The green revolution has hit the beauty aisle: Sales of natural and organic skincare topped $600 million in 2008, according to market research firm Mintel. Now many mainstream cosmetic companies want a piece of the green pie—and several have begun to dig in. Between 2007 and 2008, Mintel reports that the number of new products claiming to be natural or organic jumped by 29 percent globally.
So don’t consumers—and the planet—benefit when store shelves overflow with natural lotions, mascaras, toners, and deodorants? Certainly—if these products are truly natural. But since the federal government doesn’t regulate cosmetic ingredients like it does food, any company can slap terms like pure, natural, nature-inspired, eco-safe, and plant-derived on its labels. In reality, these loose eco-adjectives may mask other harsh ingredients, such as phthalates, petroleum, and carcinogenic by-products.
“We need truth in labeling and a governing agency willing to remove toxic chemicals from the supply chain,” says Theo Colburn, PhD, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a Colorado-based nonprofit research review group.
A tale of two beauties
Although the use of most green buzzwords remains unregulated, one term—organic—has recently been beset by guidelines. In 2005, the USDA began certifying agricultural-based beauty and bath products organic using the same standards it applies to fruits and vegetables. By defining organic, the USDA made it slightly more difficult for companies to brandish this term—but this doesn’t regulate every component that goes into a product. Even products certified organic can contain 5 percent unregulated non-agricultural ingredients.
Around the same time the USDA took action, the European Union mandated that companies remove all chemicals deemed carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins from any cosmetics sold there—much tougher than any US measures. Why the discrepancy? When it comes to condemning chemicals, the EU goes by the precautionary principle—prevent harm—while the US subscribes to the prove-harm approach, says Stacy Malkan, cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just Another Pretty Face (New Society Publishers, 2007). The new EU guidelines meant global cosmetic companies were forced to either reformulate every product or create two separate lines. Malkan says many chose the latter, producing clean products for Europe and toxic stews for Americans.
The US did, however, break major ground in cosmetic safety with the California Safe Cosmetics Act, which took effect in 2007. The law requires companies selling cosmetics in California to disclose any ingredients with suspected links to cancer or birth defects. Five more states—Illinois, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, and Washington—have considered, but haven’t approved, similar legislation in the past few years.
Fake it till you make it
While these regulations have pushed cosmetic companies to be more forthcoming about ingredients and practices, the measures have also sparked more elaborate posturing. Some companies boast about green efforts they have made, while glossing over ones they have not, a practice known as “greenwashing.” According to Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence (Broadway Books, 2009), companies that greenwash “improve one aspect of a product out of self-interest but do nothing about the other negative impacts. That kind of green is a mirage.”
The environmental marketing group TerraChoice uses its website to expose greenwashing “sins” companies commonly commit, such as using vague language to mislead consumers. For instance, a label may use the term all-natural on its packaging to describe uranium and formaldehyde. Even though both occur naturally, they are potentially poisonous.
How else can you tell which companies are green and which are greenwashers? You can check whether they’ve signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge created by a national coalition of health and environmental groups. By signing the compact, companies agree to use safer ingredients and meet the EU’s cosmetic directive. The Body Shop, owned by L’Oréal, for instance, signed the compact in 2004 and has since phased out phthalates, a reproductive toxin.
World without standards
It’s much easier—and cheaper—for companies to trumpet green efforts than to reformulate entire product lines, which can cost billions of dollars. And without universal ingredient standards, marketing is the way most will choose to go green. “The last thing any of these companies touch is the chemical formulation of their products,” Malkan says. “But it’s the ingredients that offer the most intimate—and potentially the most toxic—connection consumers have with skincare products.”
American consumer and environmental groups aren’t waiting for more federal regulation to control the chemicals in beauty products. Many independent cosmetic standards and certifications have emerged in an attempt to prompt companies to make toxin-free products and to help consumers know which items are clean enough to purchase. Selecting safe products, however, is still complicated since each standard allows and excludes different ingredients.
For instance, Whole Foods Market’s Premium Body Care Standards have a zero-tolerance policy for more than 300 ingredients, including parabens and phthalates. “Why risk exposure to potentially unsafe ingredients when inherently safer ones are available?” asks Jody Villecco, quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market. “We took more of a precautionary philosophy when crafting Premium Body Care: If there were any indication of harm associated with an ingredient, we excluded it, especially if there were safer alternatives available.”
At the same time, both the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification—which evaluates ingredients, processes, and packaging for social responsibility, sustainability, and materials reuse—and GoodGuide—a website that rates products based on their health, environmental, and social impacts—maintain that some parabens get an unfair rap. Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations for McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, the group that developed C2C, points out that the easily degradable methylparaben has much lower toxicity and endocrine-disruption potential than propylparaben and butylparaben, making methylparaben acceptable by C2C standards.
Confused? Lisa Archer, national coordinator of The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, knows huge data gaps exist in research on chemicals, yet she supports erring on the side of prudence rather than proof. “We urge precaution in the absence of better data,” she says. “What we’re dealing with is a broken system, with no guidance for consumers.”
Greening the lily
While some mainstream companies are using the green movement to peddle more products, others truly have taken great strides. According to Villecco, “It’s easy to bash big companies, but because everything they do is on such a large scale, even small steps have an enormous impact.”
Estée Lauder–owned companies Origins and Aveda, for example, have reduced their carbon footprints and are improving product formulations. Origins recently excluded parabens, phthalates, and animal ingredients (except cruelty-free honey and beeswax) from its products. The company also prints its packaging on recycled paper, has planted 23,000 trees, and in April launched Return to Origins Recycling Program, a first-of-its-kind program that collects empty beauty product containers—regardless of brand—right in its stores and then recycles them.
As for Aveda, seven of its products have earned the extremely selective C2C Gold certification. The company began phasing parabens out of new offerings in 2003, uses 100 percent wind power at its headquarters and largest manufacturing facility, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2013. Also, Aveda bottle caps are made from recycled materials courtesy of the innovative Recycle Caps With Aveda program, which collects rigid polypropylene plastic caps from shampoo, detergent, and even ketchup containers to be recycled into new lids.
Despite these advancements, however, neither Origins nor Aveda lists all ingredients online, and both still use some chemicals of questionable safety. For instance, Aveda’s Rosemary Mint Conditioner contains the preservative diazolidinyl urea, a known skin allergen that has also been linked to cancer and immune system problems. Still, according to Darrin Duber-Smith, president of Boulder, Colorado-based Green Marketing, “green is on a continuum. There’s no such thing as a completely sustainable organization—we all have a carbon footprint.”
Raise your green IQ
So here’s where each consumer can set personal standards and in effect provoke change. “A consumer movement that demands truth in labeling and lets companies know why loyalties are shifting could send a message to the beauty industry to take this more seriously,” says Goleman.
As information becomes more readily available, consumer power increases. Imagine, for instance, the ability to access ingredient info by scanning a barcode into your cell phone. GoodGuide offers an iPhone application that uses information collected by a team of academic and technical experts to evaluate 70,000 different products’ health, environmental, and social impacts. This allows consumers to easily investigate a product’s green claims as they stroll down the beauty aisle. “The age of greenwashing is about to be scientifically disrupted,” says GoodGuide founder Dara O’Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you can’t back it up, you can’t get away with it anymore.”
Whichever tool you use to determine product safety, choosing clean concoctions sends a powerful message to the beauty industry. “The free market is the most effective vehicle of change the world has ever seen,” says Scott McDougall, president and CEO of TerraChoice. “If consumers create demand, the engine of free enterprise will be motivated to deliver on sustainability promises.”
And once you’ve found a luscious natural product, don’t hesitate to spread the word. “Telling your family, Twittering, and posting on Facebook can eventually shift market share,” says Goleman.
If consumers keep making conscious choices, companies that employ misleading practices will eat their words—and consumers will be able to eat the lipstick made by clean companies. That’s right—some experts believe that, to be truly sustainable, personal care products should be pure enough to eat. When this happens, and our only fear about cosmetic ingredients is caloric content, the fight for healthy, natural beauty products will be a fait accompli.
The Beauty Brigade
How natural is your beauty routine, really? These six tools can help you assess product safety, promote clean cosmetics, and recycle your empty containers.
* Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s extensive database, provides safety ratings for more than 46,000 personal-care products. cosmeticsdatabase.com
* GoodGuide rates the health, social, and environmental impacts of over 70,000 food, toy, personal-care, and household products. It includes a Contact This Company button with every rating, which lets you tell businesses how you feel about their products. goodguide.com
* TerraChoice’s website tells you how to send postcards to companies that exaggerate sustainability. sinsofgreenwashing.org
* The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a Take Action section on its website that links to a petition asking Congress to help regulate the toxins in the cosmetic industry. safecosmetics.org
* Return to Origins Recycling Program. Bring empty bottles, tubes, and jars of any cosmetic company’s products to Origins stores to be recycled. origins.com
* Recycle Caps With Aveda. Aveda stores have recycling bins for bottle caps of any brand. aveda.com