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Organic picks and pans in the cosmetics aisle

August 27, 2009 Reviewed by admin 2 Comments
When you walk through the doors of a grocery store, you are more often than not prepared with a list. Whether written by hand, stored in your mental notes, or logged in your smart phone (well look at you!), your list covers key ingredients for the next home-cooked meal or staple items for the next month. You have a pretty good sense of what you'll be buying, and what you'll pass by. Why should shopping for cosmetics be any different? If you want to make a conscious effort to go organic and avoid all forms of harm to your body and the environment, you'll need to be vigilant about what ingredients you take home.

According to the Organic Consumers Association, cosmetics are not truly organic unless their cleansing/conditioning ingredients are made from certified organic materials, they contain no chemical, synthetic, or petroleum derivatives, their manufacturing process is simple and ecological in nature, and they do not beef up stated organic content with non-agricultural water (aka hydrosol). But how is the average drugstore, beauty boutique, or internet shopper supposed to know the difference, if not stated clearly on the product or its description? The key is what's inside. Follow our pointers for which organic ingredients you'll want to look for, and which regrettable chemicals you'll want to leave on the shelf.


Pick: The best options are natural oils and waxes, such as beeswax, coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, almond oil, jojoba oil, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and rosehip oil. Certain natural oils are iffy. Cottonseed oil is extracted from the cotton plant, which is often doused with pesticides and insecticides, accounting for about 25% of the use of pesticides globally. Also, if you have a peanut allergy, you'll want to steer clear of products containing peanut oil, which can cause allergic reactions when applied topically just as easily as when ingested. Glycerin, the star ingredient of the Japanese brand Yu-Be, is a first-rate emollient and humectant. It is important to look for indicators of its source, such as "made from," "organic origin," or "organic glycerin," since it might otherwise be produced synthetically. Besides acting as an antioxidant and emulsifier, lecithin is a great natural emollient found in all living organisms and commercially obtained from egg yolk (the main component of our natural face lift recipe).

Pass:Petroleum-based emollients are the worst offenders of product purity, often contaminating formulas with impurities and potential carcinogens. The most common chemical moisturizers include petrolatum (the active ingredient in Aquaphor), hydrogenated oils, butyl glycol, mineral oil/paraffin, oleth 2, monostearate dimethicone, stearic acid, potassium stearate, and octyl palmitate. Lanolin (used in Kiehl's Lip Balm #1) should be avoided not only because it is derived from the oil glands of sheep, but also because it has shown evidence of pesticide residue and allergic reactions.


Pick: While there are over 2,000 synthetic fragrances available for commercial use, organic perfumers have roughly just 100 pure plant and flower essences to work with. Organic essential oils are the fundamental source of fragrance for organic cosmetics. Especially fragrant organic plant extracts include cedarwood, citronella, eucalyptus, fennel, lemongrass, orange, and tea tree. While essential oils are extracted in a one-step process using steam, absolutes are extracted in a two-step process involving a solvent and alcohol. Thus, absolutes are excluded from truly organic products. Essential oils are so powerful that the entire system of aromatherapy is based on them. Despite the tendency of manufacturers to strive for a pleasant aroma, there is nothing wrong with a product that is fragrance-free.

Pass: Synthetic fragrances used in cosmetics, typically listed as "Fragrance," can contain as many as 200 ingredients. A number of medical reports link artificial perfumes to birth abnormality, brain damage, dizziness, headaches, hyperpigmentation, vomiting, respiratory diseases, and contamination of natural resources. The science of smell has become so sophisticated that manufacturers can insert synthetic additives that imitate natural aromas exactly. If you don't scan the contents carefully, you can easily overlook an artificial fragrance, the leading cause of contact dermatitis. Besides the clearly stated synthetic coconut, cucumber, and other fruit fragrances, you'll need to beware of names like amyl acetate (a masking agent that evokes bananas) and benzophenone (a UV-light absorber that is redolent of roses).


Pick: Critical for achieving a uniform solution, solvents work by dissolving one or more substances. The most obvious natural (and neutral) solvent is water, which increases a formula's fluidity depending on the proportion present. The downside to water is that it dilutes the potency of a product's actives. Grain alcohol, commonly referred to as ethyl alcohol or ethanol, is manufactured by the fermentation of sugars. If used in excess, it can be drying to the skin because of its ability to dissolve oils. Nonetheless, it is one of the cosmetic industry's only entirely natural and widely used solvents. Besides playing a toner (as seen in Ildi's parsley face mask) and a dandruff treatment, apple cider vinegar moonlights as a solvent in organic cosmetics.

Pass: Though an organic acid found in apples, grapes, oranges, cheese, and vinegar, acetic acid can be produced synthetically and is highly corrosive when concentrated. Propylene glycol, a petroleum-derived solvent and humectant that makes an appearance in over 4,000 formulas in the beauty industry, is also a component of brake fluid, anti-freeze, and the solution used to melt barnacles off a boat. Does that sound like something you should be coating on your skin? Isopropyl alcohol is also a poisonous solvent processed from petroleum and used in anti-freeze. Both of the chemical solvents butylene glycol and benzene (obtained from coal) are highly irritating and toxic. Another solvent to avoid is acetone, a popular inclusion in nail polish removers and nail finishes and a frequent culprit for brittleness, skin rashes, and irritation.


Pick: Preservatives in cosmetic products seem like a necessary evil, fighting off live cells where they would otherwise flourish. But they are not evil by nature. Natural preservatives can be toxic to bacterial growth without being toxic to humans. At the right concentration, grapefruit seed extract is highly effective against viral and bacterial organisms. The same goes for essential oils (thyme, sweet orange, violet, lemon, juniper, lavender, cinnamon, peppermint) and the ACE vitamins, especially when used in combination. Aspen bark extract, a salicylate, has been extracted and applied to cosmetic products as natural preservative systems because it intrinsically inhibits the growth of mold, yeast, and e coli. Natural preservatives are also hiding in your kitchen cupboard in the form of honey (which we put in our homemade papaya face mask), vinegar, and grain alcohol at a level above 20% (used by Lavera- the new organic line at CVS).

Pass: Preservatives are the second most prevalent culprit of contact dermatitis. Belonging to a family of alkyl esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, parabens are some of the most notorious additives in cosmetics. The six widely marketed parabens are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, butylparaben, and benzylparaben, all of which differ in their solubility and range of antimicrobial activity. These preservatives are suspected to disrupt both the external ecosystem and the human endocrine system, in addition to triggering allergic reactions. Other chemical compounds to avoid are the closely related diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea, both formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Even though it doesn't release formaldehyde, phenoxyethanol overreaches when it comes to killing bacteria. Its presence in cosmetics comes with the FDA-issued warning of contact dermatitis, vomiting, and shutdown of the central nervous system.
  • October 13, 2009

    by Louise

    Great article! Well Ms. Copely, this is the first HONEST beauty site I have come across!! Keep up the great work!

  • August 28, 2009

    by Laura

    Thanks, Copley. This was such a useful article! I wish things were more cut and dry but at least I have some guidelines now.

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