It turns out beauty is more than skin deep: The average person slathers, lathers, rubs and sprays, 10 different skin care products on his or her body every day–and since our skin acts more like a sponge than a barrier, we absorb the nearly 130 chemicals we regularly expose ourselves to. Cosmetics companies and the FDA maintain that these chemicals are safe, and many of them are–in small doses at least.
But consider that the average woman wears makeup every day, and you begin to understand how a little dab here a quick spray there begins to add up. The fact is, no one really knows how certain chemicals affect us over time, or how they react in our bodies in combination. Other chemicals have known dangers: Phthalates, for example, which are often found in artificial fragrances, are a class of hormone disruptor which can be linked to birth defects, sperm damage, infertility, and the feminization of baby boys, for instance.
Almost 90 percent of the 10,500 cosmetics and skin care ingredients known to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have not been evaluated for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the FDA, or any other publicly accountable institution, according to the Environmental Working Group. To be fair, no one’s dropping dead after a using a mascara wand or a body wash, and manufacturers have an interest in creating products that don’t harm their customers. But complex chemicals with potential unknown side effects lead us to follow the Precautionary Principle. That is to say, if we’d prefer to err on the side of safety until we know. We’re not the only ones who feel this way: More than 1,110 personal-product ingredients have been banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union because of concerns that they may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive ills. By contrast only 10 are banned here in the U.S.
On the following page, you’ll find our guide to choosing the safest, nontoxic products for your skin, as well as how to identify the most noxious ingredients you should steer your shopping cart clear of.
How to green your beauty routine
Don’t be fooled by cosmetic advertising: Myriad creams, lotions, and potions at the drugstore and cosmetics counter make promises they could never deliver on. (Trust us, all the fancy products in the world will never turn the tide of aging.) Eye creams, for instance, rarely vary in formulation from your basic facial moisturizer. Our recommendation is to keep it simple: All you need is a basic cleanser, toner, moisturizer, and broad-spectrum sunscreen to keep your skin in tip-top shape. Everything else is just dressing.
Make Sure “Natural” Is Really Natural
Toxic synthetic chemicals are the biggest issue in the beauty industry today, so it pays to hone a keen eye when it comes to examining product labels. For example, it’s counterintuitive, but unfortunately, the words “natural” and “all-natural” are not regulated labeling terms. A great resource is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database site, which rates popular cosmetics and personal-care products with hazard scores on a scale of 0 to 10, depending on their toxicity.
Say No to Fragrance
A loophole in federal law doesn’t require companies to declare any of the dozens of toxic chemicals that a single product’s fragrance mixture could contain. Artificial fragrances, which frequently contain phthalates, can also trigger allergic reactions and other health problems. Be mindful of the hidden dangers that “fragrance” or “parfum” listed on ingredients labels can pose, and always choose fragrance-free products.
Choose Nontoxic, Recyclable Packaging
You can never go wrong with glass because it’s recyclable and has no danger of leaching toxins into the product contained within. As far as plastics go, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also known by the recycling code #1, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), #2, are most frequently accepted by municipal curbside recycling programs and are considered safe; polycarbonate (#7), may leach the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A, or BPA. Polypropylene (#5), another food-safe plastic, is also a good alternative, though less easily recycled. (To find a polypropylene recycler in your neighborhood, visit Earth911.org.)
Avoid containers that bear recycling code #3 and the letter “V”, which refers to polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Dubbed “the poison plastic,” PVC poses great environmental and health hazards from manufacture to disposal. In addition to releasing hydrochloric acid, cancer-causing dioxins, and other persistent pollutants into the air, water, and land during its production, PVC also contains additives and chemical stabilizers–such as lead, cadmium, and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (a suspected carcinogen that is known to cause a host of reproductive and developmental defects)–that can leach, flake, or off-gas from the plastic throughout its life.
Ask How Company Values Stack Up
A skincare company is more than the sum of its products. What about its philosophy and values? Visiting a website is always enlightening; TreeHugger has also written about many beauty and personal care companies. Does the company test on animals, for example? Has it signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to remove harmful chemicals from ingredients lists and replace them with safer alternatives? How committed is it to reducing its impact on the environment?
Choose Organic Beauty and Grooming Products
Organic ingredients are those grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, which is healthier for the planet and healthier for our bodies. Better yet are botanicals grown using biodynamic farming methods, which go beyond organic by emphasizing an even more holistic relationship between the soil, plants, and animals. The USDA National Organic Program has been certifying personal-care products since 2003, and an increasing number of organic skincare products now bear the USDA organic seal. To tell if a product is biodynamic-certified, look for Demeter U.S.A.’s stamp of approval on the label.
Sidestep the Petrochemicals
Used to make emollients for face cream or found in the form of coal tar for scalp-treatment shampoos, petroleum byproducts can be contaminated by cancer-containing impurities. A nonrenewable and environmentally unfriendly resource, petroleum barely belong in your car, let alone on your skin. Identify it on labels as petrolatum, mineral oil, and paraffin.
Make Your Own Green Skin Care Treatments
The best way to know exactly what goes into your skincare products? Make your own. Not only will you save money and packaging, but you’ll also get the satisfaction that no preservatives or toxic chemicals were used in the process. You can whip up a simple, effective face mask using little more than honey and coconut oil, make a vegetable toner, or create a acne-fighting toner with green tea. And that’s just for starters. Check out more of our DIY skin care treatments to learn more.
Stay Beautiful Inside and Out by Being Healthy
You don’t have to resort to a flurry of potions and lotions, chemical peels, or surgical face-lifts to get fresh, glowing skin. Diet and exercise should play vital roles in your skincare regimen, as well. Besides working up a good sweat to keep nutrient-carrying blood circulating throughout your body, be sure to feed yourself plenty of protein, healthy fats (such as omega-3 fish oils or flaxseed oils), complex carbohydrates, and fruit. Drinking six to eight glasses of water is also a boon for flushing out toxins that might otherwise show up on your skin.
Don’t fall for exotic trends
Every now and then, a bizarre new trend promises to be the magic bullet for all your skin care woes but ends up being downright cruel, whether to you or the planet. The use of human and cow placenta extracts is at the top of our list for being kooky and just plain crazy, especially since they contain a raft of hormones. Another weird practice du jour is the fish pedicure, which involves having dozens of tiny nibbling carp exfoliate your feet in 94-degree Fahrenheit water, a procedure we’re sure is not PETA-approved.