What Are Natural Cosmetics, Anyways?

natural cosmeticsThere are several campaigns out there that make it sound like our shampoos, lotions, soaps, and make-up are single-handedly giving us cancer and making us infertile. While I am suspect of many ingredients used in conventional cosmetics, and I greatly appreciate the work consumer interest groups are doing, the scare tactic approach goes against my goal for this blog – no exaggeration, shock-value, or shame. I recently wrote a guest blog for Danielle Binns, holistic nutritionist, on non-toxic baby care products and realized that the existing resources are so polarized that it is hard to find a middle ground. Let’s look at a few key points from both the conventional and natural cosmetics industries.

Cosmetics can enter our bodies by absorption through the skin, inhalation of powders, and ingestion (i.e. lipstick). But as the cosmetics industry will point out, concentrations of any given chemical are so small that normal use even over a lifespan does not contribute dangerous levels of chemicals to the body. Here are my questions:

  • What are the effects of cumulative applications of products?
  • What types of interactions happen between the dozens (or maybe even hundreds) of chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis?
  • What kind of concentrations are ending up in our waterways and what effects are they having on aquatic life? (The recent findings of triclosan and microbeads in our ecosystems are starting to answer this one.)

According to Ecoholic’s Adria Vasil, there are 80,000 chemicals on the market and only 7% have received full toxicological screenings. This doesn’t necessarily mean that 93% of the chemicals are dangerous, but it does give me pause before putting a mix of these chemicals on my skin.

The cosmetics industry is self-regulated, and notoriously secretive. For example, “Fragrance” or “parfum” can be used on an ingredients list as an all-encompassing term for any number of chemicals – many of which are known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and allergens (though in higher concentrations than what would be in an individual product). Also, Health Canada doesn’t conduct pre-market testing of cosmetics products. They maintain a Hot List of ingredients, which manufacturers are recommended to avoid but there is little enforcement unless a concern raised by consumers warrants more serious regulation.

Natural products aren’t any more heavily regulated. In fact, terms like “organic” and “natural” are not regulated, which has led to greenwashing on product labels. Gillian Deacon, author of There’s Lead in Your Lipstick, reports that the number of products using “organic” on packaging rose 273% between 2005 and 2007 (something tells me this doesn’t correspond to an increase in pesticide-free cosmetics). Also, just because an ingredient is natural, doesn’t mean it is benign or will give you the desired result.

New chemicals are being introduced to the market so quickly that we don’t yet know what the cumulative health impacts are over the long-term. The lack of regulation in the industry means that if we want to know what’s going on our bodies, we need to learn how to read labels – both conventional and natural – beyond the catchy marketing lingo.

 Looking to reduce the chemicals in your cosmetics? Download my tip sheet  of on-the-go apps and wallet guides that you can use on your next shopping trip. I can help save you time and confusion with my Detox Your Home consultation!

For more views on both sides of the debate, check out the Cosmetics and Personal Care episodes of Organic Panic.

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