Green Beauty Basics: 6 Things You Need to Know

When you’re first trying to go green with your toilette—organic, all natural and cruelty-free—it may be a little more difficult than you thought. Despite your best efforts, you could be going out of your way or paying more for products that aren’t necessarily better for the environment or your health.

Laws about labels and ingredients can be tricky (or downright dishonest) but we’ve got you covered. Here’s 6 things you need to know to started on your new-and-improved green beauty journey.

1. What’s In Your Face Cream?

Depending on which country your cosmetics were manufactured in, you could be getting a whole lot less green than you bargained for. The European Union has banned over a thousand ingredients due their ill effect on health or the environment, Canada has banned a few hundred, but in countries like the United States and China, there are very few materials you can’t use.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA) only has about 8 ingredients that are banned. Of course there are laws against toxic substances in our products, but there are frequently recorded instances of contaminants and ingredients interacting to make them toxic on the record.

Unfortunately in the U.S. the FDA doesn’t police the cosmetics industry and the beauty industry is authorized to police themselves with the Cosmetics Ingredient Review Panel (CIRP.) In the history of the CIRP, only 11 ingredients or materials have been deemed unsafe and it has no way of enforcing its restrictions. CIRP can only recommend changes. The FDA will do reviews of products with certain color additives and ingredients that are classified as over-the-counter drugs, but apart from that beauty companies can do pretty much whatever they want.

2. Taking It All In

If you’ve read about the most common harmful ingredients in cosmetics, you’ll know that not only are there are plenty of them allowed when they shouldn’t be. Scarily enough, because we apply these things to our body there are that many ways for us to absorb them: we inhale powders and sprays and we accidentally ingest products like lipsticks and glosses. As Kristen Kjaer Weis, founder of Kjaer Weis cosmetics notes bluntly in an interview with Teen Vogue, “You end up eating most of it.”

Worst of all are the products we apply directly on the skin. Because your skin is the largest (and porous) organ of your body, it’s capable of absorbing quite a lot of what you put on it. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the skin absorbed an average of 64% of the total contaminant dosage of the chemicals found in drinking water. And certain places in our bodies are even more permeable – one study found an absorption rate of 100% for underarms and genitalia. Other studies show that fragrance chemicals are well-absorbed by our bodies. Another finding is that our delicate facial skins tend to be several times more permeable than broad body surfaces (yet another reason to be vigilant of cosmetics).

And where do these skin-absorbed toxins go? Straight into our bloodstream.

Regrettably, this means that we daily take in carcinogens, ingredients that alter our hormone production and regulation (endocrine disruptors) or ingredients that are straight up toxic and can make us very ill. Studies where people who regularly use products with parabens, synthetic musks or scents, and sunscreens have had the chemicals in their bodies monitored show that we unintentionally absorb enough just from our regular usage to potentially make us very sick in ways you don’t want to think about.

3. Boys Don’t (Usually) Wear Makeup

In 2004, the Environmental Working Group conducted a consumer survey of over 2,300 people about their cosmetics usage. As you probably guess, women use up to twice as many care products, up to 12 per day, as men. That means that by and large women expose themselves to dozens of different cosmetic ingredients per day.

An example of the health-related concerns of cosmetics is parabens. Parabens are a commonly used preservative that have been heavily linked to cancer. In fact, parabens have been frequently found in breast cancer tumors. All genders, but especially women, could undercut their risk of developing cancer significantly by going going green. Hard to argue against that logic, right?

4. Words Don’t Have to Like, Mean Anything, Do They?

So the first three facts I’ve shared have put the fear of Big Beauty in you and you want to go green? That’s awesome! You still have to do your research and watch out: cosmetic marketing claims don’t actually have to be true. Though a product might say “hypoallergenic” or “all-natural ingredients” that may not be true at all.

In a 2000 release, the FDA itself admitted that these terms, “have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers” but at the same time “dermatologists say they have very little medical meaning.” Because the industry regulates itself, when a product that claims to be natural it doesn’t mean there aren’t synthetic chemicals in them—synthetics are very frequently included in “natural” products. And if you remember your high school science class you know very well that just because things are found in nature, doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful (case in point = arsenic).

What about organic? Surely a product that’s organic is better for you? Fooled again! Products labeled “organic” can contain as little as 10% in the U.S. Back in 1998 the FDA tried to establish official definitions for these words, but thanks to powerful lobbyists in the beauty and beauty ingredient industry their efforts were foiled.

Wait, but what about the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act?

Good point. Yes, the FD&C Act prohibits the distribution of misbranded cosmetics – but that just means that a product can’t claim to be “X-free” when it actually contains X.

Laws vary from country to country, but by and large, vague buzzwords like “natural,” “organic,” “eco,” “pure,” “botanics,” “green,” “non-toxic” and what-have-you without actually containing ingredients that live up to those descriptions.

Beware – be very aware – of buzzwords.

5. Greenwashing for Greenbacks

So why are companies being so tricksy about the natural-ness of their products?

Simple. Green is the new black. And it’s not just Greenpeace-lovin’ hippies demanding natural, safe and environmentally-friendly products – green has gone mainstream. Thanks to this, the global demand for organic and natural person care and cosmetics products is booming and many not-so-natural companies are stepping in to profit.

These companies are well-aware that the vast majority of consumers don’t check the ingredients list. Plus, our brains tend to make quick, unconscious associations – we see berries and the claim of a “truly organic experience” or a field of oats in the background and the claim “gentle enough for newborns and babies with sensitive skin” and our brains make the unchecked association that the product must be natural.

Which is very rarely the case.

6. The Onus is On Us

Now that you know that we live in a world where companies can bandy about terms like “natural” and “pure” while mass-producing products that are brimming with toxins – what can we do about it?

Actually, quite a lot. And it’s not hard to do – in fact, you’ve already started. As GI Joe so wisely said, knowledge is half the battle. So you’re already halfway there.

The other part sort of happens naturally. You see, one of the first things that happens to most green beauty junkies is a sort of willful blindness to glitzy green claims. Once you’re in the know – it becomes easier than ever to simply tune out those pretty pictures of plants and the wood-print packaging. And you begin to do what most consumers don’t – flip the box over to read the ingredients label.

‘Cause that’s where the proof is.

Over time, you’ll find yourself becoming quite well-versed in these crazy-sounding ingredients and eventually, you’ll find yourself completely ignoring the big, bold letters proclaiming “eco” or “organix” and instead scanning for words like “propylene glycol” and “benzalkonium chloride.” Maybe one day, you’ll even be able to pronounce these words.

All in all, the onus is on us – but that’s not a bad thing. You’re in good company – there are a whole lot of us who’re adamant about putting the best on as well as in our bodies – and great resources to help you navigate every ingredient list you come across.

Sure, it’s a bit more complicated than simply buying the products with leaves printed on it but you’ll come out of this smarter, wiser and a helluva lot more toxin-free.

Here are some super helpful resources to get you started and assist you throughout your journey:

  • Watch the Story of Cosmetics for a less-than-10-minutes overview on pervasive use of toxic chemicals in our everyday personal care products.
  • Run your products (and any ingredients you don’t understand) through EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic SafetyThis site is your new best friend. Go for products and ingredients that score between 0 to 3 (the lower the better, of course) but also beware of assuming “o” is always better – some ingredients score “0” just ’cause there’s not enough researching on it yet.

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