Non-toxic beauty is more than a trend. It encompasses health and political issues, and business opportunities. As the market shifts and consumers demand more from their products, chemical ingredients are being replaced by their natural counterparts and brands are starting to become more transparent about their formulations and manufacturing processes.
However, not all ingredients labeled as 'natural' are necessarily safe. The lack of regulations in the beauty industry has lead to cosmetic manufacturers using this term quite loosely. The clean beauty movement, on the other hand, embraces both natural and chemical ingredients, putting the focus on safety over source.
What’s really in our products? How were they made? What is the law? But most importantly, what are the implications for our health? These are all valid questions in an industry where regulation is left in the hands of cosmetic firms whose interests are not always aligned with those of the consumers.
What's the law?
Cosmetics marketed in the United States are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.
While the FDA requires cosmetics to be safe, manufacturers don’t need to test their products before they are put on the market, with the exception of some color additives.
Cosmetic manufacturers are responsible for confirming the safety of their products and ingredients prior to marketing but are not required to disclose all of the ingredients on their labels.* They can create formulas using any ingredient with the exception of these eleven restrictions, and it’s up to consumers and researchers to present proof of problems.
How are cosmetic products tested?
Ingredients in cosmetics are tested individually for short-term health problems like allergic reactions. But combining ingredients may cause problems that were not observed when they were studied individually. However, it is not practical to test every combination and dose of ingredients in the actual products.
Very little information is available on long-term health impacts of most cosmetics because studies would need to go on for at least ten years to determine if an ingredient or cosmetic was harmful. So looking at the risk from a using a sunscreen over time would be complicated by the fact that, even if the people in the study kept using the same sunscreen over many years, the product itself would likely change.
Therefore, scientists must resort to other types of tests, typically of only one or two ingredients at a time, at much higher doses and through different routes of exposure than people would normally have, to try to determine the potential of a chemical to be harmful.*
What’s really in our products?
Many of the chemicals used in cosmetics are unsafe in high concentrations or doses. However, even in small quantities they may still cause allergic reactions or disruptions to the endocrine system.
Endocrine disruptors (EDCs) contribute to health problems by mimicking, blocking or otherwise interfering with the body’s natural hormones. By hijacking the body’s chemical messengers, EDCs can alter the way cells develop and grow.*
There is substantial evidence indicating that endocrine disruptors contribute to the risk of cancer, developmental problems, diabetes, and possibly also obesity, the metabolic syndrome, infertility and subfertility.
The Endocrine Society and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) stress the importance of the precautionary principle in the absence of direct information regarding cause and effect.
This infographic highlights some of the chemicals present in personal care products identified by the EWG to have moderate to high hazards to human health.
Toxicity is dose dependent
Chemical toxicity relates to the quantity as opposed to the nature of the chemical (natural or synthetic).
Some of the chemical compounds found naturally in plants, are toxic to humans in small amounts. Similarly, there are many synthetic compounds which are harmless unless ingested at very high doses. All chemicals, if taken in a high enough dose, can be toxic.*
It remains, however, very difficult to determine which substances, at which point in time and at which concentrations, actually increase risk.
The truth behind labels
Beauty is a business. Misleading labeling is increasingly common, like when conditioner is labeled "sulfate-free" even though it would never have contained sulfates in the first place.
Consumers concerns about the use of harmful ingredients and formulations in cosmetics have lead to many brands replacing chemicals with natural ingredients. However, the word ‘natural’ has been used very loosely by marketers due in part to the lack of regulation in the cosmetics industry.
Is 'clean' the new 'natural?
'Clean' is not a regulated classification either so it has different meanings, but the essential criteria is understood as products that do not contain ingredients that have been demonstrably linked to harmful health effects.*
The clean beauty movement embraces both natural and chemical ingredients, putting the focus on safety over source.
A stamp doesn't mean the product is safer either, but it does indicate that it's passed certain guidelines. Look for labels like USDA Organic, Non-GMO and EWG verified.
Are health problems the only issue?
The production of synthetic chemicals also has a negative impact on the workers who manufacture them and on the environment. Chemical ingredients like petroleum jelly are not environmentally sustainable, although the same could be argued around the risk of overharvesting natural ingredients.
The beauty industry needs a shift across the board to green chemistry, an approach that focuses on designing chemicals in ways that avoid hazardous substances. But cosmetics manufacturers have been slow to embrace green chemistry as they have primarily been concerned with making products that consumers want, with less regard to where the ingredients come from.
Innovative green chemistry ingredients cost more and formulating on a low budget according to green chemistry principles simply does not work. A balance needs to be found between sustainability and cost.*
There is no evidence that cosmetic products labeled as “natural”, "non-toxic," or "clean" are in fact safer than products that do not carry these labels. More information is needed on the extent to which the ingredients in cosmetics are absorbed and retained in the body during normal usage.
Awareness and educating yourself is the key to a healthy relationship with your skincare. Choose brands that are completely transparent about their formulations and evaluate products on their own merit, regardless of labels.