Over the last ten years, the demand for organic, natural, and non-toxic products has risen exponentially. The biggest consumer demand is in the food sector, with stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s leading the way toward more wholesomely farmed and gathered food. However, the demand for products untainted with synthetic chemicals and compounds is bleeding out into the world at large as well.
In the cosmetic industry, consumers want more natural health and beauty products, and they have every right to demand them; the beauty industry is rife with synthetic chemicals, many of which are also used in industrial manufacturing to make pesticides more stable, and degrease
warehouse and factory floors. Obviously, a compound that is used to clean the caked grease on production lines probably shouldn’t be used on your face.
The problem is compounded because cosmetic products are used so frequently. Day in and day out, people apply these beauty products onto their skin, often around already sensitive areas like eyes. Over time, the hazardous chemicals will leak into and build up in your bloodstream, leading to a myriad of negative health effects.
Part of the problem with having so many chemicals in the products is researchers aren’t really sure of their effects. In the United States, over 80,000 chemicals are approved for commercial use, but the EPA has only analyzed the health risks of 570 over the last 30 years. Loopholes in federal law give the personal care industry the bility to inject thousands of chemicals and damaging compounds into health and beauty care products.
To avoid the damaging effects of these chemicals, it’s a good idea to start making the switch to more wholesome beauty products. Before you do, however, you have to educate yourself on the natural, organic, and non-toxic beauty industry. In this post, we’re going to give you an in-depth look at alternative skin care products, as well as go over some key terminology you’ll have to know before you make the jump.
What Does “Natural” Mean?
The short answer? Not much. Legally, the term means nothing and doesn’t imply a higher degree of regulation. All manufacturers have to do is include a few—like a very few—natural ingredients, and they can slap the label on their products. “Natural” products can contain up to 30 percent synthetic compounds, so you’re still getting potentially hazardous chemicals on your skin. If you look at the product’s label, and it’s full of ingredients like red #11, ethyl acetate, or nitrocellulose, and the only ingredient you can pronounce is way down at the bottom of the list,
then the product really can’t be deemed natural in any way.
However, you do need to be aware of the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients’ (INCI) Latin names or various products. The names—like sodium cocoate for coconut oil—may look like they are synthetic ingredients, but, in reality, they are all-natural and should be much safer to use on your skin.
You also need to be aware that many “synthetic” ingredients can be derived from natural compounds, but, because they go through so much processing, these end up being much more toxic than the initial ingredient. For example, the Environmental Working Groups Skin Deep Cosmetics Database classifies sodium laureth sulfate as a skin irritant which has also been linked to organ toxicity. As a consumer, you should definitely avoid this product, but it is processed from coconut oil, which means companies can label any product with sodium laureth sulfate as atural.”
In short, think deeper than the marketing ploy of “All-Natural,” and analyze every ingredient before you buy.
What Does Organic Mean?
As opposed to “All-Natural” or “Natural,” labeling a product as organic means there are strict regulatory guidelines that are enforceable in court. Every “Organic” product will have an accompanying label printed on the packaging. In most cases, the label will be a circular logo that says “USDA Organic.” If it doesn’t, and the company is still calling their product organic, then they will most likely be in serious trouble pretty soon.
If the logo is there, it means that a percentage of the ingredients are organic. What does organic mean? It means that each ingredient was grown, harvested, and processed according to a strict cleanliness code that forbids the use of pesticides or fertilizers, as well as the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
There are three levels of organic certification: if a product claims it is “100 percent organic,” then that means every single ingredient was produced according to good organic manufacturing standards. A product can also be labeled “organic,” which means that at least 95 percent of all the ingredients are organic. Or, a product could be labeled “made with organic ingredients,”
which means that at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic.
Besides the USDA organic certification, there are four other programs that claim to measure the “naturalness” of personal care products in the United States. All four are in use today: one is the Natural Products Association qualification, which puts a logo of a green leaf on all the products it deems to be organic. Another certification is Whole Foods’ Premium Body Care Label, which is a green-and-blue sprout sticker.
The NSF 305 logo is another certification label, which came into use after the two above. It’s logo is a circle and a leaf, with the acronym NSF in the center. When the organization started in 1994, it stood for the National Sanitation Foundation, but, because their mission expanded to include responsibilities beyond sanitation, the acronym doesn’t stand for anything anymore. The Oasis Seal is the final organic certification logo, and it features a stylized circle with the acronym OASIS printed in the middle. OASIS stands for “Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards.”
It’s important to understand that the organic standards between each label are not always the same. What is considered organic under OASIS labeling may not be the same under the USDA’s. So, always check that each product is organic enough for you. Of course, just because a product isn’t labeled organic doesn’t mean it isn’t; the certification programs are very new, and the standards can still be somewhat confusing, so many companies just haven’t decided how (or through what certification program) to get certified.
But don’t get discouraged. Every one of the above labels at least makes gestures toward good sustainability practices. All of the certifications promote organic agriculture, which, for the most part, is much more sustainable than conventional farming. So, by choosing to go organic, you’re probably reducing your environmental footprint.
What Does Non-Toxic Mean?
The term “non-toxic” is a relatively new term, and, just like its cousins “Natural” and “All-Natural,” it is just a marketing ploy. By putting the “non-toxic” label on products, companies are saying that they have left out ingredients and compounds that have been proven to have toxic effects in humans, like cancer, neuro-disruption, hormone disruption, or death. So, the bar is set pretty low; as long as an ingredient won’t kill you or lead to a horribly destructive adrenal disease, then “non-toxic” is perfectly okay to put on the label.
The Federal Hazardous Substances Act defines toxic products as ones which can cause illness and/or personal injury to humans when they are swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Additionally, a product is considered toxic if it produces long-term effects, like birth defects, cancer, or neurotoxicity. The Federal Hazardous Substances Act and the agency responsible for enforcing the act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, don’t define the term “non-toxic.” Therefore, some companies might assume that an ingredient is non-toxic if it
doesn’t fall under the definition of toxic as described by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
But, a chemical cannot meet the definition of “toxic,” as laid out by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and still be harmful. Toxicologists classify the acute toxicity of chemicals along a spectrum, rather than rating them as toxic or non-toxic. A commonly used scale rates substances on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being super-toxic and 1 being non-toxic. Substances that are considered toxic by the Consumer Product Safety Commission generally fall in the 3, 4, or higher range. So, if the substances in a product fall below this threshold, they could be labeled as non-toxic, even though they are still toxic to some extent.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission also classifies a substance as chronically toxic if it contains a probable or known human neurotoxin, carcinogen, or developmental toxicant. However, as we mentioned above, of the 80,000 chemicals allowed in consumer products, only
570 have been analyzed for their health effects over the last thirty years. That means that the majority of substances haven’t been tested, and we don’t know what their health effects are.
To sum it up, the label “non-toxic” is pretty meaningless. It doesn’t mean the product is necessarily healthy or good for you, or not damaging. In fact, because we don’t know what the effects are of the majority of the chemicals, “non-toxic” products could potentially be more dangerous. If you can, it’s best to avoid “non-toxic” beauty products.
If you’ve ever used an antibacterial soap, then you’ve run into triclosan, though it’s also used in toothpastes and deodorants to stop bacteria and mold growth. Technically, triclosan is a pesticide, and can have deleterious effects on your body’s hormone system. It also may limit breast growth and development, as well as contribute to the increasingly dangerous resistance of bacteria to antimicrobial agents.
Phthalates are nasty little chemicals that disrupt your endocrine system. They can be found in nail polish and synthetic fragrances, whether that is in perfumes, or in fragrance ingredients in other products. Phthalates have been shown to initiate early puberty for women, which puts them at a greater risk for breast cancer later on. Phthalates can also behave like estrogen in certain situations, which can throw off humans’ natural hormone balance.
Parabens are compounds that are typically used as antifungal agents, and antimicrobial and preservatives in ointments, creams, lotions, underarm deodorants, and many other types of cosmetic products. They are directly absorbed through the skin and have been linked to breast tumors.
You won’t ever find 1,4-dioxane on a product’s ingredient label. It’s still there, though, and is produced during the manufacturing process of children’s bath products, body wash, shampoos, and many other products used to create suds. The National Toxicology Program has classified it as a reasonably anticipated carcinogen, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled it a possible carcinogen.
Any product, like spray sunscreens, foundations, anti-fungal medication, or shaving creams, that uses isobutene as a propellant may be contaminated with 1,3-butadiene. Exposure to the contaminant usually occurs through inhalation, and it has been linked to mammary tumors.
Ethylene oxide is usually used to sterilize surgical instruments. However, it is also used in the production of shampoos and body washes as a buffering agent against other harsher chemicals. Unfortunately, some of it often gets left behind in the product. Ethylene oxide is labeled a known human carcinogen and is among the 51 chemicals that the National Toxicology Program classifies as mammary carcinogens in mammals.
Yes, we’re talking about placentas. Placental extract is taken from animal or human placentas and added to shampoos and conditioners, especially products geared toward women of color. Progesterone, which is the major compound found in placental extract, has been classified by the National Toxicology Program as a reasonably anticipated carcinogen.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
You can find polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons naturally in crude oil, coal, and gasoline. Coal tar is used in the production of some shampoos and cosmetics, and so they may contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have been demonstrated to cause an increased risk for breast cancer.
You might want to stop and think before you put on that non-organic sunscreen. Sunscreens often contain estrogenic chemicals that can interfere with your body’s natural hormonal processes, as well as increase the risk for breast cancer and other disorders.
Lead is one of the most ubiquitous substances in beauty products. There are estimates that lead may contaminate over 650 different types cosmetic products, like sunscreen, nail colors, foundation, whitening toothpaste, and lipsticks. Almost everyone knows that lead is extremely unhealthy for you; it’s a guaranteed neurotoxin, and it has been linked to behavioral, language, and learning problems. It’s also been shown to lead to miscarriages, reduced fertility in both men and women, and puberty delays in girls.