When people hear "organic" or "natural" before "makeup" they often start seeing dollar signs--and lots of them. Fortunately, the demand for healthier cosmetics has led to new product introductions in a variety of price ranges. Click on any of the categories below to find cosmetics that will make you feel truly glamorous without putting a dent in your wallet or your health at risk, or read more about why you should purge your cabinet of those petrochemical-laden products.
Why You Should Look for Healthier Cosmetics
Cosmetics are intended to beautify, and thinking that your favorite lipstick is full of lead or that your face powder could cause brain damage may not make you feel as beautiful as you’d like.
An Unregulated Market
The cosmetics industry is perhaps one of the most unregulated industries that currently exists. Apart from color additives, cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA approval before they hit store shelves, and the burden is placed on companies to validate the safety of their products. Sadly, this isn’t always done. A recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental watchdog agency, revealed that 364 products contained ingredients being used in applications that the industry’s own Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) had warned against. For instance, moisturizers and sunscreens contained ingredients that CIR advised against using in products intended for skin contact, and aerosol hairsprays and mousses contained ingredients that shouldn’t have been used in aerosolized form.
According to the government agency that regulates cosmetics, the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, “a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from the FDA.” And for those who are unable to ensure the safety of their product, they can still legally sell it, as long as it comes labeled with the caveat “Warning: The safety of this product has not been determined.” However, few products bear that warning. Furthermore, the FDA does not enforce recalls of products found to be hazardous or defective, leaving it up to the manufacturer to decide if it will take its dangerous product off the market.
Testing of product ingredients is not only controlled by the manufacturers but is also voluntary. Not surprisingly then, many ingredients in cosmetic products are not tested for safety at all. In fact, EWG revealed in 2004 that 89 percent of 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products had not been evaluated for safety by the FDA. This means that companies can market ingredients that are known to pose potentially serious health risks.
Lacking federal standards, the state of California recently decided to enforce regulation on its own with the California Safe Cosmetic Act of 2005 that went into effect January 1, 2007. The law requires companies to report the use of compounds that appear on the state's Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Consumer advocates hope the law has a "knock on" effect for shoppers nationwide, given that few companies will want to create separate product formulations for California and the rest of the U.S.
Health risks posed by cosmetics can include anything from allergic reactions to cancer, and the lack of safety standards allows manufacturers to use some very harmful ingredients, such as Thimerosal, a preservative that contains neurotoxic mercury, and paraben preservatives, which have been found in breast tumor samples. For more info on the worst offenders, see "The Dirty Dozen Chemicals in Cosmetics."
Cosmetics with sunscreen protection come with their own worries. Benzophenone (benzophenone-3), homosalate and octyl-methoxycinnamate (octinoxate) have shown estrogenic activity in lab tests. Padimate-O and Parsol 1789 are chemicals that have the potential to damage DNA when illuminated with sunlight. On the skin's surface, the chemicals do protect from UV damage, but once absorbed, these same chemicals can inflict DNA damage which is less likely to repair through naturally occurring repair mechanisms than damage from UV alone. Finally, tiny, microscopic nanoparticles of the sunscreens titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may enter the body through cuts and abrasions, working their way into the brain where they may cause cell damage.
Recently, a study by the advocacy group The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics revealed that randomly selected, store-bought lipsticks contained lead at levels that exceed the FDA's regulations for lead in food. The lead was a suspected byproduct of FD&C dyes and of the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. While the average daily exposure to the lead in these products was quite small, they do pose a danger to children who might eat tubes of lipstick all at once. Unfortunately, companies don't test for lead in lipsticks on a regular basis, so consumers often have no way of knowing when a product is contaminated.
Other harmful ingredients found in moisturizers include carcinogenic coal tar, used in artificial dyes such as FD&C Blue 1 and FD&C Green 3, and fragrance, which is usually a conglomeration of chemicals. Because they're protected as "trade secrets," companies aren't required to disclose every chemical used in fragrances, but those employed often include hormone-disrupting phthalates; the neurotoxin toluene; volatile organic compounds methyl ethyl ketone and methyl isobutyl ketone; the probable carcinogens benzyl chloride and methylene chloride; and other allergenic petrochemicals. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, fragrance is the number one cause of allergic reactions in cosmetics
It's not uncommon to find any of the labels below attached to your favorite cosmetics. The labels sound reassuring, but consumers be warned: too often these labels have little, if any, meaning.
Fragrance-Free (also "unscented"): Although this term implies that a product contains no fragrance, companies often add masking fragrances to cover up a chemical smell. Masking fragrances are sometimes listed as "fragrance" on ingredient listings.
Hypoallergenic (also "dermatologist tested," "allergy tested," "sensitivity tested" or "non-irritating"): For consumers with sensitive skin, cosmetics with any of these labels may seem like a reassuring option, but claims that these products produce fewer allergic reactions are unfounded. The FDA states, "There are no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term 'hypoallergenic.' The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean." There are no organizations behind these claims, and manufacturers are not required to provide evidence that these products do, in fact, produce fewer allergic reactions. The FDA also cautions that nearly all cosmetic products can cause an allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals.
Non-Comedogenic: Although there is no official government definition of this term, the FDA says that it should mean that the product does not contain pore-clogging ingredients that could lead to acne. However, the FDA does not provide a list of ingredients considered non-comedogenic, and no organization verifies manufacturers' claims. Furthermore, the reliability of the most common test performed by cosmetic companies to determine comedogenicity, applying the product to the ears of rabbits, is heavily disputed because there's no consensus that the results correlate to experiences in people. The National Institutes of Health recommends that individuals with acne look for oil-free products.
Cruelty-free (also "no animal testing"): "Cruelty-free" and "no animal testing" labels suggest that no animal testing was done on the product or its ingredients, but consumers may be surprised to learn that neither label guarantees this. No legal definitions of these claims exist and no independent organization verifies them. In fact, it is not uncommon for manufactures whose products bear these labels to commission laboratories to conduct tests on animals and then use the cruelty-free label on the basis that they themselves do not conduct the testing.
Organic: While the USDA has now set standards allowing personal care products to be certified organic, they have not set any regulations against the use of the word "organic" on product labels. As a result, many manufacturers still use the term as part of a product's name or its labeling. Products with at least one organic ingredient can be labeled "organic," regardless of the other ingredients used. Also, while this isn't legal, some non-certified manufacturers label products "100% certified organic ingredients" when only one ingredient is certified organic and the rest are synthetic, while others have created an official-looking but meaningless label reading "Made With Certified Organic Ingredients."
Animal testing is not required by the FDA or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine the safety of cosmetic products, yet animals are commonly used to determine levels of skin irritancy, eye tissue damage and toxicity caused by ingredients used in personal care products. The Draize test, for example, measures damage to eye tissue when potentially caustic substances are dropped in the eyes of conscious rabbits. Lethal Dosage (LD) tests determine the amount of a substance a subject can survive ingesting.
Animal testing processes are often painful and cause a multitude of side effects, but they have not been formally validated for dependability, and they are widely criticized for being inaccurate predictors of human hazard. Viable alternatives, such as in vitro tests using human cells and computer modeling, combined with a wealth of existing safety data render animal testing unnecessary.
Most cosmetics are sold in plastic containers, a product made from nonrenewable fossil fuels. Too often, these containers aren't recycled and go straight to landfills. Often, molded plastic containers, such as in compacts or plastic jars, aren't accepted in municipal recycling bins. Even when manufacturers claim that packaging is recyclable because it's made from a recyclable plastic resin, such as #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET), recycling programs won't accept the containers due to their shape or the fact that the type of plastic resin isn't indicated anywhere on the packaging.
"The Dirty Dozen Chemicals in Cosmetics," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/122/dirtydozen
"Personal Care: Natural Instincts," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/118/instincts
"Preserving Your Health," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/116/preserving
"Allergens in Fragrance," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/94/allergens
"The Good, The Bad & The Ugly," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/94/goodbadugly
American Academy of Dermatology. "Beauty Flash: The Top 10 Cosmetic Do's & Don'ts for Women With Sensitive Skin," March 2003. www.aad.org.
American Academy of Dermatology. "Cosmeceutical Facts & Your Skin." www.aad.org/public/Publications/pamphlets/Cosmetics.htm.
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "A Poison Kiss: The Problem of Lead in Lipstick," October 2007. www.safecosmetics.org/your_health/poisonkiss.cfm.
Erickson, Kim. Drop-Dead Gorgeous. New York: Contemporary Books, 2002.
Environmental Working Group. "Cosmetics with Banned and Unsafe Ingredients," September 2007. www.ewg.org/node/22610.
Malkan, Stacy. Not Just a Pretty Face. British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2007.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Caring Consumer: A Guide to Kind Living," www.caringconsumer.org.
Singer, Natasha. "Skin Deep: Should You Trust Your Makeup?" The New York Times, February 15, 2007. www.nytimes.com.
Steinman, David. Safe Trip to Eden. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007
Steinman, David and Epstein, Samuel, M.D. The Safe Shopper's Bible. New York: Macmillan Press, 1995.
Winter, Ruth. A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.