Are Your Cosmetics Safe?

by Claire Mathieson

It can be difficult to sort through the colorful mess of cosmetic and personal care products claiming to be “natural.” With rampant greenwashing the designation “natural” has lost its meaning. It doesn’t help that trying to take control of the matter by inspecting ingredients lists generally makes one feel as though classes in some foreign language are necessary. Because what we put on our bodies can be just as important as what we put in them, we should be conscious of the constituents of our personal care products, giving them just as much attention as we might give a nutrition label.

Unfortunately, many products on the market contain ingredients of questionable safety. According to the FDA, their “legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices. Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.” US cosmetics regulations are surprisingly lax; while the EU has banned over 1,000 chemicals, the US has banned only eight and has placed restrictions on three, the latter category including mercury compounds. This leaves chemicals known to be hazardous to human health – like carcinogens and toxins – in products that can be bought at any drugstore.

There are a couple of ways to deal with this in the short term. First, you can educate yourself about what you shouldn’t be lathering up with; to take the nutrition metaphor one step further, you can learn to distinguish the donuts of the cosmetics world from the spinach. The Environmental Working Group’s database Skin Deep is a great ally in this endeavor. It has thousands of products and ingredients on file and rates them according to safety, taking risks like cancer, allergies, and immunotoxicity into account. Another option – cheap, easy, and potentially fun – is to make your own products. The internet is well stocked with recipes for every sort of cosmetic need imaginable, and most call for ingredients already in the average kitchen.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

Would you wear a face mask made
from tumeric?

Turmeric Facial Mask
• 1 tsp. turmeric powder
• 2 tsp. rice flour
• 3 tbsp. plain yogurt
Mix, apply, let dry for 15-20 minutes, and rinse. (From Crunchy Betty)

Sugar Scrub
• 3 tsp. sugar
• 3 tsp. olive oil
Mix, apply to skin, and rinse.
(Original recipe from Beauty Gone Wild! Herbal Recipes for Gorgeous Skin & Hair by Diane Kidman)

Honey-Cocoa Butter Lip Balm
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1/2 tsp. honey
• 3/4 tsp. grated beeswax
• 1/2 tsp. pure cocoa butter
• Flavored oil of your choice
• 1 vitamin E capsule
In a small saucepan, heat oil, honey, wax, and butter over a low heat until just melted. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 2-3 minutes. Stir in flavoring and contents of vitamin E capsule. Pour into containers of your choice. (From The Daily Green)

Homemade sugar scrub on Etsy!

Finally, if neither researching nor DIY is your thing, Etsy is a nice alternative. While it’s important to realize that Etsy products aren’t regulated and that not all beauty products sold on the site are free of harmful chemicals, they tend to have fewer, more natural ingredients as they are generally made on a small scale by individuals rather than by corporations. It is easy to inquire into the ingredients, and sellers are often open to requests that certain things (e.g., fragrance) be left out.

It can be difficult to find a product that works, let alone one that’s safe, and you shouldn’t be expected to trash your medicine cabinet the second you finish this article. The important thing is to be aware; just because a product’s sold in a store doesn’t make it safe, and alternatives – maybe as close as your kitchen – do exist. Efforts to legislate more rigorous oversight of the cosmetics industry are in the works, like the recently introduced Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013, but for now it’s up to you to establish the safety of the products you use.

Claire Mathieson is a senior at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of Healthy Skin Portal, Crunch Betty, and Etsy.

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