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Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Natural Cosmetics

Makeup has been around virtually as long as civilization—ancient Egyptian women and men wore cosmetics in their daily lives; red henna on their fingernails, green eyeshadow, and brows and lashes blackened by coal or metallic oxides.  Throughout history, beauty and makeup trends have come and gone. 

From the middle ages until the 20th century, a pale, translucent appearance was considered the ideal and to achieve the look, women applied white-lead paint to their faces, consumed small amounts of arsenic or iodine, or visited specialists who would "bleed" them.  One would think that such dangerous practices have long since been abolished.  After all, they didn’t realize what they were putting on their faces, right?  And surely today’s government agencies control the ingredients that are currently being used in our modern-day, safe society . . .

Organic Lipstick

EWG Tests 10,000 Products for Safety

. . . Think again.  The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental research organization, recently completed a study in which 10,000 personal care products including 10,500 different ingredients were tested for safety.  The results were shocking—approximately 89% of the products had never been tested for safety by the FDA or any other organization!  And virtually all of the products contained at least some ingredients that had never been tested.  In addition, the EWG found that one-third of the products contained ingredients that are classified as possible carcinogens.

Fortunately, there’s good news in store for those who don’t wish to avoid cosmetics entirely.  There are many makeup options that don’t require a degree in chemistry, and many responsible cosmetics companies that are genuinely concerned with their products’ impact on consumers and the environment.

Most consumers assume that the products they are using daily on their bodies, rubbing into their skin, and using on their children have been tested for their safety.  Sadly, they are not.  While European countries have tested and banned over 400 ingredients found to be "harmful," the FDA has only ruled out nine.  In addition, the processing and disposal of the thousands of tons of toxic, carcinogenic compounds, plastics, etc., from the manufacturing of cosmetics is not doing the environment any favors.

But I Only Use Products Labeled "Natural" and "Organic" . . .

Many people are aware that there are at least some potentially toxic ingredients in their cosmetics and are altering their shopping habits as a result.  But buying something that carries the label "natural" may not guarantee a product that is safe for you, or the environment. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines natural as "existing in or formed by nature; having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives."  Unfortunately, there are no regulations currently in place regarding the use of the word "natural" in cosmetics, so any companies using any ingredients and manufacturing processes can claim that their products are "natural."  In addition, those companies claiming that their surfactants are "natural"—for instance: made from pure coconut oil—are stretching the definition when we considers that intensive heating and chemical processing (usually accomplished by adding something like diethanolamine, a known carcinogen) takes place between the coconut and the synthetic surfactant that results.

Are products labeled "organic" any better?  Yes and no.  Cosmetics that are labeled "certified organic" guarantee that the company has met stringent requirements:

  • Products labeled "100% organic" must have all-organic ingredients.
  • Those made with 95% or more organic ingredients may call themselves "organic."
  • And a product containing 70% organic, or more, components may use the label “made with organic ingredients.”

However, there are some catches.  Some products naturally contain water as their primary ingredient—many shampoos, lotions, liquid foundations, eyeliners, lip glosses, and the like are made up mostly of water.  Water is not allowed to be labeled as "organic."  However, some companies are getting around this requirement by labeling the water in their product as flower water, or hydrosols (unregulated substances) and claiming their flower water is organic.  This way, a product that primarily consists of water can have mostly toxic, carcinogenic chemicals in the remaining ingredients, but still be labled "organic."  If a product contains more than 70% water (labeled as containing organic hydrosols), it can be labeled as at least partially organic,

Mineral Eyeshadow

How Can I be Sure that My Cosmetics are Truly Natural?

In a word: read!  Read the labels!  Cosmetics companies are required to list the ingredients in their products in descending order of their volume of the product.  If you can’t recognize or pronounce the ingredient, you probably don’t want to be applying it to your face! 

A great resource for trying to find out if the cosmetics you own are filled with especially harmful chemicals is Skin Deep, a database of cosmetic ingredients.  Skin Deep—created by the Environmental Working Group—lists thousands of cosmetics and personal care products and rates them from 1-10 (10 being the worst offenders) for their safety and chemical content.

For a review of some of the most common, harmful cosmetic constituents, check out our tips 8 Cosmetic Chemical Offences and Mineral Cosmetics: Healthy or Hazardous?

Do I Have to Stop Wearing Makeup?

Fortunately, there’s good news in store for those who don’t wish to avoid cosmetics entirely.  There are many makeup options that don’t require a degree in chemistry, and many responsible cosmetics companies that are genuinely concerned with their products’ impact on consumers and the environment.  When you’re considering the purchase of any product, give a bit thought to the package it comes in.  Many companies are starting to color aspects of their corporate policy with sustainable practices—you can now find organic lipstick packaged in biodegradable containers made of corn-based polymer!

Jane Iredale Cosmetics isn’t specifically marketed to the organic crowd, but the company’s foundation, blush, eyeliners, eyeshadow, and lipsticks were all in the top 50 rated products at Skin Deep, with a safety rating of 2 or less (low is good here!), and their mascara occupied seven of the top ten safest products list for mascara.  The company uses no talc, oil, artificial colors, chemical dyes, petroleum products, or parabens.  They use a wheat protein in their mascara and natural micronized minerals for their powdered foundations, blushes, and eye makeup.

Larenim (if you’re paying attention, that’s mineral spelled backwards) also received high scores from Skin Deep.  Most of their powdered products such as mineral foundations, blush, and eyeshadow contain titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, mica, and iron oxides, which are considered low on the toxicity scale.

Miessence Cosmetics contain ingredients like aloe vera, jojoba oil, shea butter, lecithin, and grapefruit seed extract.  As an added bonus, most of the ingredients used are certified organic.

Aubrey Organics has 83 of its 112 listed products with Skin Deep scoring a 2 or under.  They use many certified organic ingredients and have a user-friendly Web site that warns against several of the toxic ingredients discussed in this article, which they do not use.  They don’t test on animals and all packaging is recyclable.  The site also has a glossary that explains most of the natural ingredients used in their products.  However, a troubling aspect of their products is the use of PABA and PABA-derivatives.  This is the primary reason that some of Aubrey’s products received a toxicity rating higher than 3: PABA is rated a high-toxicity ingredient, linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and cell-level changes.  In addition, the company lists PABA under its "natural" ingredients dictionary.  This is an example of learning to take care with the details and constituents of your product—many products from a company may be safe, truly natural, and non-toxic but it’s always good practice to consult labels and educate yourself about what comes in contact with your skin.

With a little research and a decent amount of label-reading, along with the helpful guides provided by Skin Deep and the Environmental Working Group, it’s possible to find safe, non-toxic cosmetics without having to give up on makeup altogether. 

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