This article appears in the autumn issue of MyGreenPod.com Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 27 October 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online
We wouldn’t dream of eating the vast majority of the stuff we slap on our bodies, but our skin gobbles those chemicals down far faster than our mouths ever could – without any of our gut’s defence mechanisms.
Your skin absorbs about 60% of anything you put on it, and estimates suggest that some of the chemicals found in everyday toiletries can reach your organs in less than half a minute. When you consider the sheer volume of products we use to get clean, smell nice and live in hope of rediscovering That Youthful Glow, you won’t be surprised that studies have found the average British woman absorbs around 2kg of cosmetic ingredients every year.
Our skin is drinking a toxic soup of chemicals from the beauty and personal care products we use daily. It’s a shocking truth that’s entering mainstream discourse; an April article on the Mail Online suggests the average woman’s daily personal care routine exposes her to 168 different chemicals; a 2009 piece in the same publication cites research that puts the figure at 515.
The reality’s sinking in almost as quickly as those chemicals, and we’re responding by voting with our feet. Shoppers are shifting brand allegiance and seeking healthier alternatives, and the natural and organic beauty sector is booming as a result.
The reasons driving the shift range from sensitised skin or the birth of a baby to a consideration of the environmental impact of chemicals and microplastics that are washed down the plughole and into our oceans.
But the mainstream beauty industry has always made money from selling false promises, and the growing demand for natural and organic products has led to widespread greenwashing as companies compete for new customers.
Deep down we probably know that one swish of a mascara wand won’t magically create the long, thick, curled, extended, gravity-defying lashes the packaging suggests, but in real terms it doesn’t really matter. When the same myth-making is transferred to the natural beauty industry it’s a very different story.
If you don’t get it right, that ‘natural’ product you pick up could have some serious impacts on your health as well as the environment.
Most moisturisers on the market – including those you’d think are ‘natural’ – contain byproducts from the crude oil industry. Mineral oil and petroleum – which also go by the names petrolatum, para n oil and petroleum jelly – create a barrier because they can’t be absorbed by the skin, but this also means your skin can’t breathe or heal.
In fact, these crude oil products may be completely counterproductive: some believe chemicals and sweat get trapped under this waterproof barrier and actually degrade the skin’s natural defences.
Parabens, the synthetically produced preservatives used in toiletries, are an even bigger worry. Many of us are exposed to them on a daily basis; in the EU, 18 different parabens are permitted for use in cosmetics and personal care products, the most common being ethyl paraben, methyl paraben, propyl paraben and butyl paraben.
A 2004 study by Darbre found at least one paraben in every single tissue sample taken from 20 women with breast cancer. Breast Cancer UK supports the long-term phase-out of parabens in products designed to be applied to the skin or used in food.
Then there are nitrosamines. In 1998, the Department for Trade and Industry said ‘it has been demonstrated that nitrosamines are carcinogenic in more animal species than any other category of chemical carcinogen.’ Yet they are commonly used in cosmetics – and not listed on product labels because they are classed as impurities. However, DEA, TEA and MEA – the chemicals in which the impurities can occur – will appear on the ingredients list.
If you want to go natural, avoid beauty products with any of the following ingredients. There are others, but these are are the key ones to watch out for:
PIONEERS OF GREEN BEAUTY
Jayn Sterland, MD of Weleda UK, has just claimed the top spot in the ‘Who’s Who in Natural Beauty’ list of industry movers and shakers – for the second year running.
Weleda has been a pioneer of green beauty since 1921; it has remained so popular across the generations because truly natural beauty products just work.
Combine this with the no-nonsense branding – Skin Food is a deliciously nourishing wonder balm that can perk up the hungriest, thirstiest and most jet-lagged skin – and you’ll see why Weleda is a trusted favourite among those in the know.
Click here to find out why Weleda Skin Food is a MyGreenPod.com Hero
The list goes on – and the worst part is that, even when you make a conscious decision to avoid these harmful ingredients by choosing a product clearly labelled ‘natural’, you could still be exposed to them.
This is because there’s currently no harmonised standard for – or official regulatory definition of – ‘natural and organic cosmetic products’; while all cosmetics on the European market must comply with the EU Cosmetic Regulation, ‘natural and organic’ remains an officially undefined sector of the otherwise tightly regulated European industry.
This means brands can use the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ to cash in on growing consumer interest in the sector, without being held to account over how the terms are used, and whether they accurately reflect the products beneath the label.
In 2012 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that an advert on boots.com for ‘Little Me Organics Oh So Gentle Hair and Body Wash’ was misleading because the organic ingredients – which were all certified – made up less than 5% of the total product. Boots UK Ltd was told that the ad must not appear again in its current form, but no company has a legal obligation to take the ASA’s advice.
‘Toxic chemicals in everyday cosmetics are poisoning us and damaging the natural world. A lack of regulation and consumer awareness allows ‘greenwashing’ to thrive. It’s time for honesty and transparency and ‘big beauty’ brands need to clean up their act. We all have a part to play by demanding truly authentic natural and organic cosmetics.’
MD of Weleda UK
Customers have the right to choose whatever beauty products they want, but they can’t make informed decisions if they’re not given enough – or sometimes even correct – information at the point of sale.
In a bid to clean up ‘natural’ beauty’s dirty secret, some pioneers have created their own standard to help shoppers navigate the aisles.
Products carrying the NATRUE logo, for example, have met the requirements of a standard that sets three certification levels: ‘Natural Cosmetics’, ‘Natural Cosmetics with Organic Components’ (at least 70% organic) and ‘Organic Cosmetics’ (95% or more organic).
The certification process is carried out by third party and independent organisations that verify product compliance to the standard. Products from over 230 manufacturers in 30 different countries now carry the NATRUE label, which can now even be found on natural nail polish and BB and CC creams.
Likewise, most people now know to look for the Soil Association’s stamp of approval on certified organic food, but the charity is also one of five European organisations that, in 2002, came together to harmonise their individual standards for organic and natural cosmetics.
The agreed standard – COSMOS Organic – requires ‘organic’ products to contain 95% organic ingredients. COSMOS also provides certification for products that say they’re ‘made with organic’ ingredients, if 20% of the ingredients in leave-on products are organic (or 10% in rinse-off products).
All COSMOS Organic-approved products use only natural colour and fragrance, use traceable and sustainably sourced ingredients and are never tested on animals. ‘COSMOS Natural’ products don’t have to contain any organic ingredients – though many do. This logo is more for products like toners, bath salts or face masks that contain lots of ingredients that can’t be organic, such as water, salt or clay.
The logo guarantees no animal testing and no GM ingredients, controversial chemicals, parabens, phthalates or synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances. These standards, agreed between the Soil Association, BDIH (Germany), COSMEBIO (France), Ecocert Greenlife (France), ICEA (Italy) are used by over 1,600 companies manufacturing and selling over 25,000 products in more than 45 countries – which adds up to about 85% of the certified cosmetics market.
When you’re choosing a product, don’t trust the image that’s painted by the brand. Read the label, check the ingredients and look out for the COSMOS and NATRUE logos. If you’re putting something on your skin, make sure it’s good enough to eat – because eat it it will.
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