It long has been said that beauty is skin deep. But a different kind of meaning lies behind that favorite old adage; it’s one that sinks into every pore of our being with the realization that we apply an average of 126 unique ingredients to our skin daily through our cosmetics and personal care products, according to the Environmental Working Group. It begs the question: Are our beauty products really helping or harming us?
That question becomes even more prevalent when realizing, along with the number of unique ingredients in our beauty products, an even deeper underlying secret exists. Of the more than 10,000 ingredients the Food and Drug Administration tallies in such products sold in the U.S., nearly 90 percent have not been evaluated for safety.
On every store counter and shelf, or in every online store, beauty products being touted as natural, organic and green greet consumers at every turn. But what do these classifications really mean? And what are the differences between them?
The short answer is, in an effectively unregulated industry such as the personal care industry, it is left up to the various cosmetic companies to honestly define and market their beauty products.
With few exceptions, no legal or enforceable definitions for these classifications have been set. Because companies can market their products any way they choose, often “greenwashing” them by using words like “natural” and “eco” to describe their offerings, consumers are being led into believing the hype presented to them. They often are unaware of the health risks they are enduring because of chemicals and known toxins in the products.
Ah, there’s the rub — or the scrub, as the case may be. The Food & Drug Administration, which plays a role in approvals for prescription drugs, doesn’t have the legal authority to approve cosmetic products and ingredients before they go on the market.
And, since the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that required companies to deem their product as safe before it was sold to consumers, no major law has been passed to regulate the hundreds of thousands of products that we use daily. To the point, there is no government oversight at all.
But now here’s the good news. Fed-up folks — from bloggers to brands, retailers to manufacturers, and members of Congress who want to answer the public’s cry for looking as good as we can while sustaining the planet, and preserving our health and safety — are creating a new beauty trend.
The clean beauty movement, which has the goal of keeping consumers safe from harmful chemicals in the products they reach for every day, are already in the works, including the Personal Care Products Safety Act.
To gain a true understanding of the issue, one needs to grasp the extent of the problem. For example, even though 54 percent of women claim that it’s important to them that their beauty products be “all-natural,” in reality, the term “natural” is one of those completely unregulated terms.
According to renowned New York makeup artist Adina Grigore, it means that some botanicals may be in a product, yet it can be labelled as natural and still contain up to 30 percent synthetic ingredients. And, in “The Story of Cosmetics,” Annie Leonard also acknowledges that anybody can put anything in a bottle and call it natural — and they do.
Natural Products Association is a professional organization that offers NPA Natural Seal certification on nearly 800 products in the U.S. To earn the NPA Natural Seal, products must be composed of at least 95 percent ingredients — not including water — that are made from petroleum-free, renewable flora, fauna and mineral resources.
When used, approved synthetic ingredients must be considered people-safe and earth-friendly. Products must have environmentally conscious packaging and never be tested on animals.
While “green” and “eco-friendly” also have no enforceable definitions, organic is the only category that is highly regulated. The United States Department of Agriculture has four levels of certification under its organic labeling standards, including “100 percent organic,” “Organic,” “Made with Organic Ingredients” and “Specific Ingredient Listings,” which pertains to products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients.
The USDA’s National Organic Program regulates organic ingredients used for personal care products. A cosmetic or skin care product can be certified organic by the USDA if the applicable ingredients — honey, berries and other foods — are free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other nonorganic substances.
According to Grigore, a newer designation has been created: nontoxic, which she says is mostly for marketing. She cites that, when companies claim to be nontoxic, they are specifically referring to leaving out ingredients that have been linked to toxic responses in humans, such as neurodisruption, hormone disruption, cancer or even death.
She also claims that the label “hypoallergenic” holds no meaning whatsoever, either, because any product can be marked with the claim that it causes fewer adverse reactions than its competitors.
The main toxins commonly used in cosmetics and skin care products that can cause sensitivities or health risks include parabens, synthetic colors, fragrance, phthalates, triclosan, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), formaldehyde, toluene, propylene glycol, benzophenone, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), avobenzone, homosalate and ethoxycinnmate.
Many controversial ingredients, such as parabens, phthalates, different preservatives, dyes and synthetic fragrances, have either been shown to be harmful to humans or the verdict is still out on whether or not they are, but they are used in abundance in conventional skin care, fragrance and hair products. That is what the clean beauty movement is seeking to remedy.
Perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow said it best on her goop website, explaining that the clean movement has come into existence because, in the current state of free-for-all in the beauty industry, what’s touted on the front in no way needs to match what lives on the ingredient label on the back:
“Clean, for us, is quite intense: It means a nontoxic product that is made without a long, ever-evolving list of ingredients linked to harmful health effects from hormone disruption, to cancer, to plain-old skin irritation.
… “We look at studies and decide what ingredients we can live with, and those we can’t. It can be a murky science, but we go with the clear offenders: Do you want antifreeze (propylene glycol) in your moisturizer? We’re going to guess no.
… “The real goal? That more people vote with their dollars so that someday, we won’t have to wonder what’s in this perfume or that face cream, because all of it will be clean and safe …”
Experts agree that consumer awareness is a major part of making this new movement take hold. People need to become educated, read labels, ask questions and seek product truth.
On the other side, it means more transparency from the cosmetic companies in terms of defending their ingredients and processes. It also means keeping the momentum and conversation going on social media and other platforms.
In the meantime, to navigate and investigate the endless spiral of nomenclature and ingredients present in your beauty products, check out the experts-recommended website, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.
It’s about saving face — for real.