After Bethesda resident Ellen Ratner read about a possible carcinogen in some bodycare products, she wondered whether it was in any cosmetics she used. The former reporter for Channel 7 checked and found the suspect ingredient, sodium lauryl sulfate, listed in her shampoo.
“It opened a Pandora’s box,” Ratner says.
She read all she could, including reports from consumer groups, about chemicals in beauty products. She learned that widely used ingredients such as parabens and phthalates have been linked to cancer and that some lipsticks contain lead, a heavy metal that can cause nerve and brain damage. Meanwhile, reports suggested, the manufacture of many cosmetics can harm the environment or animals because of animal testing or animal-derived ingredients.
Many such findings are controversial, making it hard to assess risks. Barely detectable levels of lead in lipstick are nothing to worry about, say some experts—while others disagree.
To play it safe, Ratner decided she’d use natural cosmetics. She’s not alone. Sales of “natural” and “organic” personal-care products hit $9 billion this year in this country. Whole Foods stocks more than 700 brands.
But product labels that say “natural” or “organic” don’t mean much because there are few definitions or standards.
“ ‘Natural’ to one company means extracting from plants, but there may be dangerous ingredients in botanicals. And products labeled ‘natural’ can still contain all kinds of synthetic chemicals,” says Jane Houlihan, head of research at the DC-based Environmental Working Group.
A product with a single natural ingredient may be branded “natural”—and that one natural ingredient may have been subjected to chemical processing.
All of which makes it hard to read the fine print on packages. “The average woman uses a dozen products containing 167 different ingredients every day,” Houlihan says. “You practically need to be a chemist.”
Helping You Decide
Even a chemist would be stymied by the lack of clear information. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the industry, does not routinely test the safety of ingredients or certify the truthfulness of labels on cosmetics as it does for food. Some consumer groups want the government to create a new standard for beauty products.
“You want food-grade ingredients for your bodycare if you are concerned about your health because the skin absorbs chemicals,” says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers’ Association.
Conventional cosmetic manufacturers say no new laws are needed. “The proof is in the marketplace—there are very few consumer complaints or reports of adverse reactions,” says John Bailey, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, which represents 600 cosmetics and fragrance manufacturers.
He says all the fuss has been generated by false Internet reports and that cancer scares like that over sodium lauryl sulfate are urban legends. As for holding cosmetics to food standards? “The skin acts as a protective barrier to toxins,” he says, “unlike what happens when you eat food.”
There’s some truth to both sides of the absorption argument, says Arlington dermatologist Dr. Michelle Rivera. “The very top layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, is the major protective barrier that separates you from the outside world,” she says. But skin does absorb, and most beauty products—both conventional and natural—are formulated to speed absorption to deep layers of the skin. Rivera says the controversy revolves around what happens after active ingredients reach their destination: “There is a lot we don’t know about where those products go.”
While concerns about chemicals convince many to give natural skin products a try, not everyone is sold on them. “A lot of natural and organic products don’t give women good results,” says Marla Malcolm Beck, who owns the national Bluemercury chain of makeup and skincare stores.
That may be true when it comes to makeup, says Jennifer Blackburn, an esthetician at Pilar’s Organic Skincare Studio in Vienna, but she says natural skincare products are effective: “There are brands that do just as good a job as synthetics.”