As the popularity of clean beauty continues to skyrocket, we see and hear companies beginning to use the phrases “organic” and “natural” on their products as a means to make them more marketable. Some companies even go so far as to use green, brown, or oatmeal-colored packaging in attempts to make the consumer view their product as a cleaner option (this is a form of greenwashing, or making a product visually look cleaner than it actually is). However, because there is almost zero regulation in the personal care products industry, many consumers get “tricked” into trusting those greenwashed bottles and claims of being “all natural” without really knowing what is actually safe.
Today I want to dive a little deeper into what actually makes a product safe. The more we know, the better we can do – for ourselves and as a consumer population in general.
When it comes to safety of a product there are two major pieces to consider:
- Safety – how safe the actual product is for human use? Is it harmful to human health? If so, how and in what ways? Many companies only screen for safety in terms of acute reactions – things like skin or eye irritation – without ever diving deeper into potential long-term effects of product usage.
- Source – the actual origin of ingredients in a product. It’s important to note that every ingredient needs to be accounted for, as well as chemical reactions of ingredients in a finished product.
When it comes to source, there are a few categories to consider, all of which have their own stigmas attached.
- Natural – natural ingredients are those that are produced in nature without any sort of human intervention. While this term is yet another piece of the products pie that is highly unregulated, an example of natural ingredients would be something like an essential oil or a mineral.
- Plant-derived – plant-derived ingredients are those whose base is from a plant (i.e. raw coconut oil), but through chemical manufacturing processes it changes into a different product entirely (a coconut-based surfactant used to create lather in products).
- Synthetic – synthetic ingredients are those that are created in a laboratory.
There is a huge lack of regulation in the personal care products industry; in fact, we have about 1-1/2 pages of documentation regulating a $64 billion industry. When you see companies printing words like natural, organic, vegan, cruelty-free, etc. on their labels and marketing materials the first thing you should know is that none of those words are regulated and therefore the standards behind them are likely fairly low. Not always, but often enough to need more information. Another thing to note is that while a company may claim these catchphrases to the best of their knowledge, often suppliers of ingredients don’t adhere to that company’s standards. This means while a company may adamantly refuse to test their finished products on animals, it doesn’t keep a supplier from doing so.
Many times I hear people proudly announcing that the products they use are all-natural, or that they refuse to use products created with synthetic ingredients. While truly natural and truly plant-derived ingredients are wonderful (they make up about 80% of Beautycounter‘s product line), it’s important to note that even with those ingredients it’s important to make sure that they are still truly safe. For example, lead is a natural compound that is harmful to human health, but it’s often found as a contaminant in mineral-based cosmetics. Companies aren’t required to screen for it, and even IF they did they aren’t required to disclose the results. There are some synthetic compounds, though, like panthenol (a form of Vitamin B) that has no health or environmental concerns, making it a very safe ingredient.
Finally, while ingredient safety and source are incredibly important, one thing of concern is whether or not a company practices continued batch testing for contamination. Beautycounter tests every batch of product that comes out to make sure it meets our rigorous standards, and then continues to randomly test afterwards just in case. It’s wildly transparent and cautious, but when it comes to my health and my family’s health? I’m not willing to play games, and am willing to pay more to make sure a product is as safe as possible.
As you can see it’s a lot of information and, unless you’re some sort of chemist specializing in it all, it can be hard to understand. The good news is that as the consumer population comes to expect more, companies are finally starting to commit to safer practices. Things like fully disclosing ingredients – INCLUDING those used in fragrance – and seeking out safer alternatives are becoming more mainstream. Companies, like Beautycounter, are bringing more and more awareness to the industry, and when you purchase from companies that are completely transparent you’re voting with your dollars, showing the industry at large what consumers want and need.
A few great resources: EWG’s Healthy Living App is a free resource that you can use to scan through your own medicine cabinets, or take to the store with you when you’re looking for a new product. You simply scan in a barcode or search for a product by name, and it will rank how safe a product is AND list out the ingredients of concern if there are any. Another fantastic resource is Beautycounter’s Never List, a list of over 1500 ingredients we will absolutely never use in our formulations.
Can I be totally honest here? This information is highly inconvenient. You can’t unlearn it, and if you’re anything like me it will make you think twice and prioritize purchases differently. But I can also tell you that the freedom that comes from knowing better is immensely gratifying, and because I know better I DO better. I feel empowered and free to make better choices and to be a resource for others who are just beginning their own safer living journey.
You deserve better. Really, truly you do!