Labeling in the natural beauty world is a lawless society.
The world of safe cosmetics is like a modern wild west, filled with outlawed ingredients, determined settlers, and wild, crazed shoot-outs. (See: the comment sections of any controversial beauty item.) And the new sheriff in town who is going to make everything right in the land? Cue dramatic music: there is no sheriff.
Call a product natural, and you’ll soon find evidence it’s not. Find something proclaiming itself organic, and maybe only 10 percent of the ingredients actually are organic. A product says it’s chemical-free? Then why are chemicals listed on the label?
It’s enough to make you want to hang up your sunbonnet (best chemical-free sun protection ever) and hide behind the skirts of your favorite schoolmarm.
Why the confusion? There are few to virtually no regulations on the ingredients we put in beauty products. In 2011, the Safe Cosmetics Bill was introduced to update the existing law on beauty regulation, which has not been revised since 1938. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill, introduced the bill, noting “manufacturers are not required to disclose all their ingredients on labels, and the FDA has no power to supervise the use of toxic chemicals in cosmetics.”
So until this bill is passed, it’s up to us, the consumer, to figure out what to buy. It’s up to us to determine our own comfort level with ingredients. And foremost, it’s our decision on how natural we want to go with our products—since often times, products which proclaim themselves natural really aren’t.
Mia Davis, Vice President of Health and Safety for Beautycounter
I asked nationally-renown safe beauty expert Mia Davis to weigh in. Davis is the former Co-Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and current Vice President of Health and Safety for Beautycounter, a new beauty and skincare line. Recently, she shared her thoughts on natural beauty, safe cosmetics, and aging gracefully in a natural world.
Katherine Butler: Natural, organic, eco-friendly, green, and safe are all labels manufacturers use to sell their products. They all imply a level of cleanliness. What does it really mean for a product to say it is clean?
Mia Davis: A lot of time people are confused about that. They think “natural” and “organic” equals “clean” and “safe.” Many times, that’s the case. But to me, “clean” means safe—as in it’s not loaded with carcinogenic ingredients or petrochemicals that are harmful. Also, “natural” and “safe” are not mutually exclusive. I mean, poison ivy is organic and natural, as is lead.
KB: Good point. A lot of the unsafe ingredients are sometimes the ones that help a product perform. Do you have to sacrifice performance for clean ingredients?
MD: As a company, I think you have to work really hard to make sure that you are asking all the right questions to ensure that [your ingredients] are clean and safe—and performing. There’s another layer of complexity in formulating these products. As a consumer, you just really have to do your research and determine your own comfort level.
KB: Can’t we just trust that companies are telling the truth about their labeling?
MD: It’s really unfortunate how many companies are not fully disclosing their ingredients. When I was co-running the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, I heard from a lot of companies reporting on others that simply weren’t telling the truth, like “so and so are using hidden preservatives.” I wasn’t the cosmetics police, so there wasn’t much I could do. But as a consumer, I was horrified.
Now that I’m actually formulating products with a team of chemists for Beautycounter, I am shocked to learn how many chemicals have no safety data. I won’t name names, but there are several companies out there who are really marketing themselves on natural and organic products, and I would be willing to bet the farm that they are sourcing raw ingredients that are preloaded with petrochemical ingredients. Some aren’t harmful from a safety perspective. But from the consumer right-to-know perspective, it does worry me. They are marketing on something that isn’t true.
KB: What’s your take on more chemical-laden products like hair color and nail polish? Can you love doing your nails and still be committed to using natural products?
MD: I think it’s a spectrum. Hair color and nail polish are two of the products that tend to be the most chemically-laden and often hard to find a “natural” version. I prefer to say “less toxic” than chemical-free.
I think you just have to choose your battles and do what makes you feel good. I always push companies to make their products as least toxic as possible. I screen chemicals for safety, be they natural or synthetic. I want to be sure the ingredients in the products I use and promote are all okay for humans.
KB: So can you really fight fine lines, sunspots, without Botox or retinol?
MD: Well, you can prevent and minimize the look of fine lines—not permanently, but with makeup. That’s a version of fighting.
Can you fight these things with Botox or retinol? Yes, and people need to make their own decisions. But if you’re using something that is by definition toxic to fight an aesthetic result that you don’t like, you have to think about the long haul. Are you going to look better in the end by using a toxic chemical? We don’t know. You just have to do what you’re comfortable doing.
Plus, there are plant-based ways to help age gracefully. Vitamins E and C are really good for you. Seed oils are very nourishing and are great for prevention.
If you’re much older and have wrinkled skin, you probably won’t see a reversal. But that’s okay; shouldn’t we be more focused on aging gracefully?
KB: Hear hear! So how should the consumer keep herself informed in the lawless world of natural beauty?
MD: In the end, remember that “natural” could mean anything or nothing. Most people assume that the FDA or some other agency is backing up these claims, but none are.
In the food industry, companies get in trouble for calling something organic if it isn’t. This is not the case in beauty. So go out there and vote with your dollars. And ultimately, know we have to pass legislation so we don’t have to be so vigilant about labels. This industry hasn’t been regulated since 1938—it is high time we’ve do something, so we don’t have to have these conversations.
What can you do to determine your level of natural beauty? Check out this article on seven important beauty ingredients to avoid. Go to The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to learn more. And be sure to consult the Environmental Working Group’s database for individual ingredients and product safety, Skin Deep.