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Safe Beauty Products: Can Reading a Label Save Your Skin?

As consumers become more aware of global environmental issues, questions are being raised closer to home about what type of skincare products we use on our bodies. For centuries, cosmetic and personal care products have been used to help us look better, smell better, and to offer a variety of assistance to our skin, hair and nails. Unfortunately, that legacy has sometimes come at a high price. Early cosmetics often contained poisons such as mercury, lead, and more recently studies have been highlighting the negative effects of colorings, parabens, and a host of other commonly used cosmetic ingredients.

According to Ruth Winter author of A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, ‘The FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing. Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by the FDA before they are sold to you.’

The FDA does require that all cosmetics list their ingredients, however, when confronted with terms like Epilobium Angustifolium or Perfluorodimethylcyclohexane, how could the consumer know if it is a desirable or dangerous ingredient?

Consumers and journalists seeking straight answers from cosmetics marketers have called for a certifying organization that could allow the consumer to use a product with confidence without having to hire a PhD chemist to shop with them. The growing ‘Green Market’ has made it a priority to establish certifying guidelines and consumer advocacy groups for cosmetics. Fortunately, there is a recent precedent as the natural foods industry has been pioneering in the creation of increasingly standardized guidelines for ‘natural’ foods.

The problem and its solution are more complex than is immediately apparent. Many terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ have no official meaning and may be used differently by manufacturers. Currently, a number of entities have stepped forward with different certifications both in Europe and the United States in an attempt to standardize the definitions. Some of the new certifications include:

  1. USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (you may have seen their logo on your food) has created four levels of certification that employ the USDA logo in various forms or allowable phrases related to ‘Organic’:
    • ‘100 Percent Organic’ allows the USDA seal to be used on the front label with the claim of 100% organic.
    • ‘Organic’ requires 95% organic ingredients and allows the use of the USDA seal and the word organic.
    • ‘Made with Organic Ingredients’ requires 70% organic ingredients but you may not display the USDA logo.
    • ‘Some Organic Ingredients’ less than 70% organic
  2. France’s Ecocert is another certifying body that is seeking to create standards for the terms Organic and Ecological. Their standards range from 100% organic to 10% organic based upon specific criteria.
  3. England’s Soil Association, Germany’s BDIH and Italy’s AIAB have discussed the need for standards or have standard processes in the works.
  4. OASIS Organics is a collaborative effort of cosmetic manufacturers that is offering a two level certification seal.
    • ‘Organic’ which requires 85% organic ingredients until 2010 when it will require 95% to carry their seal.
    • ‘Made with Organic’ requiring 70% organic ingredients and has criteria for the other 30%.

Some retailers such as Whole Foods are also seeking to develop standards to assure the consumer that their interests are being protected.

The consumer can expect to begin seeing an array of seals and certifications in the near future. If 100% Organic is the prime criteria of quality that the consumer is seeking, then the top certifications of these organizations should provide some peace of mind. The certifications with lower percentages will still require the consumer to read the label and perhaps do some research. A few minutes with a good Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and a cosmetic product label can be very enlightening. Many of the ingredients that have caused concerns for consumers are found at the end of the cosmetic label because the ingredients are listed in order of quantity, for the most part. For this reason they may still be found in the formulas of the certifications that use less than 100% organic ingredients. Preservatives, colorings and fragrance tend to be found in low percentages in cosmetic formulas but these are often concentrated substances that have powerful effects and are the source of most of the concerns over cosmetic safety.

Because the process of defining terms and setting standards is just getting started, and while there has been a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before the consumer can rely on a standard of safety and clarity. In the mean time, the consumer will have to continue to rely on self education, manufacturer reputation, and the fact that higher quality usually means higher cost; but a high price does not guarantee quality.

Another issue is results. With consumers seeking anti-aging results-oriented cosmetics, the fact that an ingredient is ‘organic’ may not be important as one considers the equation of safety and effectiveness. Not all things ‘organic’ are good for the skin, but that is the topic for another day.

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