Green Beauty: Are Cosmetic Labels Meaningless to Determine Safe Products?

johnson's head to toe baby washHow do you figure out what’s safe in beauty and personal care products? I previously posted about how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test cosmetics before they go on the market. Cosmetic manufacturers must list all ingredients on cosmetics, but who in the heck even understands the chemical names? How do you figure out what is safe when you are standing in the middle of Target, reading the back of a bottle of liquid foaming soap? It says that it contains sodium laureth sulfate derived from coconut, so it must be safe, right? It says it is natural, so it is okay, right?


Do the labels help? Probably not. Many of the claims on personal care products are meaningless. Despite sounding good, they unfortunately don’t have any legal meaning.

Take the claim that a product is “hypoallergenic.” Sounds legal, right? That label is not subject to any federal standard or regulation. The term means what any particular company wants it to mean. Some products labeled as “hypoallergenic” contain known allergens, such as quaternium 15 and propylene glycol.

The claim that a product is “natural” has no legal meaning either. Almost three-quarters of us believe natural products will improve our health. We shell out big bucks for products claiming to be natural. But, think about it. In one sense of the word, petroleum products are natural, aren’t they? Petroleum is naturally occurring, formed from the remains of ancient organic material over time. So it qualifies, right? Yep. At least for some cosmetic manufacturers. But, it probably is not what you want when you buy a “natural” product. It has become a marketing slogan. And, just a reminder, that natural doesn’t necessarily mean safer, either. Chemicals can be harmful whether naturally occurring or synthetically derived.

And, the all important “fragrance free” claim. That doesn’t have any regulatory meaning – all it means is that the product has no noticeable odor. So, fragrance can be added to mask a bad smell. Better claim – no fragrance added – if you want to skip synthetic fragrance (and the hormone disrupting phthalates usually found in synthetic fragrance.

Okay, so how do these claims really work? Let’s look at a sample label from a popular conventional baby wash marketed as hypoallergenic and allergy- and dermatologist-tested and gentle to the eyes. What is this product? Every parent’s staple – Johnson’s head-to-toe baby wash:

Ingredients: Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEG-150 Distearate, Tetrasodium EDTA, Sodium Chloride, Polyquaternium-10, Fragrance, Quaternium-15, Citric Acid.

This ingredient label was pulled directly off the manufacturer’s website for this baby wash.

First, let’s look at one of the last ingredients – fragrance. What is in fragrance? Well, you don’t really know since cosmetic manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients that make up fragrance. They maintain that the make up of various fragrances are closely guarded trade secrets. But what do we know about fragrance? Fragrances are complex combinations of synthetic ingredients, usually. And most synthetic fragrance contains phthalates, and phthalates are known developmental and reproductive toxicants and some of them are endocrine disruptors. The phthalate in fragrance is usually diethylphthalate (“DEP”). The manufacturer’s information confirms diethylphthalate is used in its baby care products, so we can anticipate that DEP is present in this product. DEP has been associated with adverse effects on the male reproductive system in a study of fetal exposure.

What about the other ingredients? Sodium laureth sulfate may result in 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen, being present as an impurity in the product unless the 1,4-dioxane is vacuum stripped. Sodium laureth sulfate is the ethoxylated form of sodium lauryl sulfate. According to the manufacturer’s website for this product, “[s]ome of the ingredients in our products may contain 1,4-dioxane as an incidental ingredient at extremely low levels. This trace ingredient is common in the personal care industry, and results from a process that makes products mild for even the most delicate skin . . . Test results recently released by these groups state that some shampoos and bath products contain trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane. We are unclear as to the testing methodology used by these groups and cannot verify the data that was listed in their press release.” Also, another ingredient in the product – PEG-150 distearate – can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.

Further, the industry’s own panel, the CIR, has stated that sodium laureth sulfate “may induce eye and skin irritation.”

So far, we have an endocrine disruptor and a carcinogen, and also an ingredient that may induce eye and skin irritation? What else? Another ingredient, quaternium-15, is known to cause allergic responses and skin irritation. And may also release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Is that what you expect in a baby body wash advertised as mild and gentler than water?

If you are looking for some guidance, look for products carrying the USDA certified organic label. Products with the USDA certified organic label meet the requirements of that program governing organic ingredients and approved and excluded methods. But make sure it is certified organic by the USDA. Don’t be fooled by generic claims of “organic.” The term “organic” in the product’s name doesn’t have any regulatory significance, nor does its use without the certification (except for California, which has a state law regulating the use of the term “organic”). And, a caveat, some great products are not certified under USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP is not a good fit for personal care products. Not all personal care products can be certified by the NOP because the ingredients may not be food products. But it is one of the few regulated tools available to identify personal care products.

You may also want to look for products from companies that have signed the compact started by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of public and environmental health groups that lobby companies to voluntarily eliminate chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. By signing the pledge, the companies agree to formulate products with ingredients that are not known or suspected of casing cancer, mutation, birth defects or other adverse health effects. The steps for compliance with the compact require global compliance with the European Union’s Cosmetic Directive, performance of an ingredient deck inventory, substantiation of ingredients and impurities for safety, development of a substitution plan and transparency and public reporting.

A number of private certifiers have popped up, each with its own requirements for certification. These standards are competing in the marketplace for recognition. Some are not as rigorous as others.

The best thing you can do? Read the ingredients. If you recognize the ingredients, then the product may be what you want. Or, you can research beforehand at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database of ingredients.

Original 5 Minutes for Going Green post. Jennifer has more great information on how Smart Mamas Do It All Naturally at her personal blog, The Smart Mama.

8 Responses to Green Beauty: Are Cosmetic Labels Meaningless to Determine Safe Products?
  1. Lisa
    October 9, 2008 | 12:18 pm

    Here’s another thing you can do: get your teens active in the issue now. Teens for Safe Cosmetics is organizing now to help girls learn why they shouldn’t put “that glop” on their bodies. We’ve written about the group’s local efforts at our local site for natural families because I think it’s vital that we educate girls before they are sucked into the whirlpool of mainstream beauty products.

  2. Jessica (Surely You Nest)
    October 9, 2008 | 12:40 pm

    I love this post. Thank you for articulating my biggest frustration: the fact that the great work EWG has done with the Skin Deep Database has to be done at all. Product labeling should protect me and my family from harm. As it stands, I am super vigilant about what my kids access, and for things I constantly use, like soap/toothpaste/shampoo etc, I research ahead of time. But what about if you get a gift? And what about if you get an unexpected 5 minutes for getting a new lipstick? Even within brands safety varies – I got one from a line I thought was safe and it turned out to be a 7 on the Skin Deep scale even though lots of its products rate 0 (the safest rating). This issue infuriates me. I should not have to go back to school and get a chemistry degree to have faith that my freaking baby bath doesn’t have endocrine disruptors in it. As usual, your info rocks!

  3. Green Beauty at My Web of Life
    October 10, 2008 | 11:21 am

    […] sure to check out this fantastic blog from 5 Minutes to Green on cosmetic labels. Well worth the […]

  4. Heather Howell
    October 20, 2008 | 12:29 pm

    Thanks for the post. I would like to add that the FDA is trying to form regulations on skin care. It is called the FDA Globalization Act. This act is under the re-working stages because it contain regulations and fees that would put business like my own and thousands of other women owned small businesses out of business. You can learn more below:

    This video summarizes the Indie Beauty Network’s position against the Discussion Draft of the FDA Globalization Act of 2008, the legislation that would put thousands of Indies out of business by forcing them to pay outrageous registration fees and comply with burdensome paperwork.

    If passed, this law would drive consumers back to the days when they could only choose between a few huge, faceless, nameless big box stores and brands for their cosmetics and personal care products. And fewer consumer choices always leads to higher prices. Tell Congress you want none of it.

    Again thanks for the post.

  5. baby bathing and skin care
    March 4, 2009 | 11:33 pm

    yes johnson is one of the great products for baby skin

  6. X
    May 12, 2009 | 11:18 am

    I make my own cosmetics. The thing you have to understand is that what’s in something is not as important as how much of it is in there. If you put the most dangerous substance around like plutonium in a cosmetic that doesn’t necessarily make it unsafe. The question is how much is in there. 1 atom is not going to hurt you. Toxicologist know this as the principle of ‘the dose makes the poison’. Yes, there are bad products out there, but basing your decisions on what names are on the ingredient labels is not really specific enough.

  7. […] Do you believe this statement? You may. The statement is true in the sense that the products comply with the FDA’s requirements. But the FDA does not approve cosmetic ingredients before the are used. The FDA’s oversight of cosmetic safety is very lax. […]

  8. […] rely on labels – those terms like natural, naturally derived, hypoallergenic and more have no regulatory meaning. Plus, the US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) – the federal agency tasked […]