on clean beauty wasn’t checked with toxicologists or medical experts, and now we’re seeing a lot more nuanced conversations about what is clean beauty and should we be made so terrified of our body wash.” 

Organic food companies prey upon worried moms

Women spend more time caring for the home, meaning they make more decisions about which groceries to buy, per The Gospel of Wellness.

Organic food brands, or companies that grow foods with fewer synthetic pesticides, know this, and appeal to a mothers’ anxiety about keeping her children safe. And they do so for profit: Consumer Reports estimates organic foods are 47% more expensive than non-organic counterparts.

Evidence does not indicate that organic foods are better for consumers. The FDA has said pesticide residue does not pose a public health concern, as most foods sprayed with these chemicals have residue well below safety standards. And research does not indicate eating organic foods results in better nutrition or health outcomes. 

“The organic industry is betting on consumers conflating farming standards with supposed health benefits,” Raphael states in her book. “More specifically, they’re counting on moms worried about properly feeding their children and made fearful of overhyped pesticide risk.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said the supplement industry is unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration does not approve pills before they hit the market, but it can take action if companies adulterate or misbrand products.