How Do We Know if Our Beauty Products are Safe?

We’ve been having a lot of heated discussions here at Fashionista lately about beauty products. The question that keeps coming up is this: Do most women care whether or not the products they use are environmentally friendly/organic/natural? Allow me to be devil’s advocate for a moment. There’s been a lot written about what exactly “organic” and “natural” mean. There are different organic standards in the US and Europe, which directly affects beauty consumers. So many great products come from abroad, but it’s often difficult to figure out where the ingredients are sourced.
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We’ve been having a lot of heated discussions here at Fashionista lately about beauty products. The question that keeps coming up is this: Do most women care whether or not the products they use are environmentally friendly/organic/natural? Allow me to be devil’s advocate for a moment. There’s been a lot written about what exactly “organic” and “natural” mean. There are different organic standards in the US and Europe, which directly affects beauty consumers. So many great products come from abroad, but it’s often difficult to figure out where the ingredients are sourced.
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We’ve been having a lot of heated discussions here at Fashionista lately about beauty products. The question that keeps coming up is this: Do most women care whether or not the products they use are environmentally friendly/organic/natural?

Allow me to be devil’s advocate for a moment. There’s been a lot written about what exactly “organic” and “natural” mean. There are different organic standards in the US and Europe, which directly affects beauty consumers. So many great products come from abroad, but it’s often difficult to figure out where the ingredients are sourced. Then you have the loaded word “natural.” If you take a glance into the history of beauty, women have used lead, arsenic, mercury, and belladonna as beauty enhancers. All are potentially deadly and all are natural products. On the flip side, chemotherapies are toxic chemicals that cure cancer and allow patients to live full lives, sometimes without any long-term side effects at all (and some are actually derived from plant products–go figure).

So how does one buy a beauty serum when confronted with a multitude of options, and confusing packaging and labeling? I suspect most women want products that work and are a good value. If they happen to be green, too, then that’s a bonus, but I’m not sure that it’s a driving force for most consumers. A beauty PR rep said as much to Lauren the other day.

To get some educated answers I picked the brain of Virginia Sole-Smith, who has been writing about natural and organic products for six years and is currently a blogger at Planet Green. Her commitment to exposing the truth and her knowledge about these issues is impressive. She made some points that were actually shocking to learn:

  • There are absolutely no government mandated standards for labeling a product “natural.” The FDA says: "It is illegal to introduce a misbranded product to interstate commerce.” Virginia made the point that a product can be 99.9% synthetic, but if it contains a tiny bit of something natural, like water (!!) the company can advertise it as natural.
  • In general, Europe has more stringent standards than the US for regulating and labeling organic products.
  • I wondered about organic labeling for food vs. beauty products. It turns out that the FDA is in charge of regulating cosmetics, and the USDA regulates the term “organic.” So both organizations provide oversight of organic beauty products. One would assume that these products are purer because of the dual oversight, but in reality there are just more loopholes. The scariest? A product can be labeled 95% organic but there are no rules about what the last 5% has to be. It could be a carcinogen like formaldehyde and still qualify for an organic seal.
  • The FDA doesn’t require companies to do pre-market safety testing so there are some 70,000+ products out there that have never been tested. Products can contain chemicals that companies aren’t required to reveal. For example, “fragrance” is proprietary. That lavender scent may contain something having nothing whatsoever to do with an actual lavender plant--but you’ll never know.

I’m completely schizophrenic when it comes to my shopping convictions. I buy organic dairy and produce, but don’t freak out if I can’t get it. I love clothes and jewelry that have been re-purposed, but I’m also a consumer of H&M-type fast fashion. I recycle whenever possible. But I use chemical sunscreen. I use skincare products whose ingredient labels read like something out of a chemistry textbook. I occasionally make spontaneous gut purchases based on a great scent or presentation without regard to efficacy.

So are traditional drugstore products going to kill me? Should I make my own soap in my bathtub just to be on the safe side? Virginia provided some guidelines.

1) Check out the safety rating at the Skin Deep Database. 2) Organic doesn’t always mean 100% safe and traditional products are not always unsafe. 3) Look beyond packaging and magazine ads. Read mission statements. Check the bottle to see if they advertise what you’re NOT getting (formaldehyde, phthalates, etc). 4) Choose small indie brands who batch by hand.

We are planning to do a lot more beauty features, and I’m looking forward to delving deeper into these products and companies. It’s confusing out there in the cosmetics aisle.