All these words speak to qualities we hope mean the product is better for you and the planet, but they lack concrete definitions. It’s not easy for me to share this gray area of terminology because I use these same words to describe my work as both a makeup artist and the founder of an educational website dedicated to green beauty. Unfortunately, there's no overarching organization in the world that strictly mandates the integrity of what's in your cosmetics and how they're marketed.
For instance, if there’s even one drop of something natural or just one organic ingredient in a product, the brand can throw around those same words even if the rest of the formula is a synthetic chemical soup.
Private organizations such as EcoCert, Naturkosmetik, BDIH, USDA Certified Organic, and others try to fill the gap with varying compliance seals as a point of differentiation and offer some level of quality assurance. But it’s largely up to the consumer to cut through the misleading terminology to make informed decisions at the store.
Your best bet is to get to know the brand your considering and see if you trust what they say they stand for.
2. Your skin doesn’t absorb everything it touches.
Thank goodness, or you’d have a real problem every time you got in the shower. This is basic biology. The skin has a semipermeable membrane, which means not everything can get through it. That said, your skin can absorb a whole multitude of chemicals and deliver them into your blood stream. So, yes, it’s still really important to consider the kinds of things you are slathering on your body every day.
3. Chemical-free products don’t exist.
On a rather frequent basis, I'm asked, “Do you know of a good chemical-free ____[fill in the blank]?” The answer is always, “Nope. I don’t.”
Here’s why: everything that’s an ingredient, natural or synthetic, is made up of chemicals — and that’s OK! If you took chemistry in school (come on, sweep away those cobwebs!), then you learned about chemical bonding and how two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom form the natural, life-supporting chemical compound that is water.
Of course, I know what those of you asking that question mean. You’re looking for help in staying away from toxic, harsh, bad-for-you chemicals that make your skin itch, and pollute your body, and I applaud you for that!
So start by familiarizing yourself with what to avoid by using this handy glossary of commonly regarded toxic ingredients. Tip: The first 10 are the most important ones to pay attention to.
4. Natural isn’t safer.
Some natural chemicals can be quite irritating to the skin, and can be toxic and even deadly when ingested in large enough quantities (a few you probably already know are: arsenic, cyanide, mercury and lead).
Speaking of lead, the FDA released a report that placed one of Burt’s Bee’s lip shimmers (a totally natural product) high on the list of lead-containing lipsticks. How did that happen? The natural mineral pigments used for color are what contained the lead particles they found.
Essential oils are natural, plant-derived oils, but they can be so potent that one must use extreme care when mixing and applying them to the skin.
Here are a few more things to chew on:
Some natural ingredients are broken down so much in the manufacturing process that they lose all their true benefits.
Many natural ingredients also contain GMOs or pesticide residue.
5. Preservatives are not evil.
Naturally formulated products, especially those containing water, are more volatile and susceptible to rancidity. By choosing a product without a preservative, you might find yourself applying contaminated, bacteria-filled, moldy ingredients to make your skin freak out. So while you might want to avoid parabens, the most infamous of preservatives, you still need to protect yourself with products formulated with some type of preservative (natural or synthetic).
6. Cruelty-free is mostly a myth.
When you see the words “cruelty-free” stamped on a package, it only means that no animal testing was conducted on the final product, not necessarily the individual ingredients used. Private organizations such as PETA and Leaping Bunny offer symbols for brands that have voluntarily pledged not to use animal testing. However, this is more of an honor system and is not strictly controlled.
Also worth noting: At this time, any cosmetic brand that imports their products into China must undergo mandatory animal testing before being approved for sale. You’d be surprised at the big-name brands that sell in China while proudly claiming to be cruelty-free, just because they don’t conduct the testing themselves.
Finally, some shoppers mistakenly assume the “cruelty-free” label also signifies that a product is vegan, or made without animal-derived ingredients (even bee’s wax). But many brands approved to use the cruelty-free label use ingredients in their products that can only be procured after an animal is dead.
And that's just animal cruelty. Let's not forget some of the other types of cruelty that may occur during the production and use of beauty products:
Often overlooked is the human injustice associated with manufacturing. To give just one example, there are children being forced to mine mica, which is the most common mineral used in cosmetics, in conditions which are anything but cruelty-free.
Let’s not forget the environmental impact that manufacturing of products has on Mother Nature — from unsustainable harvesting of ingredients to creating wasteful plastic and paper packages. Sadly, these activities often strip the land and contribute to the pollution in our air and water supply.
Truly green companies take the time, and extra expense, to make products packaged in a more eco-friendly way, using the minimum amount of materials, recycled paper, nontoxic ink, and biodegradable plastics that will easily decompose in our already overfilled landfills.
7. Every little bit helps.
I don't want you to walk away from this article thinking, “Why should I bother with this green stuff then?!” While there are still a lot of myths being peddled in the world of green, it won’t do any good to bury our heads in the sand and stop trying. The great news is that there are a multitude of fabulous, ethical brands that are committed to delivering products with high ideals.
I know it can be daunting, but I invite you to care about supporting ethical, natural brands for betterment of an entire industry. No one said you had to do it perfectly — just feel good every time you make a more informed choice for yourself and our precious planet.