Why natural beauty products? After all, nobody eats soap.
It's true that most soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, sunscreens
and cosmetics are fairly safe -- as far as we know. But that's where the controversy lies: a group known as the Cancer Prevention Coalition claims there are over 30,000 cosmetics-related injuries requiring medical attention each year in the United States. Furthermore, nobody knows the long-term effects of many bath and beauty ingredients.
What ingredients are people concerned about in skin care and cosmetic products?
Some advocates claim that the following ingredients are a real concern: mercury
(found in eye makeup), triclosan
(antibacterial soaps), coal tar (dandruff shampoos and anti-itch creams), phthalates
(nail polish, lotions and deodorants), formaldehyde
(baby soap, nail polish and hair dyes), parabens (preservatives in many products) and lead
(lipsticks and hair dyes). And there are many other ingredients that are never tested for safety, according to some researchers.
Never tested? Isn't the FDA involved in the safety testing of beauty products?
Even though Americans spend over $50 billion each year on health and beauty products, there's no federal agency testing the safety of health and beauty products. The FDA gets involved after there's evidence that a product has been mislabeled or contaminated, but no pre-market testing or oversight takes place. On the flip side, California now requires all large manufacturers to report any products that contain a carcinogen or a reproductive or developmental toxic agent -- this may influence some ingredient changes within industry.
So are consumers being used as human guinea pigs?
Yes, according to some consumer advocates. There aren't usually large-scale product recalls, as sometimes occurs in the pharmaceutical, food or other industries, but some researchers are concerned that long-term effects of beauty-product ingredients may be dangerous. And problems have occurred: in 1994, Rio hair relaxers were causing thousands of complaints of scalp irritation, hair loss and hair turning green (!). Only after the U.S. Attorney's Office got involved did Rio recall the products.
I'd prefer my hair not turn green -- so whom can I trust?
The personal care industry insists its products are very safe, and despite a handful of cases like the Rio debacle, they do have a fairly good track record compared to the manufacturing, oil and gas, automotive and other industries. A recent dust-up over lead in lipsticks illustrates the industry's point: though critics charged it was unsafe, after a lengthy investigation the California attorney general's office found that lead levels were too low to merit any concern. Nonetheless, the long-term effects of exposure to even low levels of lead -- which can cause nervous, blood and reproductive system damage, as well as death -- may be a concern.
What about natural beauty and skin care products? Aren't they safer?
Maybe, but buyer beware: the health and beauty product industry is rife with greenwashing
. Words like "natural," "herbal," "organic" and other slogans are splattered all over product packaging, but are notoriously bogus and are no indication of safety. (Remember, even poisons like arsenic and rattlesnake venom are "all-natural.") Despite this, some companies are responding to legitimate concerns over health and safety with some legitimate products that actually do contain more certified-organic ingredients, and fewer synthetic chemicals that may be unsafe.
How can I find these natural skin care products and organic cosmetics?
A good place to start is the Environmental Working Group's exhaustive database of safe products, known as Skin Deep
. Though it's come under some criticism as being too alarmist about certain ingredients, Skin Deep nonetheless represents the largest and most comprehensive listing of safe and healthy products. You can also check labels for terms like "Paraben/Phthalate
Free" or "USDA Organic
." And in 2008, the IOS Natural & Organic Cosmetic standard started certifying health and beauty products as safe and eco-healthy, right down to the recyclable packaging.
What about homemade, DIY health and beauty product recipes?
You probably won't find anything cheaper and safer than health and beauty product recipes you make in your own kitchen, if you have the time and the inclination. Mayonnaise and baby oil for dry skin, a lemon and egg white facial mask, and a sea salt skin scrub are among the countless recipes available all over the Internet. If nothing else, it might be a fun and inexpensive way to spend an evening.
What else can I do to ensure my family's safety?
Try cutting back on your use of perfumes, cosmetics and other personal-care products. In particular, avoid artificially scented or fragranced products, because these often contain phthalates, which are causing increasing concern as hormone disruptors. And it helps to buy products from companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics
, an industry effort to discourage the use of potentially harmful ingredients when alternatives are available.