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Although they're typically not part of daily beauty regimens, face masks are a special occasion staple in medicine cabinets for a variety of good reasons: to tighten pores, remove impurities, clarify and brighten the skin, or to simply indulge the dermis with a treat. While some might be skeptical about the effectiveness of au natural face mask ingredients—clays, muds, essential oils, and salad staples like avocado and cucumber—they're a more earth- and health-friendly alternative to chem-laden masks containing parabens, phthalates, and assorted synthetics.

What to look for when choosing a natural face mask

When choosing a natural face mask, look for the following:

  1. Avoid antibacterial agents: A recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that triclosan—the main antibacterial agent in soaps—can be linked to cancer in lab animals, may disrupt hormone function in humans, and is a non-biodegradable toxic agent that pollutes ecosystems and threatens wildlife when it is discharged into the water stream.
  2. Look for plant-based, biodegradable ingredients: Conventional face masks are made from petroleum-derived chemicals that persist in the environment, creating pollution and threatening human health. Face masks that use plant-based ingredients and essential oils for fragrance replace these dangerous ingredients with ones that are healthy for you and the earth. In particular, try to avoid ingredients like parabens and phthalates, and seek out face masks labeled as biodegradable.
  3. Go organic: Because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spends only a tiny portion of its budget investigating the chemical composition and toxins in skin care products, soaps can tout their use of organic ingredients and still have up to 30 percent synthetic materials, even the ones labeled "organic" or "made with organic ingredients." The only way to be sure that the product you are purchasing is, in fact, organic USDA Organicis too look for the USDA Organic Seal on the label. This seal guarantees that every ingredient is organically produced as defined by the National Organics Standards Board, which bans the use of harmful pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering.
  4. Look for face masks that do not contain animal fats or 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.

Find it! Natural face masks

Below, we've highlighted some of the cleanest and greenest face masks out there, ranging from increasingly easy-to-find natural brands to prestige selections. And for those looking to go the DIY face mask route—foodies will especially benefit—Ecobites.com, College Candy, and Eco-Chick have some all-natural suggestions.

Before you buy

Keep in mind that if you choose a face mask concocted with green ingredients in lieu of an easy-to-find variety, you'll likely be confronted with a higher price tag as chemicals generally come cheaper than botanical, organic-certified ingredients. For example, a 2.3 fluid ounce container of Korres Cinnamon & Natural Clay Mask will set you back $27 while 6.8 fluid ounces of Got 2b In Your Face Pure Intent Clay Masque cost $7.00.

Choosing a natural face mask helps you go green because...

  • They rely on ingredients found in nature, not health- and eco-unfriendly chemicals, to keep skin clean, radiant, and healthy without causing additional derma-woes.
  • Like other conventional skincare and cosmetic products, face masks may contain petroleum-derived components. Petroleum is a non-sustainable resource with various eco-repercussions.
  • Many makers of natural face masks also follow green business practices, such as using recycled packaging and harnessing renewable energy sources like wind power.

Like other beauty, hair, and skincare products, such as lipstick, deodorant, and shampoo, popular face masks may contain mineral oil, a petroleum-based substance. The production of the petrochemicals used in skincare products pollutes the environment by releasing hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Mineral oil-based facial cleansers support the hazards of the petroleum industry, which include about 2.6 million gallons of oil spilled every month during transportation and about 71 million pounds of toxins released into the air and water during refinement.[1]

Supplementary preservatives in many skincare products like face masks include BHA, which has a negative impact on aquatic ecosystems and bioaccumulates in the tissues of organisms, and parabens, known endocrine disrupters that are not only detrimental to human health, but also destructive to animal hormones and development. (Studies have found higher levels of parabens in tumors from human breast tissue, but, because the potential damage to the endocrine system has yet to be proven, the controversy surrounding the toxicity of parabens is still being debated.)

Additionally, the potent synthetic antimicrobial agent triclosan, used in some personal care products, has been found in 55 percent of streams examined in 2002 at levels high enough to disrupt the natural life cycle of frogs.[2] Another common synthetic to look out for in face wash is diethanolamine (DEA), a foaming detergent. While DEA is infrequently used in skin and hair care products because it is a known carcinogen, the more commonly used chemicals TEA and MEA are often contaminated with diethanolamine. Lauryl/laureth sulfates are common skin irritants that can dry out the skin and hair with longterm use.

Fragrances

The fragrances in face masks and other skincare products pose risks as well. Fragrances are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which add to air pollution, are persistent in the environment, and contaminate waterways and aquatic wildlife. An estimated 5.72 million Americans have skin allergies to fragrance, while around 72 percent of those suffering from asthma claim that their condition can be triggered by synthetic fragrance.[3] Face masks with artificial fragrances can also contain phthalates, widely used industrial chemicals that are estrogenic or anti-androgenic. Studies conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health reveal a link between monoethyl phthalate, a chemical used to preserve scent in perfumes and colognes, and sperm damage.[4] Click here for a breakdown of the leading chemicals found in fragrance products and their related health effects.

Controversies

In a 2008 study that shook the natural products industry, 100 “natural” and “organic” soaps, shampoos, dish liquids, lotions, body washes, and deodorants 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.[5]

In scientific studies, 1,4-Dioxane has caused cancer in animals; scientists are not positive of the long-term effects on humans. The FDA says current levels do not pose a hazard to consumers but have advised manufacturers to lower amounts in cosmetics as much as possible.[6] None of the products tested that were Certified Organic by the 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.[6]

Organic labeling

The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards for organic labeling of personal care products. While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for body care products. 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. Fortunately, the guidelines for labeling a soap as "100% Organic" are strict. Products carrying this label must contain all organic ingredients.

To clear up this confusion, 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.

Glossary

  • 1,4-dioxane: A petroleum-derived contaminant classified as a probable human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): A chemical preservative used in cosmetics and certain foods to prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid.
  • parabens: This family of synthetic preservatives (which includes methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butyl-parabens) can possibly disrupt the endocrine system.
  • phthalates: Additives commonly used in plastics and other materials, mainly to make them soft and flexible, that may damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.
  • triclosan: An antibacterial agent that may form dioxin and chloroform in the right circumstances, both probable carcinogens.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air and may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

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