Shopping for Beauty, Naturally

Your guide to finding products that are really natural, and which aren't.
By Yael Grauer

 

Not all cosmetics labeled “natural” and “organic” are really all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, personal care product labeling in United States isn’t regulated when it comes to these words, leaving many companies with complete creative license when using them. So how can you tell what’s really natural or organic and what’s not?
 
“It’s hard for consumers in the US to avoid harmful chemicals in cosmetics on their own,” says Leeann Brown, Press Secretary for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. “Ingredients in personal care products EWG has investigated have been linked to health concerns ranging from allergy and skin irritation to cancer and developmental/reproductive toxicity. The cumulative effect of multiple chemical exposures daily for long periods of time needs more investigating.”
    
Cosmetic labels are loosely regulated, and words like “natural” and “organic” may be misleading. “A lot of times, companies will say a product is natural, but they’re mixing it with a lot of synthetic items,” said Denise Tracy Cowan, owner of the Super Salve Company. Companies replace natural substances with less expensive synthetic substances that may be harmful. That’s why paying attention to ingredients and understanding different claims and certifications is so important.
    
The word “organic” on a product or label is essentially meaningless. However, products labeled “certified organic” or boasting a USDA organic seal (or other organic seals) contain ingredients that have been grown according to strict standards prohibiting the use of pesticides. Even if a product is not 100 percent certified organic, they can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” if their product contains at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients.
 
The Bad
Synthetic Fragrance Due to a regulation loophole, manufactures are allowed to use the term “fragrance” to protect trade secrets. Unfortunately, this allows them to mask a wide variety of undisclosed ingredients in perfume, lipstick, mascara, foundation, and moisturizer. They often contain phthalates (pronounced THAY-lates), synthetic chemicals commonly used to stabilize fragrances and make plastic more pliable (they’re also found in nail polish). These endocrine disrupters mimic hormones and may alter genital development. This is also true for products labeled as unscented.
    
“Whether fragrance is listed alone on an ingredient list or as ‘natural fragrance,’ the term is not regulated, and can include essentially any ingredient,” Brown says. The International Fragrance Association disclosed a list of 3,163 ingredients their members reportedly use in manufacturing fragrance. There are likely many more chemicals than those they listed, however.”


How to avoid them: Look for products that say “no fragrances added,” “phthalate free,” or do not have “fragrance” listed as an ingredient.
 
Parabens are chemical preservatives that are estrogenic and can disrupt hormone function and increase the risk of breast cancer.
    
“Parabens are ingredients that could potentially cause cancer,” said Will Zecco of the Southwest Institute of Natural Aesthetics. “Sometimes, they can be very irritating to the skin and cause inflammation as well.” Parabens, which have also been associated with infertility, obesity, asthma, and allergies, accumulate in the fatty tissue of the body.


How to avoid them: You’ll find them at the ends of a long, unpronounceable words such as: methylparaben, propylparaben, isoparaben, and butylparaben. If you see it on the label, turn the other way!
 
Ureas and DMDM These are formally known as diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, or DMDM hydantoin and sodium hydroxymethyl-glycinate, and are preservatives that have the potential to release formaldehyde in very small amounts, and are a primary cause of contact dermatitis.

How to avoid them: You’ll have to look for these ingredients on the label, because you won’t find a label that says “Urea-free.”
 
Sulfates Both sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are used as a sudsing or lathering agent in various products, including shampoos, shower gels, and skin care products. Corrosive and drying, both ingredients can cause skin irritation (though sodium lauryl sulfate is more problematic).

How to avoid them: Reading the labels is a must for these substances, though they can also be referred to by many names, including “dodecyl sodium sulfate,” “lauryl ether sulfate,” and even “sodium salt.”
 
Petrochemicals Derived from crude oil, these petroleum-based ingredients include petrolatum, mineral oil, and paraffin (derived from nonrenewable sources). When applied to the skin they can form a barrier that doesn’t allow your skin to breathe and can clog pores.

How to avoid them: Look for “petroleum- free” on the label, and search the ingredients for these nasty chemicals.
 
MEA/DEA/TEA or “amines” These ammonia compounds and can form harmful nitrosamines when they come in contact with nitrates. Used as foaming agents, synthetic stabilizers, and to adjust the pH of cosmetics, they can cause allergic reactions, eye irritation, and dryness of the hair and skin.

How to avoid them: When you’re reading the ingredients label, look for ingredients ending in “-amine” and for a string of capital letters.
 
Triclosan This can be found in hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps and toothpaste. It may have negative effects on the endocrine system and has been associated with allergies.

How to avoid them: Avoid unnecessary use of antibacterial products, and look for products that don’t have “triclosan” listed as an ingredient.
 
1,4-dioxane This is a chemical carcinogen that is created when ingredients are processed with petroleum-derived ethylene oxide. Common ethoxylated compounds include sodium laureth sulfate and polyethylene glycol, which is often listed as PEG. PEG has been found to exacerbate or induce allergies, asthma, eczema, and rhinitis.

How to avoid it: Skip any product with the following ingredients: myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth (or any other -eth), PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol.
 
Synthetic polymers These come from petroleum and give viscosity to skincare products. They are highly processed and their manufacture creates toxic by-products.

How to avoid them: Look for sodium polyacrylate and carbomer on the label.
 
Chemical Sunscreens These include oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate, and have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity.

How to avoid them: Choose a sunscreen or product with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide instead.
 
The good
Worried that you’ll have no products to choose from while avoiding this long list of ingredients? Don’t fret. There are oodles of safe and natural ingredients to look for.
 
Nut and vegetable oils Oils derived from nuts, seeds and vegetables are excellent for the skin. Examples include almond oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, hempseed oil, rosehip oil, borage seed oil, coconut oil, olive oil, apricot oil, and borage oil. Vegetable oils are also safe, as are soaps (such as castile soap) with a vegetable oil or coconut base.
 
Essential oils Essential oils are a great way to scent a product without using synthetic fragrances or other chemicals. It’s important to select products with organic essential oilssince they are highly concentrated and made without pesticides. Essential oils commonly used in personal care items include lavender, eucalyptus, cedar, mint, rosemary, sandalwood, tea tree, and ylang ylang.
 
Organic butters Organic butters are fats extracted from seeds, beans, and kernels. They are incredibly moisturizing and nourishing for the skin. Some popular organic butters are shea butter (extracted from the seed of the shea tree, which grows in Africa), mango butter (extracted from the mango kernel), and cocoa butter (vegetable fat extracted from the cocoa bean).
 
Flowers and herbs Ingredients derived from plants, flowers, or herbs are often beneficial to the skin. Aloe vera is a soothing gel derived from the leaves of the aloe plant. Witch hazel is an astringent substance extracted from the bark of a tree. It is a natural alternative to alcohol. Horsetail is often added to skin care products because it is high in silica. Lavender, calendula, comfrey, rosemary, and mint are other excellent choices.
 
Antioxidants Antioxidants fight free radicals in the skin just like they do inside our bodies. Ingredients such as alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, and green tea are beneficial for this reason.
 
Edible exfoliants Oatmeal, sea salt, sugar, and ground almonds are safe and natural alternatives to harsh, synthetic chemicals. They are often used as exfoliants, providing gentle roughage to leave your skin feeling smooth.
 
Milk and honey Dairy products such as milk, goat milk, and yogurt are great for the skin. Honey is often used in skin-care and hair-care products as a moisturizer, and beeswax serves the dual purpose of both thickening a product and helping protect you from the elements.
 
Vitamin E oil Vitamin E is incredibly versatile, acting as both a preservative and an anti-oxidant. It is often added to cleansers and moisturizers.
 
Seaweed Seaweed is included in skin care products because it helps tone and firm the skin by stimulating the production of collagen.
 
Clay White kaolin clay is often used in skin care products, and the mineral-rich Rhassoul clay is found in spas and is invigorating for the skin. Bentonite clay is often used in skin masks, and French green clay works well for problem skin.