From cucumber-infused eye creams to conditioners enriched with botanical extracts, naturally sourced ingredients give products extra allure for buyers. But not all natural beauty products are created equal, and many manufacturers are taking advantage of regulatory loopholes to promote their products as natural when they are far from it. We uncover how ingredient lists matter much more than the invalidated claims emblazoned on product packaging.
The term “natural” is becoming increasingly popular with cosmetic manufacturers trying to attract discerning consumers, but unfortunately the term is so broad that it actually has no legal meaning.
The word might make you think of fields of fresh strawberries and blooming flowers, but it’s often rooted in marketing hyperbole rather than fact. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, responsible for labeling laws which are adhered to by many other markets (including GCC), doesn’t regulate the term “natural” at all. If a company wants to describe its product as natural, it can do so even if the product is laden with chemicals. Plastic was once a natural substance, crude oil taken from the ground, but you wouldn’t describe or label plastic as natural!
The Risks of Buying Natural
Because the term “natural” covers so much, your “all natural from the rainforest” beauty product may well contain chemicals. Some of the most toxic ingredients found in cosmetics that tout themselves as natural include:
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
It might surprise you to find out that SLS is actually a strong surfactant — a heavy-duty detergent commonly used as an engine degreaser. Despite this and its Chemical Hazard Rating of “moderate”, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) is found in most toiletries, from shampoos and shower gels to make-up foundations and toothpastes.
To make things worse, SLS becomes contaminated by the carcinogenic by-product 1,4 dioxane during its manufacturing process, which the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention describes as “probably carcinogenic to humans”; it adds that “the by-product is toxic and may have long term damaging effects to the brain and nervous system, kidneys and liver. Evidence has also surfaced about SLS’s potential role in cell mutation. Researchers in Japan tested the chemical on bacteria and found that it caused the genetics within cells to change.
On a more superficial level, several studies have linked SLS with severe skin irritation — not quite the effect you want from your shower gel!
Check the label to avoid this abrasive chemical. You’ll also find it hiding behind various names such as Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate, Sodium Salt Sulphuric Acid, Monododecyl Ester and Aquarex Methyl to name but a few.
Otherwise used in brake fluid and anti-freeze, propylene glycol is found in many cosmetics. It’s the most common moisture carrying ingredient in beauty products, yet is classed as a skin irritant by the National Library of Medicine and has a long list of potentially harmful side effects including liver abnormalities and damage to the kidneys.
Propylene Glycol is also classified as a “penetration enhancer”. In other words it makes the skin more permeable, potentially allowing other harmful chemicals from your environment to pass through the dermis into the body.
This common anti-bacterial agent is currently under investigation to reassess its safety as a cosmetic ingredient. Often found in anti-bacterial hand soaps and shower gels, triclosan contributes to creating strains of resistant bacteria, disrupts your hormones and has already been banned in several countries.
This chemical is also damaging to the environment as it breaks down into chloroform gas and dioxin, polluting lakes and rivers. Many environmentally conscious buyers choose to avoid buying products containing this toxic compound. Even the FDA has admitted the dangerous effects on laboratory animals and is re-evaluating the scientific evidence for human safety.
Another product ingredient that is becoming more popular is polypropylene microbeads. These minute pieces of plastic are added to help exfoliate the skin but they are proving to be increasingly harmful to the environment.
The beads are so small they pass into waste-water and are virtually impossible to remove during water treatment. They also bind to other waste chemicals and pollutants, concentrating toxins and passing them up the natural food chain, killing fish and other aquatic animals.
Organic Beauty Products
Fortunately, one term does have a specific meaning and rigorous standards applied, that is the term “organic”. The FDA borrows from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definitions for organic foods when determining how manufacturers can label products. Cosmetics labeled as organic have to meet stringent requirements for production and processing. From limiting pesticide and fertilizer use to regulating use of other ingredients during processing, organically produced products must follow a detailed set of guidelines and go through certification to be listed as organic.
Cosmetics are also subject to labeling laws depending on the percentage of organic ingredients they contain. Only products containing exclusively organic ingredients obtain the “100 percent organic” label. An “organic” tag means the product has at least 95 percent organic ingredients, while a “made with organic ingredients” label tells buyers the product is at least 70 percent organic. Products with lower percentages of organic ingredients can list the individual ingredients as organically produced.
Is Organic Beauty Better?
Given the high standards for organic ingredients, should you shop for it exclusively? Not necessarily: many ingredients don’t fall under organic production methods yet are responsibly processed. Mineral-based makeup, for example, is inorganic by definition, but its ingredients are typically as natural as the earth itself.
Organic cosmetics can also have a shorter shelf life because they’re free of most preservatives, so buy your favorite organic beauty products in amounts you know you’ll be able to use within the shelf life.
If you have sensitive or allergy-prone skin, organic cosmetics may present a less allergenic alternative as they contain fewer chemicals. But be careful — you can still have allergies to natural ingredients, such as lavender, even when the products are entirely organic. Getting to know your skin and its sensitivities will help you make decisions about which products suit you best.References