Natural Cosmetics: Truth, Lies, and, Advocacy

Finding Safe and Effective Cosmetics

Natural Cosmetics

Cosmetics and skin care are multi-billion dollar industries. The first cosmetics known, based on archeological evidence, dates to 3500 B.C.E., with the first cosmetics use thought to date from 10,000 B.C.E. Since then, there have been all sorts of unwanted side effects, the most awful being birth defects, blindness, and even death.[1. History of Cosmetics]

We are lucky to now know not to coat our faces with lead, but what we don’t know can still hurt us. One of the biggest misconceptions about the cosmetics and skin care industry is that these products must be proven safe for the FDA to approve them. In fact, the FDA does not require cosmetic products and ingredients to be tested for safety and do not have to go through FDA approval before hitting the market.[2. FDA Authority Over Cosmetics]

Women want cosmetics and skin care that are free of the big bads, but we also want our products to be effective. Based on what I commonly hear from women, I think we have three different issues at work here:

  1. We don’t understand all the ingredients and the role they play (if we can find ingredient lists at all).
  2. It seems like a continuous damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario between new research and unregulated chemicals. It can be too overwhelming to know what to buy, which can cause a little cosmetic-buying paralysis, which leads to sticking with what we know – even if our lipstick has lead in it.
  3. It can be hard to find the right balance between safe ingredients and effective products. This is a huge concern for women that want a product to work, want it to be safe, and want it to be cost-effective.

Problem: Understanding Ingredients

Let me start with number one: understanding ingredients. I believe that we all deserve to know exactly what is in our cosmetics, vitamins and other medicine, soil, air and then, and only then, can we make educated decisions based on that knowledge. Too often we are flying blind in the face of deceitful labeling, effective lobbying, and misleading ingredients. But once we have the ingredients in front of us, what then?

We may be able to check for parabens, but how many could decide if sodium benzoate or glyceryl stearate are dangerous while standing at the store? What about propylene glycol? Deciding which are harmful and which are harmless is difficult to decide and since, at least in the U.S., our regulatory bodies have not required safety testing for most of the chemicals and products already on the market, the cosmetics industry may be prioritizing effectiveness over long-term safety.

Problem: New Research and Unregulated Chemicals

So that leaves us with reason number two why women have trouble with choosing safe cosmetics. We are constantly learning new (and sometimes terrifying) information about harmful chemicals that the chemical manufacturers and cosmetics companies have purported to be safe for years! Maybe then we make a switch to an “all-natural” line and find out that the natural label means next to nothing and we still have harmful chemicals in our products. Or a previously “safe” ingredient turns out to be anything but, making us increasingly frustrated finding ANYTHING safe.

Problem: Finding Safe AND Effective Products

Which leads us right to number three: choosing products we know aren’t the safest, but are effective. We know too much, but not enough, so we stick with the cosmetics that work with less regard for their safety. This would be fine, except for that little piece about not always knowing enough. If you are a parent, you likely read the labels and try your best to make sure your children’s bath products are as safe as can be. Do you do the same for yourself? Many of us crunchy mamas try, but unless we eschew cosmetics altogether, it often seems near impossible.

Perhaps we decide that we are going to really work to find the safest products available. Great! This is what I try to do, but it can be time-consuming, expensive when we make “mistakes,” and may not end up being the most effective option. Still worth it for our children, but as adults we want a little more bang for our buck.

Educated Decisions Based on Real Knowledge

No one is perfect and that is true of anything in life. There is a huge difference, though, in making choices based on all the information and making choices based on false claims. I think a push to educate ourselves and others about chemical safety is incredibly important, as well as , is what is going to change the game. If we can solve the problems listed above, then we will have really made progress in understanding how to keep ourselves (and the rest of our families) safe. Until then, do what you can for yourself.

Take Action!

Educate yourself as best you can on ingredient safety.

Don’t beat yourself up if you knowingly choose a less-than-perfect product. Advocate for better chemical safety reform. Let the following parties understand that you expect chemicals that cause harm to be identified and disclosed. Request that all chemicals meet safety standards before they ever hit the market. Ask that testing and evaluating for chemicals reflect best practices called for by the National Academy of Science.

Opt for products that are safe and beneficial when possible. Just a few of my favorites. :)

Now spill…. Favorite green products? Products you won’t give up, even if they aren’t the safest? What you want out of chemical safety reform? Love it when you leave those comments and get the discussion going!

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Natural Cosmetics: Truth, Lies, and, Advocacy — 17 Comments

  1. I agree that the lack of regulation in the cosmetics industry is concerning, but I also think the dangers of synthetic chemicals have been blown out of proportion into full out chemical phobia. I hate it when I hear something advertised as ‘chemical free’ — because there’s no such thing. Water is a chemical. Lavender essential oil has many, many chemicals. Natural ingredients are almost always more complex chemicals than synthetic ones, and they’re not inherently safer than synthetics. Some of the most toxic substances on this planet occur completely naturally and have names you can easily pronounce. Something like 70% of toxicologists surveyed think the EWG overstates dangers, and I think it’s worth keeping in mind that we’re still living longer than we did at any other point in our history as a species.

    That said, I think it’s reasonable to take some precautions against overexposure. I use relatively few products and tend to choose ones with simple formulas. Plain jojoba oil works well as a moisturizer for my skin. I like Blissoma’s soap-free facial cleanser and don’t go anywhere without my Badger Balm.
    Jennifer @noteasy2begreen recently posted..Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie Recipe

    • I think there are rampant misconceptions about chemicals, particularly which could be harmful and which are benign. Also what natural ingredients are helpful or harmful, and which are even natural!

      What I would love to see happen is better education about what ingredients really are. So far, we often don’t have all the necessary information to make educated decisions on what products to use or not, and different people have different thresholds for what they will tolerate. The EWG certainly has flaws, it is still just a database, but it is a place to start.

      Looking at the examples of the chemicals I listed (sodium benzoate, glyceryl stearate, and propylene glycol) it would incredibly difficult for most people to know that the first two are perfectly fine while the third is not. We have the right to be educated through scientific study and disclosure about what we are putting on our skin.

      Love your blog name btw! :) It certainly isn’t always easy.

      • Hi Brenna,
        I’m with you that there needs to be better education and more scientific literacy in general. I think the problem is that examining things on a case by case basis (which I try to do with cosmetics ingredients and most other things in my life) isn’t an easy message to get out — black and white binaries like ‘synthetic chemicals are bad, natural ingredients are good’ are so much catchier and easier. Unfortunately, they tend to stop us from making more thoughtful, science-based decisions.

        Have you seen the dihydrogen monoxide hoax? I think it drives home the point that everything can be made to seem scary and dangerous: .
        Jennifer @noteasy2begreen recently posted..Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie Recipe

        • I so agree! It is so ingrained in us that to go green is to go natural, when that truthfully means next to nothing. There are toxic mushrooms and berries that are natural and yet incredibly dangerous! Then on the flip side we have long, scary sounding chemical ingredients that are perfectly safe.

          I had not seen that hoax, but it just goes to show how little we understand the role of chemicals in our lives when people don’t even recognize what water’s molecular structure is!

    • Jennifer gets me thinking quite a bit. I love that we are on the same “team” and can still have slightly different perspectives which always leads me to try to make my argument stronger based on new information.

      I only wish we really had a sense of what was healthy, what was not, and could make decisions accordingly.

  2. There definitely is a problem with too many chemicals in the products we consume. You have to learn how to navigate labels if you want to be certain you’re using safe products. I only buy a few products from companies that I trust and make everything else. A good rule of thumb is to limit the number of products you’re using on a daily basis – you greatly reduce your exposure to chemicals and potential allergens too. :)
    Michelle @ Green Earth Bazaar recently posted..Natural Beauty: DIY Beauty Recipes Made with Almonds

  3. Oh this is such a great post! You are so right about labels being misleading by saying natural when hardly any ingredient in it is natural. We all need to know what it is in the products that we are putting on our skin and absorbing.We have introduced a new mineral make-up locally this past week and will be available this week on the website. that has only 2 ingredients!! It covers as well as a concealer but is so light and leaves your skin looking flawless.So it has now become one of my favorite green products that I have with me all of the time. Thanks for always having such great informative posts!

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  7. New resource: Guide of Non-Toxic Hygiene, Beauty and Cosmetics Products available for free on
    This Guide demystifies the issue of the safety in cosmetics, explains the logos and certifications, the hazards of the fake bio, shows what to avoid, how to read labels, what resources are available to the costumer to analyse the products available on the market and especially provides healthy and environmentally friendly alternatives. It identifies, based on their safety, over 500 products with no danger for children, men and women available in the Quebec and Canada market. All the products have been scrutinized, analysed one by one and ingredient by ingredient using scientific tools that are explained in the Cosmetology Portal.
    The founder of this non-profit website is Cornelia Dum who did this extensive work with passion, following a breast cancer. This informational website is meant to be a reference for those who wish to cease polluting their body and the environment and is dedicated especially to the sick people facilitating at the same time women’s task who often take in charge the entire family’s health.

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