News & Politics

More Than Skin Deep

With reports about lead in lipstick, mercury in mascara, and sunscreens that could cause cancer, more women and men are turning to “natural” beauty products. Here’s what to look for in cosmetics, what ingredients to avoid, and why buying natural or organi

Style > Spas & Beauty > Natural Beauty

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.”

Is it possible to have it all—makeup and skincare products that make you look good and that make you feel good about what you’re putting on your skin and into the environment? Here are some objective measures to help you decide.

Seals of Approval 

The term “organic” refers to agricultural techniques that don’t use chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. But a product labeled “organic” by manufacturers may contain a mere pinch of those plants. If you want the purest organic products, pick those stamped BDIH—that’s a German standard—or displaying the USDA organic seal.

BDIH standards require the majority of a product’s ingredients to be organic or mineral and untested on animals. Products bearing BDIH seals include some of those sold by Dr. Hauschka, Aubrey Organics, and Lavera.

The USDA’s organic program requires stringent testing of ingredients and lab procedures; products that are 95 percent organic by weight are certified to bear the USDA seal. Origins, Dr. Bronner’s, and Terressentials, a Maryland company, are a few brands that sell products with the USDA seal. (Not everything sold by these brands qualifies.) The agency also allows products that are at least 70 percent organic by weight to print the USDA acronym on labels along with the phrase “made with organic ingredients.”

There are other certification programs meant to ensure various degrees of organic, natural, or otherwise wholesome properties, including the Australian Certified Organic program; the UK’s Soil Association Organic Standard; Ecocert, a French-based natural program; the European Union’s Agriculture Biologique program; and the manufacturer-created OASIS, or organic and sustainable industry standard. The US-based Natural Products Association recently announced a new “natural” stamp for personal-care products that are “made up of at least 95 percent truly natural ingredients” and have “absolutely no suspected potential human health risks.”

It’s too soon to tell if this program will catch on with manufacturers or if those standards will hold up under scrutiny. Results from a recent independent test of 100 personal-care products marketed under the “natural and organic” umbrella persuaded Cummins of the Organic Consumers’ Association that for now “the USDA seal is the world’s gold standard.”

Just because beauty products are not USDA certified—and most are not—doesn’t mean they’re harmful. They may simply contain ingredients not on the USDA list. For example, water and minerals aren’t grown, so the agricultural agency doesn’t monitor them. “The USDA wrote those regulations for food, and there are many ingredients that are not food ingredients that are safe cosmetic ingredients,” says Farah Ahmed, an attorney for the Personal Care Products Council.

This may still leave shoppers scratching their heads, wondering what to use. Megan Coss, a regional buyer for 35 Whole Foods stores, recommends buying beauty products with as few ingredients as possible. “Personal-care products should be made only with the ingredients necessary for the product to function well and look minimally appealing,” she says.

That may mean some sacrifice. Products without synthetic dyes, foaming agents, emulsifiers, fragrance, and preservatives may not look or smell as pretty or last as long without spoiling.

Coss advises not rushing for all green items. “Pick one category of personal-care products to educate yourself about, and go slowly,” she says.

Ellen Ratner discovered, she says, that “it takes a lot of trial and error to find natural alternatives that work for you.”

She suggests replacing products when they run out, asking for samples, and taking advantage of return policies when natural alternatives don’t measure up to old favorites. And don’t give up, says Blackburn: “The natural and organic skincare industry is still in its infancy and making great strides.”

What to Watch For

At the end of this article is a list of Web sites that offer searchable databases you can use to check out cosmetics and their potential hazards. Here are a few chemical categories to watch for:

• Parabens. These antibacterial preservatives possibly have estrogen-disruptive effects as well as links to breast cancer and reproductive health.

• 1,4-dioxane. A suspected carcinogenic chemical that is a byproduct of petrochemicals.

• Phthalates. Chemical agents found in fragrances and nail products; certain forms, such as diethylphthalates, are in some body lotions and have been linked to damage in reproductive organs, liver, lungs, and kidneys.

• Fragrance. Researchers at the Environmental Working Group say this nonspecific term masks a host of chemicals. According to the EWG Web site, “Fragrances can contain neurotoxins and are among the top five allergens in the world.”

• Nanoparticles. Micronizing ingredients boost skin absorption; some reports say nanoparticles have been inadequately tested in skin products.

• Sodium lauryl sulfate, also listed as sodium laureth sulfate or SLS. Current evidence contradicts older reports that this foaming agent is linked to cancer but still links SLS to irritations of the skin and eyes.

• Propylene glycol. A petrochemical used in lipsticks; a study by the Environmental Working Group database shows concentrated amounts can aggravate sensitive skin. And some reports warn that if propylene glycol gets in the bloodstream it can affect the brain.

• Dimethicone. Unsubstantiated reports once claimed this silicone moisturizer promoted tumors; current warnings say it may irritate sensitive skin.

• DEA (diethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine). These chemical compounds may irritate skin and have been linked to the formation of carcinogens—claims that are disputed by some manufacturers, who say DEA and TEA are proven to be safe.

You won’t find mercury or lead listed on cosmetics labels, but you may see reports about them on the Internet. Trace levels of mercury, which causes neurological damage, have been found in a few mascaras. And recent reports of lead in lipsticks prompted a call from Senators John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein for the FDA to investigate. Manufacturers insist that the low levels of lead and mercury that have been reported do not pose health hazards.

Finding Brands You Trust

Ingredients that get a green light from industry watchers include many botanicals such as peppermint, calendula, cinnamon, and almond. Vitamins and essential oils are also considered safe. However, botanicals can irritate sensitive skin. People with allergies should avoid bodycare products with the same ingredients they react to in food and nature.

Many minerals also get a green light for use on skin, although studies have found that the micronized or nano-scaled particles used in blushes, face powders, and eyeshadows pose potential health hazards ranging from inflammation to cell, tissue, and organ damage. Even when it’s not micronized, the powder form of the mineral talc may be carcinogenic if inhaled.

After running down lists of ingredients, you may also want to size up the ethics of manufacturers. Jennifer Blackburn suggests buying from companies that embrace an ecofriendly approach in everything from harvesting to processing to packaging; a label with the term “biodynamic” describes such corporate consciousness. Companies touting biodynamic values include Dr. Hauschka, Jurlique, and Waleda. Pangea Organics offers plantable packaging—bury the box that a lip balm or lotion came in to sprout wildflowers or herbs.

Some brands target consumers with specific interests. People with chemical sensitivities may like Lush; body products are sliced fresh and use few preservatives.

Carol’s Daughter in Westfield Wheaton mall was developed by and for women of color and features concentrations of natural shea and cocoa butters. Peacekeeper Cause-metics are recommended by anti-war activists from CodePink; the manufacturer not only pledges that its products are natural but donates profits to women’s-health and human-rights issues.

Vegans have limited choices because many natural alternatives to synthesized chemicals include animal derivatives such as collagen, gelatin, lanolin, beeswax, and honey. A few brands at vegan Pangea in Rockville are popular with men: Jason and Earth Science. Other Pangea bestsellers include products from Beauty Without Cruelty and ZuZu cosmetics.

Facts About Natural Products That May Surprise You

• Burt’s Bees, started by a Maine couple, is now owned by Clorox. Aveda and Origins are owned by Estée Lauder. The Body Shop is owned by L’Oréal.

• Four percent of oil imports to the US end up in body products.

• “Hypoallergenic” continues to be featured on beauty-product labels, although the FDA has set no standards and has said the term has no meaning. The word, according to the FDA, means whatever a company wants it to mean.

• In 2004, archaeologists in London unearthed a 2,000-year-old container of Roman face makeup made of animal fat, starch, and tin oxide. The powdery cream was intact except for a rotten-egg smell. Green-living advocates say the discovery proves synthetic preservatives are not necessary.

• Some states have set their own standards; a California law requires personal-care products labeled organic to be 70 percent organic.

For More Information 

Skin Deep is a searchable database sponsored by the Environmental Working Group that rates 25,000 products for toxicity:

Coming Clean is a campaign organized by the Organic Consumers Association; its Web site includes product warnings and recommendations:

National Geographic’s Green Guide offers a buying guide for cosmetics:

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of consumer-rights groups, asks manufacturers to take a stand against toxic ingredients by signing a compact. The campaign’s Web site lists who’s signed on, features scientific reports, and covers FDA regulations:

The Personal Care Products Council has its own database where consumers can get its view on ingredients and hazards:

The Food and Drug Administration’s cosmetics information is at

You can find an explanation of the USDA’s National Organic Program labeling explained at From the left column’s “browse by subject” list, select National Organic Program, then choose the third option under “I want information on” to learn about labeling.

This article is from the July 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.