The Dirt on Clean Beauty
By Caitlin Brown
Preservatives are an essential when it comes to skincare products because they help prevent microbes (bacteria, mold, and yeast). They stop growth by acting on spores when they germinate and kill cells, usually by disrupting cell membranes, or by making the product hostile to growth.
If a product contains water: hydrosols, floral water, aloe vera, or meets with water (a scrub used with wet fingers) a broad-spectrum preservative is needed. To avoid the minutia in going on with the why they are needed in various beauty offerings, let’s just say that a dirty word — when it comes to our food — actually, keeps our products from harming us when it comes to our beauty buys.
The world has embraced the word “organic” and been seduced by the word “natural”, and food companies have capitalized on this and taken liberties, and why not? There was no clear definition for organic for much of the time we sprang for it at the supermarket and that still holds true for natural.
That said, the food industry is moving, and continues to move to offer transparency to consumers and government point guards. The beauty industry is many steps behind. The buzz words that changed the way many of us eat for the better have made us think twice about what we put on our bodies: our skin, our biggest organ and a sponge for what goes on it.
Consumers these days want to know what’s in it. The sexy promise of the Fountain of Youth at a big price tag with fancy ingredients isn’t enough to lure us alone anymore. What went in it? Regrettably, reading the ingredient list these days only stands to make us more confused.
Now, to add to that confusion, companies are touting their products as clean, green, or natural, suggesting they don’t contain any of the harmful ingredients those in the know, know to watch out for: parabens, sulfates, and more. The scary thing is that beauty products are not regulated. There is no real FDA regulation, so just like the food industry was not long ago… taking liberties with buzz words to wet our palate is what’s happening in the beauty spectrum. Clean has become a ubiquitous word.
The FDA doesn’t define the term clean — green, natural, or organic — in the context of cosmetic labeling or ingredients, which means virtually anything — harmful or not — can be deemed as such.
In Europe and Canada, the government regulates what can and can’t be included in beauty products. The European Union has banned over 1,000 ingredients for cosmetic use, while the U.S. has banned just 11. In fact, the safety requirements for U.S. beauty brands have remained mostly unchanged since the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act was first passed in 1938.
Labeling aside, some beauty brands — Beauty Counter, notably, — have taken a leadership role in sourcing ingredients that prioritize human and environmental health and are transparent about what ingredients go into their products, and which ones don’t. A flurry of other companies are following suit.
While many consumers are hesitant to make the switch to clean beauty products, because they are concerned they won’t get as much punch packed in their cream to fight fine lines, rest assured that companies (my favorites are Tata Harper and Osea Malibu) are pumping out natural gems with ocean- and farm-friendly ingredients.
The simple fact is that top-quality natural beauty products cost more. It’s worth noting, however, that all synthetic ingredients are not evil. Preservatives are necessary to maintain the shelf life of beauty products. By law, they are required in any product containing water.
We need to educate ourselves and take the reins in finding out what the mysterious ingredient names are, checking labels and holding the industry accountable so that changes will come, just as we’ve witnessed in the food industry.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), is a great recourse, providing tons of information and rates products based on their ingredients. They even have an app called Skin Deep Database for skincare and beauty products … it has a handy barcode-scanning tool, to help when you’re shopping.
Here’s a short list of Big Offender ingredients to watch out for:
Fragrance: The word fragrance or parfum on the ingredient label of any personal care product can be a catchall for up to 1,000 ingredients. If the label just says ‘fragrance,’ and doesn’t list all the ingredients in the ‘fragrance’, steer clear!
Parabens: This toxic preservative is an endocrine disruptor.
Formaldehyde: This preservative is a known carcinogen, linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. You’ll never see it on the label, but if any of the following ingredients are listed, it’s probably there: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol).
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): May result in skin irritation and allergies, and is a known carcinogenic.
Avobenzone & Oxybenzone: Ultra-violet filters in sunscreen linked to endocrine disruption, as well as cell damage and mutation.
BHA: A preservative that’s linked with endocrine disruption and can also cause kidney and liver problems.
These are just a few. Do your homework. Health matters!
Two beauty companies that own the word clean are Tata Harper and Osea. I can’t live without are:
Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence ($94)
Hyaluronic Acid Face Mist preps the skin for maximum absorption of treatments (moisturizer), smells delicious, and plumps skin with hyaluronic acid.
Osea Undaria Algae Body Oil ($48)
This firming, seaweed-infused aromatherapy body oil is
packed with hydrating acai, babassu, passion fruit, and ayurvedic sesame oils to leave feeling supple and baby soft. Such a treat! And, it leaves you smelling like you just walked out of the spa.