Mother Earth Living

Body by Nature: Safe Cosmetics and Natural Skincare

Americans slather, suds, scrub, polish and perfume with wild abandon, choosing from a dizzying array of gels and creams, pastes and foams. Thousands of products vie for our attention with their promises of fresher breath, whiter teeth, glossier hair and clearer skin. Fortunately, today, more and more cosmetic companies are also looking for ways to avoid long lists of chemical ingredient and are starting to put out products that are better for our bodies and the planet.

Beyond the Name Game

Whether you know it or not, you already are familiar — and intimately so — with what lurks within the alphabet soup of ingredients on the backside of your cosmetic bottles. Your skin absorbs some of what you slather on it. To some degree or another, says Ruth Winter, author of A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, all chemicals penetrate the skin, some, in “significant amounts.” Researchers have been studying the effects of some cosmetic chemicals, and the results show why we should read labels carefully and avoid some products.

In 2002, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, Americans reported more than 2 million poison exposures, 52 percent in children under 6. The most common cause? Ingestion of household products, with cosmetics and personal care products topping the list.

Allergies — ranging from itchy skin to burning, watery eyes — are common reactions to cosmetics, reports the American Academy of Dermatology. Studies show that one in 10 people experience adverse reactions to cosmetics in their lifetime.

Some cosmetics can make it difficult to breathe easily, especially for asthmatics. Toluene, a chemical detected in every fragrance sample tested in a 1991 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, triggers attacks and also can cause asthma in healthy people.

According to Dr. Samuel Epstein and David Steinman, authors of The Safe Shopper’s Bible, some cosmetic ingredients also are possible players in chronic health problems like cancer, birth defects and multiple chemical sensitivities.

Some cosmetic industry spokespeople say that actual human exposure to individual substances and potential toxins falls far below the levels at which scientists test in laboratory studies. However, no one is exposed to just a single dose of one particular chemical. A 2003 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found more than 116 different chemical compounds in a sample of adults and children whose exposures were such everyday, routine actions as drawing a glass of water form the tap to spritzing on perfume daily. The chemical compounds found in the test sample included dioxins — byproducts of chlorine that have been linked to cancer — and phthalates, which impair reproductive function and are found in a wide range of personal care products.

Epstein estimates that we are bombarded daily with a chemical cocktail, the synergistic effects of which we do not yet understand. But he notes what researchers do know is that chronic diseases and problems like cancer, asthma, birth defects and infertility are on the rise, and now affect more than 100 million Americans. To what extent these increases are the results of chemicals in cosmetics, no one really knows. But given the uncertainties, it only makes sense to reduce our contact with chemicals as much as possible.

Read the Fine Print

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors what goes in our food, drugs and cosmetics, less than 1 percent of the FDA’s budget is allocated to monitoring cosmetic product safety. Unlike food and drugs, which need prior approval before they hit store shelves, cosmetics can be regulated only after their appearance in the marketplace.

When a food is labeled “certified organic,” it means that it was produced and handled according to the standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

But when it comes to cosmetics, the terms “organic” or “natural” can mean just about anything because the FDA has yet to establish definitions or criteria for these products.

A few personal care products use certified organic ingredients and are allowed to use the “USDA Certified Organic” label. But some companies are taking liberties with labels to tap into the burgeoning new natural and organic goods market.

“They [the manufacturers] could wave a tube of plant extract over a bottle and declare it ‘natural,'” John Baily, a former director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, says in Drop Dead Gorgeous.

So how can you read through the hype and hoopla to decipher what’s safe? When it comes to cosmetics, the best strategy is to become a conscious consumer: Arm yourself with information and read labels. The bottom line? You don’t have to give up your primping and powdering.

Choose it, or Lose it?


Choose natural: Made from vegetable dyes and insect husks, natural colors are a safer alternative to artificial colors. Look for ingredients such as henna, annatto, beta-carotene and chlorophyll.

Lose artificial: All FD&C and D&C colors (found in everything from shampoos to lipsticks) are made from coal tar, a liquid or semisolid tar found in bituminous coal, which can contain many toxins including benzene, xylene and phenol.


Choose pure essential oils: Essential oils — steam distilled or expressed from the petals, leaves, rinds and barks of plants — are a natural alternative to synthetic fragrances. Shop for pure essential oils and buy organic when you can: Avoid products labeled “essence,” “perfume” or “fragrance” oil — these are imposters. Essential oils are concentrated and may be skin irritants, so dilute them with distilled water or in a base of grapeseed or jojoba oil before use.

Lose synthetic: Most of the synthetic fragrance ingredients available (more than 3,000) have never been tested for safety. A 1991 EPA study tested only 31 fragrance products for toxicological properties; many of the products’ chemicals also were found in the EPA’s own Toxic Substance Control Act. With two routes of entry — through the lungs by inhaling the scent and through the skin by topical application — toxins in perfumes are readily absorbed and some accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues. A 1999 study detected the synthetic musk, xylene, which has been linked to higher miscarriage rates in humans, in the blood of both human and animal subjects.


Choose vegetable oils and waxes: These are suitable replacements for mineral oil, plus they are renewable, unlike petrochemicals. Sweet almond oil, beeswax, grapeseed oil and jojoba oil are a few of the oils and waxes that are a better choice. Glycerin, a byproduct of soap-making, does the same job as propylene glycol, helping preserve the moisture content and spreadability in products. And while plant-based oils vary in their propensity to clog pores, many rank lower than petroleum-based propylene glycol.

Lose petrochemicals: Many chemicals used to thicken body care products can cause skin irritation, and some have been linked to other chronic problems, including central nervous system disorders, reproductive problems, birth defects and cancer. A mixture of refined liquid hydrocarbons derived from petroleum, mineral oil and petrolatum are popular additives in many products, including lotions, creams and conditioners. They can clog pores and reduce the skin’s ability to eliminate toxins. Another ubiquitous ingredient in commercial cosmetics, propylene glycol (also known as 1, 2-propanediol), is a petroleum plastic used as a moisture-carrying agent. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health labels it a neurotoxin.


Choose safer preservatives: Grapefruit seed extract, phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, sorbic acid, tocopherol (vitamin E), vitaminA (retinyl) and vitamin C (ascorbic acid) cause the least irritation and fewest allergic reactions, Epstein says.

Lose formaldehyde: The following ingredients may contain, release or break down into formaldehyde: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol; diazolidinyl urea; DMDM hydantoin; imidazolidninyl urea; quaternium 15. Formaldehyde is used in nail polish, nail hardeners, soap, shampoos and deodorants as a cheap and effective fungicide and preservative, but studies question its safety. Researchers have found that formaldehyde causes cancer in rats and damages DNA; it might also act with other ingredients to mutate cells and produce cancer-causing effects. Sweden and Japan have banned formaldehyde use in cosmetics.


Choose phthalate-free: To obtain a list of phthalate-free cosmetics, visit Not Too Pretty’s web site

Lose phthalates: Phthalates are a diverse group of chemicals that do everything from making nail polish chip-resistant to making perfume scents last longer. In 2002, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested 72 name-brand cosmetics and found phthalates in nearly three out of four samples. Phthalates cause a broad range of birth defects in laboratory animals; they are particularly damaging to the male reproductive system, reducing sperm count and causing testicular malformations.

Choose nitrosamine-free: See our recommendations below.

Lose nitrosamines: Nitrosamines form when two ingredients — the amines (which are surfactants, emulsifiers and detergents) and nitrate compounds — interact. Ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate, diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) can form nitrosamines. According to cosmetics author Winter, many nitrosamines are “among the most potent cancer-causing agents found.”

Natural Solutions Come Clean

We love these cosmetics for what they’re not: These products are free of petrochemicals, animal products, artificial colors and synthetic fragrances. Besides making products that make you look good, many of the companies also have invested in feel-good, socially responsible endeavors, from preserving open space to supporting organic agriculture. You can find many of these products at your local health food store, online at or through the individual web listings.

Aubrey Organics
For more than three decades, Aubrey Organics has been formulating some of the safest body-care products according to its stringent guidelines of protecting human health and caring for the planet. Free of petrochemicals and synthetics, its products are made in small batches from ingredients like cocoa butters, castile soaps and essential oils. Their Natural Spa Sea Wonders line is the first cosmetics line to bear to the USDA’s certified organic seal. Find their products at natural food stores or at

Although now owned by the cosmetic giant Estee Lauder, Aveda — a salon-line cosmetics company — is striving to stick to its original grassroots mission: using primarily plant- and mineral-based natural ingredients. Besides many feel-good (and smells-great!) products, Aveda also caters to the socially conscientious consumer, supporting indigenous cultures and sustainable agriculture. Product packaging cleverly incorporates post-consumer recycled content. Available at Aveda Concept Salons and some department stores and other beauty salons, visit to find a location near you.

Burt’s Bees
Beeswax and botanicals give Burt’s Bees products their glowingly good vibe. An adherent to using quality ingredients derived from plants (and insects), Burt’s Bees also uses minimal packaging. Most products come in No. 2 plastic, aluminum or glass containers to make recycling a breeze. Burt’s also invests in nature and has been acquiring lands to devote to conservation. Since 2000, the company put more than 15,000 acres into conservation easements. Find products at a store near you at

Ecco Bella
With Ecco Bella’s assortment of colorful plant- and mineral-based cosmetics, you can dismiss coal tar colors and petrochemicals. Choose from a veritable rainbow of eyeshadows, cheek and lip colorings, and then stow the stash in a 100 percent hemp bag. Ecco Bella donates a portion of every purchase to support environmental organizations and anti-animal cruelty groups.

Tom’s of Maine
For more than 30 years, Tom’s of Maine has created a full array of products using nothing but ingredients from nature. Products are free of animal ingredients, and artificial preservatives, flavors, colors and sweeteners. Their natural ingredients include such benevolent choices as ginger in toothpaste, lemongrass oil in soaps and lichen in deodorant. All of their packaging, while minimal, is recyclable, including their toothpaste tubes.

  • Published on Dec 1, 2004
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