So you've made the switch to using more "natural" beauty products and you're feeling really good about it. However, before you grab that face wash off the shelf just because it says "natural" take a moment to read the back label. Unfortunately, just opting for a product advertised as "natural" doesn't always mean it contains safe or sustainably sourced ingredients. Environmental health and consumer right-to-know advocate Mia Davis uncovers the beauty bullshit behind the "natural" craze and educates us on how to make smarter and safer consumer choices. Xoxo Alexis & Jess
Hypothetical situation: Someone has placed two cosmetic products on a table in front of you—let’s say they are powdered bronzers, both the same shade, both look nice. One has the word “natural” on the front of the label, the other does not. The person offering you the cosmetics says, “Did you know that it is perfectly legal for cosmetics companies to use toxic chemicals in their products, and to keep heavy metal contaminants secret from consumers? Yep, it is. Anyway—choose whichever bronzer you’d like!”
Raise your hand if you’re going to reach for the “natural” one, especially now that this nugget of information about toxic chemicals has been passed on to you. I think most people would go for the natural brand, all other things (the look/feel of the product, the fact that they are both free to you) being equal. And you wouldn’t be alone: the natural and organic segment of the cosmetics industry has been growing strong and steady for years, and we’re led to believe that natural cosmetics are better—that is, safer—for us, and better for the environment too.
The truth is more complicated. The word “natural” isn’t regulated in the cosmetics industry, so companies can say almost anything is natural. It is pretty meaningless, unless the company has defined it or is certified by a credible third party. Furthermore, not all natural chemicals are safe, and not all synthetic chemicals are unsafe. There is a difference between ingredient “safety” and ingredient “source.”
"Safety" is about health. Does the ingredient have the potential to harm our health, and if so, how and at what levels? The agency that regulates cosmetics, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), does not define "safe" (and the FDA can’t require that companies substantiate the safety of their products), so it is currently up to companies to determine what "safe" means to them. Most companies start and stop with acute reactions (e.g. irritated skin); they do not look at how repeated use of their product day in and day out, in combination with other products, might impact the user.
“Source” is where the ingredient came from. Was it grown on an organic farm? Harvested from the ocean? Grown on a plantation that used to be a rainforest? Mined from the earth? Created in a laboratory from petroleum-derived chemicals? Created in a laboratory from plant-derived and petroleum-derived chemicals (which many cosmetics companies would still call a “natural” ingredient)? All of these sources are common sources.
As a long time environmental health advocate, I believe that:
- Consumers need to know that safety and source aren’t the same thing,
- Consumers (and workers!) deserve full ingredient transparency and meaningful claims on all products, and
- Companies—all of them—need to take a long-term view when it comes to both source and safety.
Consumers want safer chemicals and safer products. Cosmetics companies should be responding to this by removing chemicals that can have harmful effects at low doses, like hormone disrupters. Those shouldn’t be in the cosmetics we use on our bodies, or on our kids’ bodies. Neither should chemicals that we’re exposed to from other sources, which can build up in our bodies—regardless of whether those ingredients came from the ground (e.g. lead) or a laboratory (e.g. triclosan).
Consumers also clearly want more natural and sustainable chemicals and products. Cosmetics companies should do all they can to source ingredients from reliable sources. Certified organic ingredients, and ingredients grown/harvested/mined in ways that respect the environment and local populations are key.
In an industry with a super complicated supply chain, with chemicals that have little-to-no toxicological information, and when companies can straight-up hide contaminants, fragrances and even preservatives from their product labels, this is no easy matter. But as consumers become more and more aware, and when we demand that “safe” and “natural” actually mean something, then we’ll see action.
Mia Davis is a long-time environmental health and consumer right-to-know advocate. She co-directed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the Coming Clean Workgroup for Safe Markets, and is Head of Health & Safety at Beautycounter, a certified B Corp with the mission to get safe products into everyone’s hands by changing the cosmetics industry and US chemical policy. No problem, right?