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How to read labels: The dangers of beauty products

I’d been pouring over labels for years and considered myself a savvy shopper, but the skincare aisle almost had me duped.  I’m one of those people: the kind that stands in the Whole Foods aisle obsessively scanning every label.   I am not appeased by claims of Natural! Kid Safe! or Hypoallergenic. What I’m looking for are the ingredients. The rest, as far as I am concerned, is just fancy PR. I want to know what I’m putting in and on my body. What products are made of is as important to me as how they are made (animal, ecological, and human rights issues), who they are made by (I like to support small, local businesses), and how they are packaged (eco-friendly packaging). Another big factor for me is cost: keeping my family on a budget is a necessity for us.  My obsessive label scanning reached a peak after a learned that many “organic” and “natural” body care products are really just faking it.

Why finding truly natural skincare matters

What we put in our skin can go directly into our bloodstream. Children are at even greater risk than adults because they process food, air,—almost everything—at a much faster rate than we do.  And as moms know children will put arms, hands, feet (covered or “cleaned” with products containing unsafe ingredients) and more into their mouths. Even seemingly subtle levels of exposure can affect a child whose organs, brains, and internal systems are still under development and these affects can last a lifetime. It turns out that there are many products out there specifically labeled safe for children that contain chemicals known to alter hormones or worse.

Skin care products containing unsafe ingredients have saturated our marketplace and some companies are using language to fool us into thinking they are safe when they are not.

What’s behind the label: organic, natural, non-toxic demystified

The body care and cosmetics industries are almost entirely not regulated, not by the FDA or any independent certifying organization. Without external oversight the wording has become harder to interpret. “Natural” is a commonly used word that has almost no meaning and can be used on products that contain unsafe and toxic ingredients.

Similarly “non-toxic” doesn’t mean use without caution. Something label non-toxic can be overused and harmful if not used in the ‘approved’ ways.  Similarly, commonly used labels such as “pure,” “healthy,” and “hypoallergenic” aren’t claims backed by independent verifying organizations and thus don’t ensure that what is in the bottle is truly safe.

Even ‘un-scented’ can be mis-leading.  Sometimes products labeled unscented have scented chemicals and use additional chemicals to mask the smell. For those with sensitive skin or lungs, an ‘un-scented’ product can be just as likely or even more likely to trigger a response.

For organic food, the “organic” label is carefully monitored. If a food product has the word “Organic” in its name or on the bottle it’s telling you it contains at least 95% organic ingredients and the other 5% of ingredients is regulated.

A food product labeled “Made with Organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% or more organic ingredients without the restrictions on the other ingredients.  The USDA Organic label is recognized as one of the most stringent US standards, but all food items claiming to be organic must meet at least the basic standards as described above.

Unfortunately, when applied to skincare products the organic label doesn’t guarantee the same meaning. The breakdown seems to come because of the lack of oversight and monitoring of all personal care products. Thus skincare products labeled organic can contain synthetic fragrances, dyes, preservatives, or parabens. (These ingredients are linked with neurotoxic effects, heavy metals, skin irritations, and even cancer.) The non-organic ingredients could also be contaminated with pesticide residues, heavy metals, and more. The exception are those skincare products labeled USDA Organic which are meeting the same stringent standards as that which applies to organic food.

What is a green mama to do?

We encourage everyone to check out your products and their ingredients on the Cosmetic Database. I also follow the personal guideline that if I don’t feel comfortable eating something I wouldn’t use it on my skin. (Ok, I’m not eating soap, but I do look for products with saponified oils instead of SLS or plant-based surfactants). We also look for companies who have joined the Organic Consumers Union’s Coming Clean Campaign: signing on to hold the industry more accountable and offer safe products.  And, when looking for skincare items, remember that the USDA Organic label is the only one guaranteed to mean what it says!

We also recommend becoming familiar with the “cheater brands”: the companies whom have been caught using deceptive marketing to cover-up unsafe ingredients. These are the companies using words like “pure,” “natural,” and “organic” without the certification to back it up, often while knowingly using unsafe or harsh chemicals.

The following list created by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) offers a great overview of the current state of our shelves. But remember, companies can change their ingredients at anytime, so keep reading those ingredient lists!

The Good Guys

BUY (“BUY-COTT”) THESE CERTIFIED USDA ORGANIC BRANDS: The Green Mama has tried and loves many of these brands!!

Alteya Organics, Baby Bear Shop, Badger, Bubble and Bee Organic, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Indian Meadow Herbals, Intelligent Nutrients, Kimberly Parry Organics, Little Angel, Mercola, Miessence Certified Organics, Nature’s Paradise, OGmama and OGbaby,   Organicare, Organic Essence, Origins Organics, Purely Shea, Rainwater Organic Lotion, Rose Tattoo Aftercare, SoCal Cleanse, Sensibility Soaps/Nourish, Terressentials, Trillium Organics, Vermont Soap

The Bad Guys

BOYCOTT THESE FAKE “ORGANIC” BRANDS: If these brands are in your bathroom, go look at the label and check them out at Cosmetic Database. (If you found out you were fooled, you aren’t alone: The Green Mama has fallen for almost all of them at some point.)

Avalon Organics, Desert Essence Organics, Earth’s Best Organic, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Goodstuff Organics, Head Organics, JASON Pure Natural and Organic, Kiss My Face, Nature’s Gate , Physicians Formula, Stella McCartney.

For a list of body care companies with one or more products meeting the USDA Organic Standard.

Photo source: stock.xchng – Duchess

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