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What You Need to Know About Safe Cosmetics

We go wading through the murky waters of beauty product safety with a cosmetic formulator, a safe product entrepreneur and the editor of a consumer watchdog publication.

During the beauty panel at our Fashionista “How I’m Making It” conference in June, the issue of safe cosmetics emerged as the hot topic of the day. You can’t walk down a drugstore aisle without seeing words like “natural” and “botanical” plastered all over beauty product labels, not to mention the many -- often sensationalistic -- stories all over the web questioning ingredient safety. It’s enough to make you want to throw out all your potions and use nothing but coconut oil. As someone who tries a lot of different products for my job, I wanted to try to make sense of it all. The most important question I had, obviously: Is my 12-step face care regimen eventually going to kill me?

Much has been made of the fact that the EU has banned about 1,400 different chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products, while the U.S. has banned a paltry 11. That’s because, thanks to an archaic law that hasn’t been updated since 1938, called the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, this country has basically no regulatory oversight of cosmetic products the way we do for food and drugs. The industry self-regulates and tests ingredients via the Cosmetics Industry Review (CIR), which is run by the Personal Care Products Council, an industry trade group. In the EU, there’s a body of scientists independent of the industry that makes decisions, called the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). The FDA will weigh in on ingredients and make recommendations to industry when there is a lot of consumer concern, but otherwise it’s pretty hands-off. Which seems fairly effed up to me. Attempts to pass legislation for more oversight have failed in recent years, partially because of intensive lobbying against it by the cosmetics industry.

Gregg Renfrew, the founder of safe cosmetics brand Beautycounter (the company has banned 1,500 ingredients voluntarily) and the speaker at our conference who really got the safety conversation rolling there, is not optimistic that this will change soon. “I can tell you that within the environmental health community, they’re very discouraged about the progress,” she says. “One of the reasons we started Beautycounter is that we think it’s going to take a real movement from consumers to actually move a market. Until we move the market, nothing’s going to happen in Washington.” So, as consumers, it’s up to us to wade through the murky, paraben-infused waters to figure it out.

Speaking of parabens, the debate about them is a perfect example of how hard it is to try to figure out what’s safe and what isn’t. Parabens are a group of substances used as preservatives in cosmetics, which means they keep microbes from growing in your body lotion. (You can read more about parabens here.) The EU banned five different parabens, because there is some evidence that they are endocrine disrupters, but several of the most commonly used parabens are still allowed and have been deemed safe.  The FDA weighed in recently and declared them safe for use here as well. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a not-for-profit watchdog group, has given them all varying degrees of shitty safety ratings, and many companies have pulled them out of their products for PR reasons. This concerns Perry Romanowski, a former cosmetic formulator who currently teaches and blogs about cosmetic chemistry.

“The cosmetics industry is switching things out quickly, even when the science doesn’t say there’s any reason to. They react to the public,” Romanowski, who accuses the EWG of “scare-mongering,” says. “It’s going to be a real problem with preservatives. We’re already seeing increases in microbial contamination in products.” He points to the 2013 Badger (a natural brand) sunscreen recall for microbial contamination. “So you could be making a product less safe,” he says.

Digging through all the information on parabens alone took me several hours, and by the end I wanted to bang my head against the wall – and there’s similar grey area for many of the hundreds of other chemicals in question, too. This kind of confusion, and subsequent consumer worry, has changed the cosmetics market, with surely more changes to come, despite the lack of governmental agency involvement. As our own Lauren Sherman pointed out recently in an article on Business of Fashion, the safe cosmetics sector is emerging as a big business opportunity, and companies know it. In recent years, so-called “natural” brands have been snapped up by mainstream companies: Clorox owns Burt’s Bees, Colgate-Palmolive owns Tom’s of Maine and L’Oreal owns The Body Shop. According to a recent article in ShopSmart, a supplement of Consumer Reports, sales of natural products increased almost 78 percent from 2005 to 2011.

Shady marketing is unfortunately a side effect of consumer ingredient fear. ShopSmart recently published an investigative story detailing the ways in which companies try to prey on your worries. “I think labels are very misleading,” Lisa Lee Freeman, ShopSmart’s editor in chief, says. “Everybody wants to make it look like their products are good for you and healthy and natural. All the mainstream brands are doing this.” Romanowski recounts a story of some classic “greenwashing.” “It’s done all the time,” he says. “We launched a line called V05 Naturals. We just took our regular formula and squirted in some different extracts, changed the color and fragrance and called it ‘natural.’”

Which brings me to one of my biggest pet peeves in all of this: The word “natural” is meaningless. There’s no regulation of that word, unlike the designation “organic” for food products. Any cosmetics company can use it at any time in any context – they can throw some aloe into something that has three different parabens and formaldehyde in it and call it “natural." But at the same time, we need to remember that natural doesn’t always mean safe. The impending EU perfume ingredient ban, which has the fragrance industry in a tizzy, includes several natural ingredients, because they have a high potential for causing serious allergic reactions.

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But “Natural and paraben-free!” slapped on a label obviously sounds a lot healthier than “High in petrolatum, the best moisturizer there is!”  “A lot of business in cosmetics is the story -- the better story wins,” Romanowski says. While he’s willing to be frank about the cosmetic industry he comes from, he isn’t letting entrepreneurs launching natural lines off the hook either. “The people who are selling natural products, the thing about them is they don’t have any point of market differentiation except saying that their competitor products are hurting you,” he says. While perhaps a bit harsh (Romanowski is pretty passionate), those brands do indeed exist to make a profit.

However, I respect companies like Beautycounter, whose policy is black and white, unlike the grey that permeates the industry. Renfrew says ingredients are “guilty until proven innocent” at Beautycounter and she and her team are committed to keeping them out.  The founders of some other natural brands, like Indie Lee and Tata Harper, also seem genuine in their desire to provide “safe” (by whatever their interpretation of that is) product. What pisses me off is when I get a product that’s emblazoned with pictures of leaves and flowers, but is mostly just smoke and mirrors meant to make me feel good about buying their product. Give consumers some more credit.

Some final thoughts:

• Legislators need to stop spending so much time and energy banning gay marriage and limiting birth control access, and instead start paying attention to things that can potentially be dangerous to their constituencies. The most important thing I learned when I started deep diving into all this controversy is that the majority of these chemicals are understudied. Let’s throw some money at that instead. I still have no clear idea what can really harm me, and neither do scientists. And then let's do something to hold companies responsible for what they're selling consumers.

• Educate yourself about chemicals in cosmetics, but don’t just read one side of the story. I respect scientists, but I know that studies and data can and have been interpreted differently by opposing factions to support their claims.  I do think there's reason to be concerned about all the chemicals we're exposed to daily, and not only just in cosmetics, but I'm not ready to commit to all coconut oil just yet. (I really wish superstar science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson would weigh in on all this, the way he did with GMO food recently.)

ShopSmart’s Lee recommends picking and choosing your poison if you're concerned, rather than being paralyzed with fear. If these chemicals are going to harm you, it's likely that it will be over time with repeated use and because chemicals build up.  Make small changes in your regimen, particularly in products that sit on your skin, like lotion, rather than those that you wash out right away.

Now take a deep breath. 

Homepage photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images