As stated on FDA’s website, “FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is different from our authority over other products.” As such, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives. FDA will only intervene as a result of consumer complaints. Therefore, cosmetic companies have extensive latitude in choosing ingredients, except ones that are classified as drugs or color additives.
According to New Max, “more than 500 cosmetic products sold in the U.S. contain ingredients that are banned in Japan, Canada, or Europe.” Interestingly, some cosmetic companies have banned certain harmful ingredients from their products in Europe but still use them in the US and other countries. For example, L’Oreal has discontinued Phthalates in Europe but continues to sell products that contain them in the US.
An analysis of product ingredients by Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals that “more than one in five of all products contain chemicals linked to cancer, 80% contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities, and 56% contain penetration enhancers that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin.” Some of these chemicals or petrochemicals are deemed to be safe in small doses. However, there are two key factors that complicate safety of these chemical ingredients in personal care products. First of all, these ingredients appear in a wide range of products throughout the household. Since many of the ingredients are accumulative in the body, exposure to ingredients in multiple products can exceed the safe levels. Secondly, adverse impact of these ingredients is exacerbated when the body is exposed to multiple types of chemicals resulting in a compounding effect on the body. Therefore, avoiding all synthetics in personal care products is the only safe option.
Absorption of harmful substances through skin is far more dangerous than through oral intake. Harmful substances taken orally go through the digestive system where enzymes in saliva, stomach, and liver break them down and purge them from the body before they enter the bloodstream. However, when these chemical substances are absorbed through the skin, there is no protection mechanism to prevent them from entering the blood stream. As is commonly known, snake venom absorption through the skin is lethal, whereas ingesting it will result in illness, but not death.
Given the potential for devastating adverse impact of chemicals on the body, it is important to distinguish true natural products from others that are branded as natural but contain harmful chemicals. This article is intended to provide guidelines for selecting personal care products that are truly natural and free of harmful chemicals. Common toxic ingredients that must be avoided are also identified and discussed briefly.
Selecting Natural Personal Care Products
Caution needs to be taken when selecting among the wide range of products labeled and marketed as natural. By branding themselves as “Natural”, “Organic”, “Herbal”, or “Botanical”, many products with complex molecules and petrochemical substances aim to deceive unsuspecting consumers. Commonly referred to as “Greenwashed”, these products have misleading buzzwords in their name, brand name, or taglines on their packaging. Fortunately, growing consumer skepticism has led to more stringent scrutiny by resellers. In addition, the power of social media is exposing this unscrupulous behavior of many brands. For example, in early 2016, Honest Company Inc. and Hain Celestial Group Inc. announced widespread re-evaluation of their claims of “no harsh chemicals”, such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), after a Wall Street Journal report went viral on social media. It is clear that ensuring a safe and effective product requires vigilance, discipline, and awareness.
When purchasing personal care products, it is highly advisable to perform a thorough evaluation of the brands and their ingredients to ensure that they are not greenwashed products. Moreover, retailers can garner the trust of consumers interested in genuinely natural products by instituting, enforcing, and publicizing a rigorous evaluation process for selecting natural products. Embarking on such an evaluation initiative need not be a daunting undertaking. This article provides the key elements of creating an evaluation program for natural products as listed below:
- Definitions and Guidelines
- Sources For Creating “Natural-ness” Standards for Evaluation of Brands and Products
- List of Most Harmful Chemicals to Avoid
1. Definitions and Guidelines
Definitions. At the center of the evaluation system is the definition of “natural”. The absence of a universal definition for “natural” has led many organizations to create a definition to meet their specific needs. Perhaps, the most comprehensive definition is by Ecocert. According to Ecocert, natural ingredients can be from four sources (plant, mineral, marine, or animal) with allowance for specific transformations, either physical or chemical. In contrast, “Synthetic ingredients are considered to be any ingredient, fully or partially stemming from a petrochemical origin.” Adopting the Ecocert definition not only establishes a solid foundation, but also simplifies the evaluation of products and their ingredients. Therefore, it is worthwhile to study the Ecocert definitions as the first step to creating a set of standards for evaluating products that are labeled and marketed as “natural”.
Guidelines. A structured, but simple, approach is essential in ensuring a resilient system for evaluating products that claim to be natural. Below are five easy steps to institute and enforce a process that will not only result in genuinely natural products on your shelves, but also allow you to capitalize on the market segment that is keenly interested in authentic natural products.
- Study pre-existing sources (listed in the following section) for evaluating “natural-ness” of ingredients in cosmetic products.
- Create your own “natural-ness” evaluation standards. You may choose to adopt any one of the sources in its entirety or create a hybrid based on your company’s specific customer market.
- Ask your suppliers to provide the entire ingredients list for each product with all unlisted or unclear chemical substances that are usually hidden within some ingredients such as: proteins, extracts, stem cells, fragrance/perfume, natural fragrance/perfume and preservatives.
- Evaluate your current and future product offering based on your standards.
- Publish and educate your sales staff and consumers on the merits of your standards.
2. Sources For Creating “Natural-ness” Standards for Evaluation of Brands and Products
There are a variety of sources to use as the basis for creating your own standards. The most dependable ones are listed below:
- USDA Organic Integrity Database. This is a one-stop shop for validating claims by manufacturers regarding organic certification of their products. If a brand and their products are listed here, then it has passed the strictest standards and no further evaluation of ingredients is necessary. A simple inquiry on this site reveals whether the company has received the USDA Organic certification or not.
- Natural Products Association (NPA). Founded in 1936, NPA is the largest nonprofit US organization dedicated to the natural products industry (foods, dietary supplements, and health/beauty aids). NPA is recognized for its strong lobbying presence in Washington, D.C. and acts as a watchdog on regulatory and legislative issues. They have a very useful list of prohibited and temporary allowed personal care ingredients that are harmful and not considered natural according to their standards. Their list can be found here.
- Whole Foods Market Premium Body Care Standards. Developed by Whole Foods market to evaluate natural products sold in their stores. They have Basic standards and Premium standards. You may choose to adopt either the Basic or the Premier standard, or some combination thereof.
- EU Approved List of Preservatives. In 2009, the European Parliament and The Council of European Union developed a list of allowed preservatives in cosmetic products.
- Ecocert. Founded in France in 1991, it began as a partnership between European nations, but has gradually expanded to many other nations around the world. It is the largest organic certification organizations in the world. ECOCERT primarily certifies food and food products, but also certifies cosmetics, detergents, perfumes, and textiles. There are many ingredients in personal care products that are either certified or not permitted by Ecocert standards.
- COSMOS (COSMetic Organic Standard). In 2010, the five main European organizations involved in organic and natural cosmetics standards came together to create a single, harmonized international standard. The five organizations are: BDIH in Germany, Cosmebio and Ecocert in France, ICEA in Italy, and Soil Association in the UK. The group created the COSMOS-standard AISBL (an international non-profit association registered in Belgium) in order to define common requirements and definitions for organic and/or natural cosmetics. Cosmos Certified Ingredients database can be found here.
3. List of Most Harmful Chemicals to Avoid
This section provides an overview of key toxins, common uses in consumer goods, and their potential harmful effects.
- Aluminum. Found in food and cosmetics, mainly antiperspirants, lipsticks, lip-gloss, and toothpaste. It is linked to Alzheimer’s, other neuro-degenerative diseases, lung cancer, and skin irritation. Aluminum occurs naturally.
- Talcum Powder. It is a mineral, produced by the mining of talc rocks. It is used in baby, foot, and first aid powders; and in cosmetics used as filler and for absorbing moisture or oil. Impure talc can contain asbestos that it is known to cause cancer. However, talc, itself, is also linked to respiratory system and ovarian cancer. Recently Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was forced to pay $72M to the family of a woman who sued the company for her ovarian cancer. For decades, J&J used talc in its Baby Powder and its Shower-to-Shower products knowing that it has a potential to cause ovarian cancer. The jury found that J&J failed to warn consumers of a link between the use of talc-based powder for feminine hygiene and a heightened risk of ovarian cancer.
- Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Ingredients. It is a natural trace compound and a synthetic preservative found in cosmetics. They usually appear as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, and quarternium-15. These ingredients slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer; allergic reactions; eyes, nose, and throat irritation; interference with skin’s natural oil production; dermatitis; and reproductive system disparity (decrease fertility, increase the risk of miscarriage, and damage sperm). It is banned in Sweden and Japan. It is a restricted ingredient in Canada (usage is restricted to less than 0.2%) for skin care products. European countries mandate that if formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in cosmetic products exceed 0.05%, the product must be labeled with the warning, “Contains Formaldehyde”.
- Petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are chemical ingredients that are derived from petroleum. They are heavily used in personal care products. An astonishing number of so-called natural products in health and beauty stores contain hidden petrochemical substances. Detecting petrochemical ingredients in personal care products can be difficult as they are usually listed under different names (e.g., Behentrimonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Chloride) or hidden in other ingredients such as perfumes, fragrances, glycols, and many more. Petroleum and petrochemicals are known to cause a range of serious health problems, such as cancer and endocrine disruption (hormones interference), clogged skin pores and interference with natural sebum production resulting in skin imbalances, and other medical disorders (e.g., Attention Deficit Disorder). Moreover, petrochemicals are a leading cause of groundwater contamination. Finally, petroleum products generate 1,4-dioxane that is known for its health disruption effects (e.g., vertigo, drowsiness, headache, anorexia and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs). EWG has found that an alarming 22% of all products contain unsafe levels of 1,4-dioxane. Avoiding all products that contain petroleum-based ingredients is highly recommended.
- Phenoxyethanol. It is a synthetic ether alcohol and a petrochemical preservative. It can cause contact dermatitis, and damage reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. It has been banned for use in certified organic skin care products by COSMOS, Ecocert, and the new EU organic certification standard. Yet, many so-called “natural” or “organic” companies (i.e., Greenwashed) in the US continue to use it as a Paraben alternative. In the US, Phenoxyethanol is on the temporary allowed NPA standard list. It is a common preservative in many natural extracts and proteins (wheat, rice, quinoa, etc.) used by cosmetic companies in their products. Since cosmetic companies are not required to disclose preservatives and solvents that are used by their vendors to make their extracts and proteins, a more extensive due diligence step of asking cosmetic manufactures for the Composition Analysis of these types of ingredients is necessary to ascertain complete absence of Phenoxyethanol in product ingredients.
- Mineral Oils. Also listed as Paraffin and Petrolatum is a petroleum derivative ingredient. Found in drugs, cosmetics, household cleaning products, and baby oils (sometimes at 100%). They are linked to immune and respiratory toxicant or allergen, clogging the skin’s pores, promoting acne and other skin disorders, and premature aging.
- Siloxane/Silicones. Polymers of Silicone found in cosmetics as texturizers. They are used for delivering a superficial silky sensation to the skin. Most silicones are derived from petroleum. In cosmetic ingredient lists, they can appear as Dimethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane, Cyclohexasiloxane, and Phenyl Trimethicone. Silicones stay at the top layer of the skin. Therefore, they clog the skin’s pores and cause acne. Some research findings indicate that Siloxane/Silicones can disrupt the endocrine and hormone functions and cause harm to the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems.
- EDTA. Made from coal tar and include Disodium EDTA and Tetrasodium EDTA, they are used for a variety of reasons such as removing impurities from raw materials, as a preservative, chelator, stabilizer, and foam enhancer. Tetrasodium EDTA is made from formaldehyde (see above) and sodium cyanide is made from the toxic gas hydrogen cyanide. EDTAs serve as penetration enhancers, which means that they can intensify harmful effects of other ingredients in the formula by promoting deeper penetration into the skin’s tissue and, consequently, the bloodstream. Additionally, EDTAs are not easily biodegradable and a poor choice for environmental health. Be mindful of this ingredient as it is used in some greenwashed products.
- Glycols. They appear in cosmetic ingredient lists as Polyethylene Glycols (PEGS), Polypropylene Glycols (PPGS), Propylene, Butylene, Pentylene, Hexylene, and Caprylyl. Found in food, drugs, and cosmetics, they are petroleum-based compounds that serve as texturizer, thickeners, solvents, and moisture-carriers in cosmetics. The majority of so-called natural products contain this highly toxic ingredient. Propylene Glycols have been linked to skin irritation. PEGS can be contaminated with ethylene oxide known as a human carcinogen. Ethylene Oxide can cause cancer and if used on broken skin can cause irritation.
- Benzyl Alcohol. This is a petrochemical preservative and is known to cause severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation. Be aware that some natural brands use Benzyl Alcohol in combination with other preservatives as an alternative to Parabens. In the US, this ingredient is on the Temporary Allowed NPA standard list.
- Alcohol Denat. It is a denatured ethyl alcohol and a petrochemical product. Usually contains Benzyl Alcohol to make it undrinkable. It can cause skin irritation, eczema, trigger rosacea flare-ups, and prevent the absorption of Vitamin A.
- Isopropyl Alcohol (Rubbing Alcohol). Also known as Isopropanol, found in perfumes, cosmetics, and household cleansers. It is derived from petroleum. Highly toxic and linked to medical complications and allergic reactions of skin, eyes, mucous membranes, and upper respiratory tract. It is used to dissolve other substances in cosmetics, personal care, and fragrances/perfumes products. It is also used to decrease the thickness of liquids and prevent foam.
- Ethanolamines. They appear in cosmetic ingredient list as Diethanolamines (DEAs), Diethanolamine), MEAs (Monoethanolamine), Triethanolamine (TEAs). They are petroleum-derived ingredients that are found in cosmetic cleansers, shampoos, soaps, and bubble baths. They are linked to cancer, organ system toxicity, and allergic reactions.
- Parabens. They appear in cosmetic ingredient list as Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Ethylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Butylparaben, Benzylparaben. Mainly derived from petroleum, they are potent broad-spectrum preservatives and are cheap and easy to use. Parabens are linked to breast cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive system disorder, DNA damage, and skin irritation. The use of five Parabens (Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben, and Pentylparaben) in cosmetic products was prohibited in European Union in 2014. Parabens have been used by many cosmetic brands since the 1950s. They are also hidden preservatives in many botanical extracts and proteins used heavily in all types of personal care products. Many companies who claim to be Paraben-free have done so by replacing it with other petrochemical preservatives such as Phenoxyethanol or Benzyl Alcohol.
- All Sulfates. Sulfates are basically detergents that are used in household cleansers, and personal care products such as shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, and masks. They are partially made from petrolatum or petroleum jelly. Sulfates are linked to skin, scalp, and eye irritation. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are known to cause hormone imbalance, toxicity formation in internal organs (liver, brain, and heart), and potentially cancer. The source of health issues caused by SLS and SLES is in their manufacturing process (ethoxylation) that results in contamination with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic by-product. According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,4 dioxane is described as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” toxic to the brain and central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Moreover, it is also a leading groundwater contaminant.
- Quats. They are chemical and petrochemical ingredients that contain a quaternary ammonium compound (QAC). Some examples of quats include Benzalkonium Chloride, Cetalkonium Chloride, Steardimonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Bromide, and Cetrimonium Chloride, Behentrimonium Chloride, and polyquaternium(s), Lauryl Dimonium Hydrolysed Collagen, Diethyl Ester Dimethyl Ammonium Chloride, Dialkyl Dimethl Ammonium Methyl Sulfate, Hydroxethyl Methyl Ammonium Methyl Sulfate. There are also milder version of them that are used both as a conditioner and thickener. These include Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Hydroxypropyltrimonium Oligosaccharide, and Sugar Quats. Quats are used as a hair conditioner, hair styling gel, moisturizers, body wash, etc. Quats hold all the petrochemicals adverse events discussed above. Furthermore, in the US, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC), classified Quats as “asthmagens,” meaning they can trigger asthma attacks and initiate asthma in those who are asthma-free. Quaternium-15 releases formaldehyde that is a serious health-damaging ingredient as described earlier. Among Quats, Benzalkonium Chloride has been known to have the most impact on natural hormone function disruption and causing reproductive toxicity. In Europe, the Scientific Committee on Consumer safety, based on skin reactions and toxicity, has restricted the use of Behentrimonium Chloride (below 3% in a rinse-off products and below 0.5% in leave-on products). In the US, they are heavily used by both conventional and greenwashed brands as a hair conditioner.
- Phthalates. Commonly used as softening agents to enhance absorption of skin care ingredients and to create fragrances, they can be found in color cosmetics, lotions, body washes, hair care products, nail polish. The most common Phthalates used in cosmetics are Diethyl Phthalate (DEO), Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) and Dibutyl phthalate (DBP). DBP is used mainly in nail products as a solvent for dyes. Phthalates are also used as a fixative in fragrance ingredients in many other cosmetics. They have has been classified as a potential carcinogen ingredient by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Health and Human Services. There are serious concerns regarding their impact on the reproductive system. Phthalates are often hidden from the ingredient lists as many companies use “fragrance” or “parfum” rather than listing them separately.
- Artificial Colors. Found in food, drugs, and cosmetics, artificial colors contain heavy metal salts and are linked to cancer, hyperactivity, anxiety, migraines and allergic reactions. They are even used heavily by cosmetic companies in many so-called “natural” products. Most are derived from petroleum and/or coal tar. They are normally listed as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number.
- Fragrances/Perfumes. Found in cosmetics (including so-called natural products) and household products. They are linked to headache, dizziness, allergic reactions, hormone disruptions, and hyperpigmentation. Additionally, They are the most frequent cause of allergic reactions in cosmetics. Most are derived from petroleum. Since companies consider their fragrance formulations as trade secrets and listing the chemicals, such as solvents or preservatives, is not mandated by FDA, they are able to hide toxic synthetic substances such as chemical preservatives, petroleum, Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), etc. This widespread practice extends to natural brands that choose to list “natural fragrance” on their label instead of disclosing the actual substances in their formulations. These so-called natural fragrances are very likely consist of petrochemicals (e.g., Phthalates) or other harmful ingredients that are used as solvents or preservatives. If manufacturers are not willing to provide the breakdown of their natural ingredients, it is best to avoid their products altogether.
- Triclosan. It is mainly used in antiperspirants, deodorants, hand sanitizers, facial tissues, and toothpastes as an antibacterial agent and a preservative. It passes through skin and it is linked to endocrine (hormone function) disruption and irritating to the skin and eyes. Prevalent in so many products, Triclosan was detected in 75% of urine samples (2,517 people ages six years and older) in a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Triclosan has been banned in Europe since 2010 but is still used in the US. Its use in Canada is restricted (0.03% in mouthwash and 0.3% in cosmetics) and flagged for further assessment by the Canadian Chemicals Management Plan.
- Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT). Used as preservatives, BHA and BHT can be found in moisturizers, lipsticks, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, other cosmetics, and some food products (e.g., cereals, gum, fast food, snacks). They are known to cause skin allergic reactions, endocrine disruption (hormonal), developmental and reproductive toxicity, and as potential human carcinogen. Some studies also indicate that they may cause organ-system toxicity and impact liver, thyroid and lung health.
As is evident, there are many chemical ingredients that can cause serious harm to the health of consumers. For this reason, there is a growing demand for products that are truly free of such harsh ingredients. Retailers can take steps to serve their customers’ demands and capitalize on this growing trend for truly natural products. The first step to addressing this market opportunity is to implement a process to evaluate products that are marketed as natural. Equally as important is to communicate the specifics of the program for evaluating products to the sales staff and consumers. By informing the salespeople and consumers, this program will not only result in safer products on the shelves but also generate incremental sales by having instilled a sense of confidence in consumers – a true win-win for all.
Fortunately, the work to create and implement this program should not be viewed as an insurmountable endeavor as there are plenty of pre-existing resources from reliable entities to jumpstart the evaluation process. Some, such as the USDA Integrity Database, serve as an instant validation (or not) of claims made by manufacturers, while other sources require some adaptation to meet your business needs.
Given the industry trend, it is certain that any effort expended in separating true natural products from imposters will pay dividends for quite some time.
About the Author
Vida Karamooz, PhD., is the CEO and co-founder of Blue Beautifly LLC, a plant-based, certified organic, non-GMO, and cruelty-free face body care product company in California. As an expert in botanical formulation, Dr. Karamooz has conducted years of research and trials in combining plants known for their skin and hair vitality in ancient sciences of India (Ayurveda), China, Middle East, Africa and South/Central America with recent discoveries. In doing so, she has gained invaluable insight in creating innovative and effective, but simple, products that meet today’s consumer demands for wholesome, natural, and genuine products that promote health of the body without harming the planet.
- Wall Street Journal, 30-March-2016, “Natural” Product Claims Can Be Murky
- Wall Street Journal, 4-April-2016, Natural-Goods Firm Drops Claim
- com 15 products to avoid in personal care
- Katie Bird, “‘Quat’ preservatives in cosmetics could play a role in antibiotic resistance,” Cosmetics Design, August 26, 2009, http://www.cosmeticsdesign-europe.com/Formulation-Science/Quat-preservatives-in-cosmetics-could-play-a-role-in-antibiotic-resistance.
- “Opinion on Soytrimonium chloride,” Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, March 27, 2012,