Facial cleansers— washes, scrubs, toners, masks, acne treatments, and more—are a fundamental part of a daily skin care regimen for many, but the list of ingredients on the back labels often read like a science experiment. Ingredients in commercial cleansers may include synthetic chemicals that can contaminate water and soil upon disposal, and are classified as toxic substances.
In fact, the average woman uses about 12 body and skin care products a day, each containing about 10 different chemicals, applying a total of 120 chemicals daily to her body. Only 11 percent of the 10,500 chemicals used in these products have ever been tested for safety. One-third of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Research shows that skin can absorb as much as 60 percent of whatever is applied to it.
As eco-conscious consumers everywhere learn about the health risks and eco-perils associated with conventional cleansers, and realize that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in it, sales of natural and organic personal care products are skyrocketing, with projected revenues of $7.8 billion in the US in 2008. But without knowing how to decipher the ingredients listed on the label, or what better ingredients to look for, seeking out a green cleanser may seem overwhelming. Learn which ingredients to avoid (and which to look for instead), as well as which labels and certifications will ensure a product's eco-friendliness, to take the uncertainty out of your next bubbly buy.
Ingredients to avoid: Common chemicals in facial cleansers
Skin and body care products are made up of ingredients that fall into four broad categories: the carrier (which makes up most of the product), colorants or dyes, fragrances, and preservatives. The FDA requires that ingredients in food, drugs, and cosmetics be listed in descending order of quantity, but ingredient lists can be hard to decipher. Below is a list of the most common—and most toxic—chemicals found in skin care products, including facial cleansers:
Antibacterial soaps and facial cleansers have been touted as a way to kill bacteria more effectively. However, studies have shown that these products, many of which contain the chemical triclosan, contribute to the creation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and are no more effective than ordinary soaps. In the greater environment, antibacterial cleansers also cause problems for septic systems, where they kill some of the beneficial bacteria needed to break down wastes. Triclosan has been found in 55 percent of streams examined in 2002 at levels high enough to disrupt the natural life cycle of frogs.
What to look for: If a cleanser is labeled as being antibacterial, inspect the ingredients to see if triclosan is among them.
Phthalates are used as plasticizers—they give plastics more flexibility and make them less brittle—and in lotions and beauty products to make them smooth. They're also used to "fix" fragrances and make them last longer, to help products penetrate the skin better, and to prevent nail polish from chipping. A 2002 test of 72 name-brand beauty products found almost three-quarters contained phthalates.
Phthalates are linked to endocrine disruption; neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disorders; toxicity of the brain, kidneys, liver, and lungs; and birth defects in the male reproductive system. Research from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows a probable link between phthalates and asthma, as well as allergies. Phthalates are just one of the chemicals that the EWG found polluting the San Francisco Bay. Check out EWG's phthalates cheat sheet for more info.
What to look for on the label: Phthalates don't have to be called out on the label: any cleanser that lists "fragrance" in its ingredients can contain phthalates. Choose products with fragrances made from plants and essential oils, and those that spell out what's in their fragrance. Avoid products listing Diethyl phthalate (DEP), a known carcinogen, as an ingredient.
Parabens—preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria—are found in about 75 to 90 percent of cosmetic and personal care products. After washing off a facial cleanser containing parabens, these chemicals are discharged through wastewater systems and end up in waterways, where they appear to have estrogenic effects on fish. In humans, 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).
What to look for on the label: Look for a cleanser that says "paraben free" on the label. Avoid products that list methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben as ingredients.
Making sense of green claims on product labels
As if the ingredient lists weren't murky enough, a lack of regulation allows personal care product companies to tout their products' green attributes with claims that at times can be confusing and misleading, and without any third party certification that the claims are true. To help you determine whether your new facial cleaner will provide a green wash, or it's just a product of greenwashing, learn more about product testing, labeling, and reputable certifications:
Lack of testing for safety of facial cleansers
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of personal care products and cosmetics, which it describes as all products "intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering appearance.
Yet, despite the fact that the FDA is charged with ensuring the safety of cosmetic and personal care products, neither the actual products nor ingredients are reviewed or approved by the FDA before they're sold to the public. It's up to the manufacturer to ensure that a product is safe, and to theoretically attach a warning label if it isn't. Clear safety guidelines are lacking, and no independent third-party safety testing is required. Submitting product formulations is voluntary, and according to the FDA, only about 35 percent of cosmetic companies do so. While the European Union (EU) approved a cosmetic ingredient listing of over 1,000 prohibited substances, the FDA list only prohibits eight.
One murky area is the term “organic.” While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for skin care products. The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards. Some companies use the USDA certified organic food standard, which requires 95 percent of the ingredients to be organic. Others use the less stringent California state standard for organic cosmetic products, which requires at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. And still others label their products organic without meeting any external criterion.
In the meantime, a nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International has released a draft set of rules for organic personal care products and a group of 30 cosmetic companies recently devised their own set of specifications called Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards (OASIS). How it all washes out remains to be seen.
On May 1, 2008, the Natural Products Association announced the Natural Seal for Personal Care Products, a new certification program that defines "natural" and includes an easily-identified seal. Advisers to the association include Aubrey Organics, Burt’s Bees, Badger Balm, California Baby, Farmaesthetics, Trilogy Fragrances, and Weleda.
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. So 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.
Eco-friendly facial cleansers are increasingly easy to find
The good news is that once you've mastered the art of deciphering product labels on facial cleansers, natural varieties are increasingly easy to find in stores. Big box stores like Target and Wal-mart are jumping on the natural and organic body and skin care bandwagon. Target announced in March of 2008 that it will carry Alba, Avalon Organics, Burt’s Bees, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Jason Natural Products, Juice Organics, Kiss My Face and Weleda cosmetics in all 1,591 of its US stores.
Even CVS Caremark, the largest US retail pharmacy chain, announced in May of 2008 that it's replacing chemicals in it's store-brand products that are linked to health problems and substituting safer ingredients, making it the first large drugstore chain in the US to institute a cosmetics safety policy.
In a recent study that shook the natural products industry, 100 “natural” and “organic” soaps, shampoos, dish liquids, lotions, and body washes were tested and nearly half contained 1,4-Dioxane, a carcinogenic chemical. This toxin has been found in conventional personal care products, but this study commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) was the first to test green products.
In scientific studies, 1,4-Dioxane has caused cancer in animals; scientists have not yet confirmed the long-term effects on humans. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says current levels do not pose a hazard to consumers but they have advised manufacturers to lower amounts in cosmetics as much as possible. None of the products tested that were Certified Organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) contained 1,4-Dioxane. In response to this study, some of the affected companies have said they will work toward removing 1,4-Dioxane from their products.
- 1,4-dioxane: A petroleum-derived contaminant classified as a probable human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- endocrine glands: Organs that secrete hormones directly into our bloodstreams, including the thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary glands.
- American Center for Dermatology
- Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- New York Times - Natural, Organic Beauty
- Restroom Critic - Cancer In Your Bathroom?
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- Nutrition Business Journal - Natural & Organic Personal Care Report 2008
- TreeHugger - There's a Frog Disrupter in my Soap
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- Winter, Ruth (2005) A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. New York: Three Rivers Press: 41-555
- The Green Guide - Lip and Eye Makeup