Condo Blues: Think You Know What’s in Your Cosmetics? Think Again

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Think You Know What’s in Your Cosmetics? Think Again

This year my New Year’s Resolution is to green my health and beauty aids. So far, I have switched my foundation , shampoo, lotion, body soap , sunscreen , toothpaste, mouthwash, and facial wash. To do this I read product labels.

Turns out that while I think I am a careful shopper, read ingredient labels, and buy accordingly, when it comes to my health and beauty products there is no law or rule that says everything inside the bottle has to be listed on the product label, unlike the food I buy.

That means there could be just as many or more harmful ingredients in my toothpaste as there are in the degreaser I use on my car’s engine block. The only difference is that the degreaser has a warning label. I have no idea if the ingredients of my toothpaste have been tested for safety or not.

To put this into an easy to understand and entertaining way, Annie Leonard of The Story of Stuff fame, created a new video The Story of Cosmetics.

I’m not trying to be a scaremonger. I think it’s up to you to decide on whether you want to avoid something in your products or not. I can honestly tell you that not everything in my medicine cabinet is 100% green, nor will it ever be. To me, it’s all about balance.

However, I do not like the fact that it is hard to make an informed choice as a consumer because the federal cosmetics law was written over 70 years ago and has not been updated since. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics:

"The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1936 has only two pages that relate to cosmetics, and it has not been updated despite a sea change in the industry. The fact is, the Food and Drug Administration has no authority to make cosmetics companies test products for safety or recall products that are found to be harmful."
One of the biggest secrets about what chemicals (or not) is in a product is what makes up the product’s fragrance. Last summer, I had the chance to talk to a representative from a large personal care company. She claimed that even her company didn’t know what was in the fragrances of their products because they buy the fragrance from a special fragrance house that has a super secret formula and ironclad nondisclosure agreement that says the fragrance house won’t tell the company what's in the signature scent of their brand of shampoo.

I call shenanigans. I find it very hard to believe that a huge personal care company with a research and development team of chemists and scientist types cannot reverse engineer their signature fragrance and figure out what makes their product smell like their product.

Buying an unscented product won’t solve the problem either. Most unscented products have masking agents in them to cover up the sometimes nasty scent of combining their raw ingredients.

What’s a Consumer to Do?

  • First, I would watch The Story of Cosmetics to understand the situation in basic, real world language.

  • Next, I would email my congressperson and encourage them to vote yes on the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, which would close the labeling and ingredient testing holes in current federal law.

  • Finally, I would start reading the product labels of my personal care products and research any unfamiliar ingredients.

What would you do?

This post is part of the Green Mom’s Carnival where our topic is The Story of Cosmetics hosted by Organic Mania. Pop on over there Wednesday 28, 2010.


Vanessa said...

I combat this issue by trying as many home remedies as possible. I'm still experimenting every day and plan to release an ebook with all of my earnest findings. So far I love:

-Olive oil mixed with honey and sugar as an exfoliate

-Olive oil on cotton pad to remove eye makeup

-Tea tree oil mixed with distilled water as a toner (antibacterial and heals skin overnight- instant radiance!)

-Lemon juice as a toner- the acid gives it a very mild acid peel effect. Add a few drops to your conditioner to tame fly-aways and seal the hair cuticle (big help for my naturally curly hair!)

And... /end rant. I checked out a few books on a variety of home remedies from the library. Some of it seems dubious (sour cream...on my face? uhh...) but I can't wait to try it.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Van - I have used olive oil as a hot oil treatment, but I haven't heard of any of the others! I've made my own sugar scrubs and given them as gifts. I'll check them out. Thanks!

Lynn from said...

Lisa, thanks for your post. I remember talking to you about the fragrance discussion - I'm so glad you included that and I excerpted it in the carnival post. I'm not so sure that they can "reverse-engineer" it - I think the rep was giving you the real story. The issue is, should SOMEONE know and does it matter? Of course.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

I'm not so sure Lynn. Someone has figured out how to (illegally) create those "designer" perfumes you see being sold at flea markets or out of car trunks that smell just like the real thing. I find it hard to believe that a company couldn't do the same thing with their own product if they wanted. Their contracts with the fragrance houses may be the thing prohibiting them, but not from lack of tools or knowledge.

Anonymous said...

In Canada the law saws that cosmetics have to list the ingredients. Which is a good thing, but even still the labels can be hard to interpret. I know a few ingredients to avoid at all costs, but some things sound scary and aren't (like when they use the Latin name for peppermint oil or something), and most things I just plain don't recognize.

That's why I hope that they require more stringent testing. It should be obvious to anyone whether a product is safe or not, whether they understand chemistry and biology or not.

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