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In this episode of the Highlight, Julianna talks to Renae Moomjiam about the confusion of clean beauty and the lack of standards in defining what it means.

[JD]: Hi. Thanks for listening to The Highlight, a podcast about the beauty and wellness industry hosted by myself, Julianna of Deco Miami. Whenever I have conversations with other founders about the beauty industry, I think, wow. I wish we could have recorded that. And that's exactly what The Highlight is.

We've all heard the phrase “clean beauty,” but do we need to rethink the concept depending on the product category? Something that goes on your lips versus something that goes on your nails, for example, probably doesn't need to be held to the same standards, but what about clean standards in general?

Are there standards at all? Should there be? Who should decide what those standards are and how should they be decided? In today's episode of The Highlight, I chat with Renae Moomjian of NipLips about her hot take on all this. Renae, thank you for being here and chatting with me today. Before we can talk about clean beauty standards, though, we have to establish an obvious baseline, which is what does clean beauty mean to you? When you answer this, please talk about NipLips because it's such a unique concept in the beauty world.

[RM]: Thank you Jules, and thank you for inviting me to be part of this podcast. NipLips, quickly, is a lipstick company that helps you find your most complimentary lip color by using an app to scan your nipple color. Then we match you to one of our vegan, cruelty-free, what we call “clean beauty,” as organic as possible lipsticks.

I do want to just insert in there, even though we're not talking about this, that when I talk about scanning your nipple color, some people have said, “Oh my gosh, what are you doing? Taking pictures of your nipples and they’re going to be all over the internet?” No, no, no!

My background is actually in the tech world in med tech. I do medical device development and I've been doing that for 30 years. So, when we put the specs together for this app, for NipLips, I made sure that your privacy and mine was the utmost priority. So when you do your scan, the only thing that transmits to us at NipLips is a numeric value. That is what we then interpret to be a color.

[JD]: I'm very happy that you specified exactly what happens because when I mentioned your company to some of my friends and I said, “Yeah, they take a picture of your nipple and send you lipstick color,” they were like, “What?” I was like, “No, no, no. It’s not like that.” They were like, “Are you sure you're not about to talk to some creepy old man about--." Like no.

[0:02:39] When someone says “clean beauty,” what does that mean to you? Just in general. Not necessarily for NipLips, but what do you think that means?

[RM]: Oh, well, that's a good question because that has evolved since I've gotten into the beauty industry, and I've only really been in the beauty industry for not even quite a year yet.

When I started, I thought that the FDA had really strict guidelines like they do in med device and pharma. So, I thought, Oh boy, if something's clean, I'm going to be able to go to a database, and they're going to show me all the ingredients that I can and that I can't put into my products. And that wasn't the case.

So, then I started to work with our manufacturer, who actually is a clean beauty chemist, and I sat down with her and said, “Okay, what's really important for clean beauty?”

For me, it's a number of things. One, nothing on the naughty list, or at least I call it the naughty list. No parabens, phthalates, DEHP, SLS, petroleum talc, or any type of synthetic fragrance color or silicone. So, that's my naughty list. Other people may have other naughty lists and there may be other naughty list as you referred to in the introduction for products that go in different parts of your body.

[JD]: So you have very specific standards and like you said, “You have your naughty list.” When I was preparing for this, I was like, “I'm going to jot some things down”. And for me, like when I think about clean beauty, I think, nontoxic, natural. Sometimes it can be synthetic. Hypoallergenic, whatever that means. Because I'm allergic to a lot of things. I don't even know hypoallergenic what that means anymore.

[RM]: Exactly.

[JD]: But that's the thing is that's so frustrating about this and this whole question of clean beauty and what exactly it is. Because we're in very similar positions where we are both creating the marketing materials for two beauty brands and granted, nail polish and lipstick are pretty different product categories. I've actually taken a stand that I tried to not really focus on ingredients, which is totally polar opposite to everything you just said about NipLips.

[RM]: It is. That’s interesting.

[JD]: Yeah, because I feel like I don't want to confuse people about nail polish. For example, there's a lot of people would ask me, is your nail polish nontoxic? And there was another word. Chemical-free.

[RM]: Yes.

[JD]: And I'm like, well, no. There's no such thing as chemical free nail polish because if you understand what nail polish is, it's paint.

[RM]: Exactly, it’s a chemical.

[JD]: Right. I mean, it's paint, but also I'm sure you noticed a nail polish that we market as being “free of things.” So like 3-free, 5-free. Deco Miami is 8-free, and now you've got like 10-free, 14-free, blah, blah, blah. It's kind of become a numbers game and it's ridiculous.

[RM]: Yeah.

[JD]: But we do that because you can't really get around the idea that nail polish is paint. We then focus on what's not in the paint rather than focusing on what is in it. So, not to say that nail polish is bad for you, but when you're talking about nontoxic lipstick, you're eating the lipstick essentially.

[RM]: Right, you could eat up to six pounds. The average woman eats six pounds of lipstick.

[JD]: Nail polish, obviously, you don't want to eat that. But can you imagine if someone's child or dog ate a bottle of nail polish or something really silly like that, and they looked at the bottle and saw a nontoxic label and thought, Oh, it's fine. It's not fine. You absolutely need to treat that very seriously.

That’s just been my stance on the reason why I don't focus on that because I think that it's in my category, I feel like marketing too much about how great the ingredients are is setting someone else up for a really terrible situation.

That's also why I think it's so fascinating that when we talk about clean beauty, we all seem to have similar, but slightly different definitions of what it means. And for lips and for nail polish, there should be different standards because different uses going in a different part of your body.

[RM]: Exactly. Nail polish is going on basically dead cells. That part of your body, your fingernails and your toenails, it's not very permeable. And like you said, you're looking for a paint essentially to put on those dead cell. Very different than putting a product on your lips where you're not only absorbing what's ever on your lips, but you're also ingesting it. You're eating it.

[JD]: You’re really eating it.

[RM]: I love what you said that you could put nontoxic on a bottle of nail polish, and then someone's kid drinks it and the parent looks at it, and says, “Oh, that's not toxic.” Right? But really, Oh my God!

[JD]: It's crazy to me too, because there are brands that market nail polish for kids as nontoxic. I mentioned it to my lab’s chemist one time and he said, “Oh, how are they doing that?” And I pulled up the website and he looked at the ingredient list and he looked up the main ingredient and he said, that's not nontoxic. And I was just like, I, pshh.

I mentioned to you in our first phone call about Truly Organic. If that name rings a bell, they were just sued by the FDA. They found that they were marketing as vegan and organic, hence the name, and it turns out, those claims were BS.

[RM]: Wow.

[JD]: So, that company's been around for a few years. I actually had a little jar of it. I bought it at Urban Outfitters, which is really interesting.

[RM]: Oh, wow.

[JD]: It wasn't like they were just an under the radar brand. They were in places.

[0:08:53] So what do you think the impact of having multiple authorities define what clean means? Like for example, if Sephora has a clean badge, Credo curates their own assortment of clean beauty, Follain, as well.

Do you think that's confusing to people, or do you think that as long as all of these products are sort of sticking to a general baseline, it's okay. What do you think the impact will be or is right now?

[RM]: Well, I think big picture, the impact is very positive because when you see companies like Sephora, Credo, Follain, and others saying, “Oh, wow. We need to have clean beauty options because consumers are starting to demand that.” I think that that big picture is fantastic, but the confusing part though is there's no real definition for clean beauty. But I think over time, that can evolve.

I think we're very much in the buyer beware stage. I think it's really important for people to do some research and figure out, gee, what do I really not want to be putting on my body and then vote with their money and be very vocal with these companies like Sephora, Credo, Follain, and even us and say, “Hey, I really don't want that in my lipstick.” I think consumers working with industry can drive the change that we need to see in this space.

I think it's unfortunate when it gets to the point where Truly Organics, where they got to where the FDA said, “Whoa, you're not vegan and you're not organic,” and it had to pull their product or pull their license. That's the extreme.

I think we need to be conscious consumers and conscious producers of beauty products and work together to develop what that clean beauty standard means. Like you said earlier, I think it really needs to be different depending on the part of your body that you're putting a product on.

Something else I wanted to comment on, because we first talked and you had asked me about how do you define clean beauty? I did some additional research and I found a site called Skin deep.

[JD]: Yep.

[RM]:  I was super excited to find it. I went in and I put our ingredients from our lipstick into it. What was interesting is they didn't recognize at least three of our ingredients. And so because of that, we got a low rating because they were like, well, we don't really know the effect.

And it's because a lot of these like truly natural, organic ingredients don't have the research behind them. So, even when you go to a site like that and you're like, hmm, let's see where my product ranks. If it truly has a lot of natural ingredients, you may not be getting the full picture from them either.

[JD]: Sure. I have limited knowledge on the EWG, but I do recall that it's pretty conservative with its recommendations. Meaning if there was a study that suggested something was a carcinogen and if something was inconclusive, they air on the side of caution. Also will rate things accordingly based on that, and that, in my opinion, I think that also adds to confusion about product safety and ingredients.

[RM]: I agree.

[JD]: But you know, but it's tricky because I read somewhere that the EU kind of has a unsafe until proven safe approach to ingredients while the US has a safe until proven unsafe approach. So, it's tough to know just as a normal consumer, how to make the best decisions unless you're literally able to read scientific journals and studies.

I tried to for a few ingredients and it's tough to really go through those the right ways and there's so much information. I'm sure we all have a family member that likes to repost those “scientific journals” to their Facebooks about--. I mean, they act like they're scientific sources, but they're actually just someone's blog.

[RM]: Yep, yep, yep.

[JD]: It's very frustrating to see someone say, “Oh, don't use--.” The one that I saw, something was sent. Again, I know there's a lot of opinions and a lot of research swirling around about that, and I'm like, okay, teach me something. Let's see. And I click it and it goes to this, it's very clearly a blog and they're writing like, it's sort of scientific language, but there's also a lot of very opinion phrases in there as well.

It's so frustrating because it's like, this isn't it. This isn't the way to do it. So, do you have any suggestions about how to best arm yourself or how to best do research when you're just sitting in front of a Google search?

[RM]: Yeah, yeah. No, that's a really good question. And what's, again, the contrast between the medical world, medical device and pharma, and cosmetics is 180 degrees because the FDA is extraordinarily strict about what you can do with your medical device and even what type of plastic you can use and metal and combinations, and all the cytotoxicity and sensitivity tests that you need to do.

[JD]: And that doesn't happen in cosmetics.

[RM]: No. So, here's my rule of thumb, and I don't know if it's the right one or not, but I definitely make sure that my cosmetics don't have anything on my naughty list.

[JD]: Sure.

[RM]: So, the parabens, phthalates, DEHP, SLS, petroleum talc, whatever, synthetic fragrances. Definitely not that. I think the other thing to look for too is ingredients that you can recognize and then shorter ingredient lists.

[JD]: To segue back into, you were mentioning the FDA, which I think was really interesting, really interesting point. A lot of people hate hearing the words government and regulation at all, and especially relating to markets, but do you think that is a good option for getting some concrete guidelines on the words that we can and can't use for marketing beauty products, but also for ingredient intervention in beauty products? Or do you think there's another way.

[RM]: Well, that's a good question.

[JD]: A big question.

[RM]: In a way, it is.

[JD]: If you can answer it, you get a million bucks.

[RM]: Yeah. After living with the FDA for 30 years, I have my doubts that that perhaps is the way to go, but I do think, and this is actually a model that I've seen and participated in, in the patient safety world globally. I do think that we can come together as an industry and maybe it's industry and consumers and form some sort of Cosmetic Safety Council.

And the reason I say that is because in the medical side, I have been a part of a group called The Patient Safety Organization. My specific role within that International group is improving the safety of Nasogastric and Orogastric tube placement. So basically tubes they'd put through your nose or your mouth to either deliver food or nutrition or to take things out of your stomach that you don't want there. Unfortunately, there's very high rates of misplacement and higher than anybody would have ever imagined rates of death due to misplaced tubes.

[JD]: Oh, wow.

[RM]: So yeah. So, patients, healthcare providers globally have all kind of come together and said, “Enough is enough.” We work together collaboratively on a team and have published a guidance document now to basically say, “Hey, this is how we recommend you go about ensuring that a tube is safely placed in someone's stomach.”

So, I've seen that collaboration between, I guess I'd say, consumers, patients and/or healthcare providers in industry. All three participate in that council. I think we could do something like that in the cosmetic space, and nobody's paid, so there wouldn't be conflicts of interest. People who are truly passionate about clean beauty and defining what it is and are willing to step up and share what they know and the research that that they've done over the years. I think that could be really powerful.

[JD]: I love the not paid part of that.

[RM]: Yeah.

[JD]: Because when I think about this problem, I always go back to the cruelty-free badge. There are organizations like Leaping Bunny and PETA that have created guidelines for what cruelty-free means, but to use their logos on your own packaging and your marketing materials, you have to pay a fee based on, I believe it's based on your sales, but there's definitely a fee for using their logo. It wasn't a huge deal if you didn't participate in this, because when I was looking into this three years ago, it was kind of like, okay, well it looks like there are some brands that just use a generic bunny on their packaging to denote cruelty-free.

[RM]: Yeah.

[JD]: But then I noticed that there were some cruelty-free makeup bloggers in the space that were pointing out, “Hey, companies are just using a bunny and they're trying to trick us. It's not real. They're not actually certified.” And that was a little frustrating to me because I don't know if those same bloggers knew that brands had to pay. And then if you're a small brand, just starting out, paying a couple hundred dollars to use someone else's little graphic is a pretty big expense. But with people saying, “Oh, if you're not using Leaping Bunny or if you're not using the PETA sign, you are animal testing,” or something like that, it's frustrating.

[0:19:00] Do you think that using something like the badges or having an organization like you mentioned, is that possible to do without having some sort of monetary exchange? Or do you think that you can get around that whole problem with the cruelty-free badge?

[RM]: I think anything is possible. With that being said, I do think that you could form a group and I very much, now that I'm just getting into this industry, would love to be a part of and actually help create the type of organization that we have over in the patient safety side, in the cosmetic space for clean beauty. Because I think there's a lot of us out there that are really passionate about ensuring that the products that we use on our body aren't harming us.

I think it can be done in such a way that if we're all volunteering our time and we come up with some sort of certification, and maybe it's a self-certification, I'm not sure. You'd have to kind of brainstorm it, but I'm not sure you'd even have to pay, or maybe you would. I don't know what all the legalities would be. If you had a group that was basically saying, “Hey, here's the clean beauty standards.”

[JD]: Here’s the club.

[RM]:  Yeah, and here's the label you can put on your product, and maybe it's not even putting a label on your product. Maybe, and again, I'm just brainstorming here. Maybe you submit your products ingredient deck and the group kind of goes through it and says, “Yep, that that meets our standard, that looks clean,” and it goes on their website as a product that's considered clean beauty.

[JD 0:20:48] Where do you see all of this in five years? Because this is something that I think about a lot. Are we just going to be like marketing? Like it's clean, like okay, now it's water. I just, I'm concerned that there's so much swirling around that there's the new innovation in beauty is removing ingredients. It's not adding features, it's taking away.

[RM]: Yeah.

[JD]: I think that's very interesting for the future, especially considering that the beauty industry is known, especially in the last few years with the help of Instagram and influencers for just pumping out new, new, new. It almost looks like, in my opinion, we're going a little backwards, literally. And like the, it's a new, but it's not necessarily new because we’re adding. We’re subtracting to things.

Do you have? What's your hot take on where we're going to be in a few years?

[RM]: Remember, you're asking the girl that's only been doing this for less than a year. So, with that said, I can share with you where I'd like to see it go.

[JD]: Sure.

[RM]: Backing up, I do think that similar to medicine, I do think you will see a lot more personalized beauty products, and customized beauty products coming to the market. So, similar to what we do with NipLips, where we basically help you find your most complementary shade, we customize it for you. I think a lot of folks are probably going to start to go in that brand. I mean, similar to what Converse has done with tennis shoes.

So, I think big picture, that's probably where the market's going, but far as what we're talking about with clean beauty, I think where I'd like to see it go is that the consumer becomes much more conscientious about what they're putting on their body. I think your generation is so much better about that than mine and really demands that we do have a more defined standard.

Whether it's going to come from the government, hopefully not. Hopefully we can, we can self regulate in that space. I'd like to see, and I think you will hopefully see more, I guess, clean beauty and/or nontoxic, safer options for your cosmetics. And sustainable too, and that's a piece I don't think we touched on.

[JD]: No, not at all. Purposely did not touch on that because that is a novel, totally different issue, but very related, intertwined with this idea.

[RM]: Yeah. I think it is intertwined, and so, that was something that was important to me with our packaging. The reasons why our lip glosses haven't come out yet is it was really hard to find sustainable packaging for our glosses, and I refused to release a formula one, that just wasn't absolutely amazing, and two, it needed to be packaged sustainably.

So, I think we're going to see more and more of that. Minimize the packaging. Used pack can be recycled or composted. Like it drives me nuts sometimes when I order something from Amazon and it's something really small and it comes in this huge box.

[JD]: I can relate to that, and I think that's a really interesting point that you raised that I never really thought about. Maybe we're actually going to shift away from the focus on clean and being obsessed with clean and natural.

In fashion, for example, I mean, everyone can't stop talking about Zara and H&M and Forever 21 and all of the terrible business practices involved with their clothing manufacturing. People in the beauty space have definitely sounded some alarms about how annoying it is to get a package with excess packaging and peanuts.

[RM]: Yes.

[JD]: And it's just like, you know, at a certain point. Yes, it should be fun to receive your package, but at the same time, I don't need the confetti. I don't want the confetti. I don't want all the extra marketing materials. Everything that's just literally going to go into the trashcan once I fish out the product. Hopefully that will become more of a thing in the future, especially considering that's a pretty easy thing to fix. Before I get totally sidetracked--.

[RM]: Sorry!

[JD]: When we started chatting about this whole thing and we said, we're going to talk about clean beauty. That's why I absolutely needed to have a preliminary conversation with you to establish what we were talking about within clean beauty, because you can just get lost in talking about all of this stuff. It feels like a black hole sometimes.

But I really appreciate that you have taken the time to try to pick it apart with me today and hopefully people can take some things away from this that are helpful, even if the only thing they learned was there's, there's a lot to figure out.

[RM]: Thank you, Jules.

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