by Ivory King
When you’re at the grocery store, do you look for healthier items and check labels? If you’re anything like us, you do. Labels with phrases like, “all-natural” and “healthy skin” on green backgrounds or featuring bucolic skylines are so tempting: they must be good for you, right? When it comes to food, personal care and beauty products, those words don’t legally mean a thing. In fact, for non-food items, product purity guidelines are even more poorly defined. The FDA of course does enforce regulations, but the agency does not consider several types of ingredients as dangerous, when other organizations do.
To simplify the types of toxins that are found in easy to find brands, we’ll separate them into a few categories. Parabens, irritants/allergens and “fragrance.” When you see fragrance as an ingredient in a product, it can be referring to any number of chemicals that can include phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals that make whatever they are mixed into more flexible and are used in hairspray and many other products to keep them from cracking or breaking. While the FDA and the CDC do not consider them any threat, the National Academy of Sciences released a report linking the effects of phthalates to potentially interfering with the male reproductive system. Since they are often listed under the “fragrance” umbrella, you can’t tell immediately if they are in what you’re buying.
Let’s look at some of the brands that have successfully marketed themselves as wholesome choices, despite their toxic ingredients. CoverGirl has products that contain parabens and fragrance. Some Maybelline products have irritants and fragrance. Rimmel has a product with retinols, parabens and BHA. These are just a brief sample, but it gives you an idea of the ubiquity of these ingredients and what mainstays the brands are that use them.
So why do we have to keep such a sharp eye on labels if so many brands are telling us how clean and natural their products are? Because there is no legal definition behind so many marketing terms. So remember that these words mean nothing when they’re on the front of a package: natural, gentle, hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, dermatologist tested.
There certainly are more terms that are pure marketing hype, but there is a word that means something: organic! This labeling term means a product is free from a long list of banned substances, as well as GMOs. There are a few USDA grades that you’ll see, and this verifies the organic content of a product besides its water and salt content:
- 100% organic - everything in the product is organic
- organic - contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients
- made with organic ingredients - contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients
There are other ways that you can verify that what you’re using on your face and body are safe, without spending countless moments reading labels and fact checking with the Internet. Look for items with a simple ingredient list - if it’s all pronounceable substances and that pesky “fragrance” isn’t listed, you’re probably in pretty good shape. Consider DIY - many moisturizers and soaps can be mimicked with simple oils, or by adding safe, non-sensitizing essential oils to them. That way you can smell as nice as you like, and you know exactly what’s in whatever you’re using!
Piles of handmade soaps, photo credit: Viktor Forgacs
If you do prefer to use products straight off the conventional supermarket or pharmacy shelf, you’ll want to consider using one of a slew of helpful websites and apps to make sure they’re safe. You can scan an item’s barcode with Good Guide, or use the app from Think Dirty if you prefer. Not only can you vote with your dollars when you buy healthier, you can get involved with the legal process that is trying to make cosmetics safer. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, for example, coordinate campaigns that target specific brands to pressure them to remove carcinogenic substances, or other chemicals, from its products.
Educating yourself about which store brands have questionable ingredients seems pretty unmanageable at first. But with a little knowledge, you’ll find your favorite colors pop up when you switch to a new brand that you can trust. Hopefully soon it’ll be those brands, not us, who have to do the dirty work and make cleaner choices.