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Bat your baby blues knowing that you won't be harming your health or polluting the planet for the sake of beauty: choose organic, natural, and cruelty-free mascaras that are free of harmful petrochemicals, mercury, parabens, titanium dioxide, and coal tar colorants.

What to look for when choosing a natural mascara

  1. Avoid petroleum-based mascaras: Petrochemicals—including petroleum distillates, isoparaffins, and D&C Black No. 2—are the primary ingredients in most mascaras. Petroleum is an unsustainable fossil fuel, the manufacture of which is damaging to the earth and the environment. The FDA requires that cosmetic ingredients be listed in descending order of quantity: America's #1 top-selling mascara in the pink-and-green tube lists petroleum distillates as its number one ingredient. A leading "hypoallergenic" mascara lists C9-11 Isoparaffin as its second ingredient.
  2. Read ingredient lists carefully to avoid health-threatening chemicals, and opt for plant-based ingredients instead: Specifically, don't buy mascaras that contain mercury (phenylmercuric acetate and thimerosal), coal tar colorants (D&C Black No. 2), titanium dioxide, parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben), or formaldehyde (pentaerythrityl hydrogenated rosinate, quaternium-15, and imidazolidinyl urea).
  3. Go organic: Cosmetics can claim to be organic and still contain 30 percent or more synthetic ingredients. With 70 percent organic content, the label can say "made with organic ingredients"; with less than 70 percent organic ingredients, "organic" can't be used on the packaging except in the ingredients list to call out specific organic ingredients. To be sure that your mascara is truly organic, look for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Seal on the label. This seal certifies that the mascara contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
  4. Look for mascara that does not employ animal testing: While you're contemplating green attributes, you may also wish to join the cruelty-free movement. Just keep in mind: a company may claim that they don’t employ animal testing for their products, but without third-party verification, it’s hard to know whether these statements are in fact completely true. Leaping BunnySo stick to those products certified as cruelty-free by looking for products with the Leaping Bunny Logo or the Certified Vegan Logo. You can rest assured that no bunnies (or monkeys or cats for that matter) were harmed in the making of these non-animal-tested products.
  5. Check for international certifications for products sold outside the US: Also look for seals that indicate certification by these organizations: Germany's BDIH, France's Ecocert, the UK's Soil Association, Italy's AIAB, and Australia's Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA). BDIH addresses "natural" products, while the rest offer organic certifications.[1]
  6. Minimize packaging waste: Avoid mascara with the tube encased in a plastic bubble pack mounted on a cardboard backing. Over one-quarter of America’s trash is packaging—about 525 pounds per person—and this unnecessary packaging serves no purpose other than to merchandise the product.

Find it! Natural mascara

Before you buy

While seeking certifications to verify a product's green claims, beware labels claiming that a mascara is "natural". Natural has no current legal definition, but on May 1, 2008, the Natural Products Association (NPA) announced a new certification program that defines "natural" and includes an easily-identified seal. The certification requires that a product contain at least 95 percent all natural ingredients. While not yet applicable to cosmetics like mascara, keep an eye out for an expanded range of certification in the future.

Also be wary of products labeled as hypoallergenic. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states, "There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term 'hypoallergenic.' The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean." On the upside, products designated as hypoallergenic may have common irritants removed, and are often fragrance free.[2]

Buying natural mascara helps you go green because…

  • It keeps harmful petroleum distillates and coal tar derivatives from polluting the environment.
  • It avoids the release of carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere, which result from titanium mining.
  • It eliminates the release of mercury: industrially released mercury is linked to increased autism rates in children.

What's in your mascara can really be an eye opener. Common ingredients include petroleum distillates, shellac (a resinous insect secretion), acrylates, phenylmercuric acetate (a preservative made from benzenes and mercury), parabens (plasticisers that act as hormone disruptors), quaternium-15 (an antimicrobial agent that releases formaldehyde) and pentaerythrityl (a resin made from formaldehyde). Lash-extending products can contain plasticisers such as polyurethane, which can cause cancer in animals, and polystyrene sulfonate, which can irritate eyes and may be a hormone disruptor.

Some of the most health-endangering ingredients in mascara include:

  • Mercury: A toxic heavy metal, mercury is used as a preservative in eye makeup. A known neurotoxin, it's often on the label as "thimerosal"—the same controversial preservative found in vaccines linked to autism. It can cause personality changes, nervousness, fever, rash, and even death. On January 1, 2008, Minnesota became the first state to ban mercury in mascara, eye liners, and skin-lightening creams. Under the new law, retailers selling eye makeup containing mercury face $700 fines and manufacturers who fail to disclose mercury in their ingredient lists face a stiff $10,000 penalty. Mercury-containing mascara, however, is not prohibited by the FDA and is still legal in other states.[3]
  • Coal tar: A thick, liquid waste product that results from the processing of bituminous coal. The coal tar that you're coating your eyelashes with is the same substance that's elsewhere classified as hazardous waste, and the subject of Superfund cleanups. In the 1930s, women suffered allergic reactions to a coal-tar-based cosmetic called Lash Lure: one woman became blind and another died. As a result, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938 and Lash Lure was the first product seized under the act.[4] Long banned from cosmetics, coal tar dyes are back: D&C Black No. 2 is allowed in mascara, with limits set on the amount of lead, arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals it may contain. Almost all coal tars have been shown to cause cancer when injected in mice.
  • Titanium: A pigment used in many cosmetics, including mascara, titanium is extracted from open mines—some in Georgia and Florida—and processed using chlorine, which releases large amounts of carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere and persists in the environment. Dioxins can accumulate in animals and people and have been found in shellfish in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi, close to a titanium dioxide refinery. Titanium dioxide shouldn't be inhaled, and can cause lung damage in high concentrations.
  • Preservatives: Preservatives are used in mascara to increase shelf life and prevent contamination from bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. Microorganisms can cause product discoloration or separation. More importantly, they can cause eye infections. Many commonly used preservatives, however, carry their own specific risks:
    • Parabens can affect the endocrine system, which produces hormones. Acting like estrogen in the body, they increase the risk of breast cancer, with recent studies finding parabens in breast tumors. Skin exposure is more of a risk than parabens in food, since the digestive system breaks them down. Parabens have been found in breast milk, blood, and body tissues, and can enter a developing fetus. Parabens can also cause contact dermatitis (skin rashes).
    • Formaldehyde isn't usually listed as an ingredient on cosmetic labels, but it's released by many common preservatives found in mascara, such as pentaerythrityl hydrogenated rosinate, quaternium-15, and imidazolidinyl urea. Formaldehyde was at one time banned by the FDA for use in cosmetics and is a known carcinogen. Imidazolidinyl urea is linked to contact dermatitis, mutagenic effects, cell toxicity, and skin toxicity. Quaternium-15, which contains and/or releases formaldehyde, is also used in cosmetics and is linked to allergic reactions, skin sensitization, reproductive effects, and birth defects.

Controversies

On July 20, 2007, the FDA added D&C Black No. 3 as an allowable color additive in eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, and face powder. D&C Black No. 3, also called "bone black", is a black pigment made from cattle bones twice-heated to at least 700 degrees. D&C Black No. 3 may contain low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are potential carcinogens. Since it's made from cattle bones, another potential safety concern acknowledged by the FDA is the risk from using cattle materials in bone black that might be infected with the agent that causes Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The FDA therefore requires that manufacturers and processors keep records to show that the cosmetic doesn't contain "prohibited cattle materials."

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