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This former social worker turned celebrity makeup artist is on a mission to make the beauty industry safer

Katey Denno believes beauty can be a gateway to an awareness of the difference we can make for our health and for the planet.

Katey Denno — a former social worker turned celebrity makeup artist is on a mission to make the beauty industry safe

For celebrity makeup artist Katey Denno, makeup is magic, a gateway to transformation and not just on the outside. 

On her popular Instagram account, @kateydenno, Denno shares beauty tips and celeb makeup looks for stars like Gillian Anderson, Mindy Kaling, Amanda Seyfried, and Margaret Qualley, but with a twist.

Denno isn't just about red carpet glam — she's dedicated her career to achieving "the look" with clean beauty products made with ingredients and packaging that are better for her clients and for the planet. 

The 46-year-old Denno told The Cool Down that she started her career as a social worker at a hospital in the Bronx, where she worked with women and children in difficult situations. Some were fleeing domestic violence, or struggling with homelessness or drug addiction; others were patients receiving care in the HIV/AIDS clinic, many of whom were transgender. 

It was as a social worker that she first witnessed the true transformative power of makeup: She taught domestic violence survivors how to use concealer to cover bruises so they could go back to work without scrutiny from coworkers. She became fascinated by the art of contouring after seeing how transgender clients artfully used the technique to embrace their identities. 

After an unexpected invitation from a makeup artist to assist on an advertising job 15 years ago, Denno was hooked. She made a major career shift, from social worker to celebrity makeup artist, quickly landing a roster of trusted celebrity clients, including Beanie Feldstein, Christy Turlington, Susan Sarandon, and January Jones.

When a friend was diagnosed with cancer, Denno called on her previous hospital experience to inform her makeup artistry. And when her friend asked her for a list of makeup products that were clean, natural, and would make her feel great, she realized she didn't have good answers. The lightbulb went off. 

Denno said that she was shocked when she discovered the lack of regulation on cosmetic ingredients. As CNBC has reported, the cosmetics industry has been allowed largely to self-regulate for more than a century. While medications are tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the agency considers cosmetics and other items intended to "cleanse or beautify" to be merely personal care products. The U.S. bans only 30 ingredients from such products; the European Union, meanwhile, bans 1,400, according to the Environmental Working Group

"It's rewarding to see a new generation of consumers coming up that are actually focused, dedicated, and completely interested in what they're putting in their bodies and what's being manufactured into the environment." -Katey Denno

The good news is that many cosmetics and personal care companies have taken the initiative to create great products without potentially harmful ingredients. Denno uses her encyclopedic knowledge of safe ingredients to monitor the fast-growing "green beauty" scene to help her clients look gorgeous, while also making informed choices about what they put on their skin. 

Denno is also passionate about supporting brands that package their products in minimal or no plastic, since very little of that plastic is ever actually recycled, often ending up in landfills or at the bottom of the ocean. Moreover, most traditional beauty packaging is either too small to be recycled or made of materials that can't be recycled, according to research from Pact Collective.

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Denno says the key to cleaning up your at-home beauty routine is starting small. "So often, people come to me when they're first pregnant or trying, sometimes with difficulty, to get pregnant, or when they or a loved one has had a health scare," she explained. "I always tell them to take it slow and be mindful in making their new purchases."

The three initial clean beauty tips Denno recommends to beginners are:

  1. Lip Products

    Think about anything you put on your lips, like lip balm and lipstick, and swap it out for something cleaner the next time you run out. 

  2. Body Lotion

    It's the product that covers the biggest surface area of your body. Buy a bottle or tube from long-time clean brand Burt's Bees, or spend a little more and buy one packaged in a jumbo-sized, infinitely recyclable aluminum bottle from Pangea Organics.

  3. Bar Shampoo and Conditioner

    They're easy to use and help prevent harmful ingredients from traditional shampoos and conditioners from running down your body in the shower. Denno loves the curly shampoo and conditioner bars from Ethique. If you're not interested in giving up the consistency of bottled haircare, consider switching to the endlessly recyclable — and super cute — aluminum shampoo and conditioner bottles from fantastic clean beauty brand Captain Blankenship.

Denno advises against rushing off to dump all your old skincare and beauty products in the trash can. Instead, she suggests using up what you've got first. The next time you need a new lip balm, pick a cleaner one with less waste. She also suggests checking out brands like Ethique and Meow Meow Tweet, which offer super-clean formulas that keep lips feeling and looking great, in fully recyclable and even compostable packaging. 

"I know that starting on the path to living a more eco-friendly and aware lifestyle can feel dramatically overwhelming, but we're living in a time when there are great beauty product stores nationwide, dedicated to bringing customers the very best in clean, green makeup, skincare, haircare, and body care like The Detox Market and Credo Beauty," she told The Cool Down. "You'll also find that there are new 'clean' departments at Sephora, Ulta,and Target. There are also many 'bring your own container to refill' stores popping up around the country, and most stock their shelves with organic and sustainably sourced products — a double win!"  

When it's time to dispose of your empty cosmetics, Denno suggests checking online to see if your beauty brand offers a recycling program. Credo Beauty stores across the country offer recycling for beauty products from any and all brands through the Pact Collective. Recycling one product gets you 10 Credo rewards points — and when you accrue 100 points, you can start redeeming them for fresh, new beauty products. 

Denno believes beauty can be a gateway to an awareness of the difference we can make, for our health and for the planet, by making better choices about what we put into and onto our bodies. Her transformations aren't just about the look, but about opening the eyes of her clients and followers to sustainability. Today, she says, she remains encouraged by the beauty industry's innovation and intention toward healthier, less damaging practices and products. 

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