The old saying “beauty is only skin deep” is getting a run for its money in this era of hyper aware consumers. Shoppers en mass are just now waking up to the idea that the products they use on their skin affect a lot more than just the surface of their bodies, and have the potential to leave long lasting effects, both good and bad. This understanding has also begun to seep past the effects products may have on the individual, and include the effects they might have on the world around them. As more and more people become aware of the responsibility they hold as individuals to protect their surrounding environments, their expectations of greater accountability and transparency from the brands they decide to support only grows. As a result, brands have been making more of an effort to be transparent with their consumers when it comes to disclosing what ingredients go into their products and packaging.
One of the biggest issues within the beauty industry today is the lack of thorough FDA regulation when it comes to cosmetic formulas. Most cosmetics do not need FDA premarket approval, and the FDA usually leaves it up to individual companies to ensure whether or not their products are safe which leads to extreme misinformation. Giving companies free reign to use any ingredient in any cosmetic so long as the finished product is considered “safe under labeled or customary conditions of use” allows for major loopholes within the system and the laws around ingredient disclosure with an emphasis on color additives, don’t do enough to protect against these shortcuts.
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which regulates ingredient disclosure and includes net contents of any physical product was made in the 1960s, way before the rise of the internet. Since then, there have been no changes made to the legislation to accommodate digital platforms, even though e-commerce now represents the majority of market revenue. This loophole gives companies the freedom to decide how they will disclose information and a majority of them choose not to disclose it at all.
Even when that list of ingredients is “openly” available, the FDA’s loose regulation continues to perpetuate use of toxic ingredients and lack of transparency across the board. To put things into perspective, the United States only prohibits 11 potentially harmful ingredients in cosmetics in contrast to the European Union’s comprehensive list of more than 2,400. This obscene margin is a major cause for concern, that should only further amplify the need for transparency and a deeper knowledge of the system.
A perfect example of the way companies have been scamming the system can be found in the use of fragrance labeling. You’ve seen it listed as an ingredient on countless beauty products, but the fact is that fragrance itself is not an ingredient. It’s actually more of an umbrella term for companies to hide other ingredients under. This one word could be representing dozens of ingredients, many of which haven’t been properly evaluated for their effects on human or environmental health. An estimated ⅓ of some 4,000 ingredients listed as “fragrance” have the potential of being toxic. Phthalates, one of the most common ingredients in “fragrance” allows scent to last longer, but can also contribute to breast cancer.
So what exactly is fragrance? Unfortunately, that type of information is considered a trade secret and is reserved exclusively for fragrance companies who aren’t legally required to share their secret recipes. You could say it’s on a need to know basis, but those who actually need to know aren’t allowed to know. Considering the fact that a good amount of these chemicals have been found in blood streams and are linked to allergies, irritation, cancer, hormone disruption and the continued destruction of our environment is absolutely mind blowing. Consumers have a right to know exactly what they’re putting into their bodies and out into their environment, but unfortunately, the FDA does not seem to hold the same ideals.
There are many common misconceptions within the beauty industry. Things like greenwashing contribute to opaque labeling, and it may come as no surprise to know that the FDA doesn’t regulate much in this arena either. The market has seen that most people looking to switch up their skincare regimen are opting for cleaner products, but what does that really mean? When shoppers check the ingredients list on products labeled with “organic” or “all-natural”, they’re finding that these products aren’t actually clean or even good for them. In most cases, the products are filled with toxic ingredients. This is often their intro into greenwashing.
Consumers have all come across products decorated with pretty symbols that are meant to identify them as “vegan” or “eco-friendly”, and the majority of the time the products will have “natural” or “organic” in pretty letters right across the front. This advertising and marketing tactic is meant to catch the attention of consumers who have set conscious standards for themselves, especially those who are just moving into the realm of clean beauty products. These companies aren’t trying to put good clean products out there, they’re trying to grab shoppers’ attention in order to sell products. And, since the FDA doesn’t clearly define what should be considered cruelty free, organic, etc, the companies are getting away with assigning these labels on whatever products they want. The only FDA regulation for the terms “natural” and “organic” apply to food labels. In other words, the loophole to this “regulation” mainly applies to agricultural ingredients found in cosmetics, but not in the actual product. Therefore, it cannot be confirmed that any “natural” or “organic” claims to any beauty product are true.
Just because a product is labeled organic, natural, green, non-toxic, or any of those clever marketing buzzwords, does not mean that the product itself is clean. As well, just because a product contains an ingredient a consumer can’t pronounce does not mean the product is toxic either. Science has evolved and continues to do so ensuring that man-made synthetic ingredients can be just as non-toxic as ingredients with healthy components made by mother nature. That’s the real purpose behind clean beauty — products that pose no threat to your own health, or that of the Earth’s.
It’s not enough to just look at the label and see the words eco-friendly and natural. The truth is in the ingredients label, and only there can the shopper confirm just how non-toxic their product truly is. Due to the lack of regulation within the beauty industry, the responsibility lies with the consumers to familiarize themselves with what is dangerous to their bodies. They need to learn how to pinpoint the toxins disguised within the beauty and hygienic products that are available and eliminate them for the betterment of their health.
If you’re questioning the products on your bathroom shelf, that’s good. Make it a habit to not take everything at face value and do the deep dive on what is really going onto your body and into the world. If you’re thinking about what to do the next time you go out to buy a new beauty product, here are a few tips to help point you in the right direction.
Pay Attention to the Ingredients
The names on an ingredients list might look long, scary, and very intimidating, but many of them are actually pretty safe. For example, sodium ascorbate is just the scientific way of saying Vitamin C. This way of labeling can get overwhelming, especially when there’s a long list of names to decipher, but never fear! There are so many resources that can help break down those ingredients, their purposes, and their effects for you.
The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) list was created by a US trade group known as the Personal Care Products Counsel (PCPC). Utilized in many countries, the list includes more than 16,000 ingredients and has been instrumental in identifying cosmetic ingredients and their adverse reactions. Think of it like a universal cosmetic ingredients dictionary! While it is a great resource, it is important to note that just because an ingredient has an INCI name doesn’t mean it has been approved for cosmetics, or that it is guaranteed safe. This is just a system made to help identify cosmetic ingredients. When a company utilizes the list, it will show the ingredients in descending order by concentration on the back of a beauty product. This system tells the consumer how much of an ingredient is used in a given product from most to least used. It is not a legal requirement for companies or brands to use the INCI system on their products, but you will notice that many of them do.
Another labeling technique that companies tend to utilize is the active and inactive route. The FDA approves active ingredients while inactive ingredients are there as support. Some products prioritize placing the pleasant sounding active ingredients that are only present in small amounts at the top of the list while excluding the bulk of the ingredients. This technique is not transparent enough as the consumer is left in the dark when it comes to how much of each ingredient is really in the product which makes it harder for those with sensitive skin to determine how much a certain ingredient might irritate their skin.
A lot of the time, brands will place an emphasis on certain active ingredients when in reality, the product is made up of mostly water and a few drops of said active ingredient. This is called fairy dusting, and is done in order to create marketing claims that will get more people to buy their products. A good way to avoid getting caught up in this type of loophole is to check the ingredient list on the back as it will most likely be utilizing the INCI system. If the advertised active ingredient is towards the end of the list then you have indeed been fairy dusted!
A quick google search can help inform you on what type of ingredients are in your everyday products, but if you want a quick and easy-to-read index, there are plenty of websites and apps at your disposal. A resource like the ‘Good Face Index’ can help you figure out how good or bad a product really is based on its ingredients. If you want something right at your fingertips, apps like Think Dirty let you scan a product and get your answers right then and there!
Look for Official Symbols
There are official verified symbols, and then there are knockoff manufacturer symbols, and when you learn which is which, looking for healthier options becomes much easier. Certain brands will have their own manufacturer symbols to represent or claim that their product is cruelty free, recyclable, eco-friendly, natural, etc., but this doesn’t mean that the advertised practices or ingredients are present in the production process. Certified official symbols have been tested by outside organizations whereas manufacturer symbols have not, so there is no way to know how accurate their claims truly are. Organizations like PETA, vegan.org, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have only certified a select amount of symbols so it is relatively easy to determine which are real and which are not.
Stick to What You Know
If you’ve already found a brand that you feel is transparent and honest about their ingredients and production, then dive deeper into their product line! Find more within that brand and branch out. This is a great way to stay aligned with your values while also maintaining the health of your beauty routine. It’s also very helpful to take note of what does and does not work for you. Pay attention to the ingredients in your most loved products and your least compatible products, then make a list to try and avoid whatever is in the no-go column. This will help you even when branching out to another brand or line, as you’ll be able to identify the things that don’t work for you.
We all deserve the right to call the shots when it comes to our own bodies, and that includes what we choose to put in it and on it, but the only way we can do that is if brands start to be more open, honest, and transparent in their production and advertising processes. Yes, maintaining a fully transparent brand is a lot of responsibility and requires active engagement in all elements and stages of production, from the farm to the shelf, but companies should be doing more than what is demanded of them to ensure that consumers and the environment aren’t being harmed. Making sure that ALL ingredients and practices are disclosed should be the first step towards their contribution to helping out. Putting all of the information from above on a label can be understandably difficult, but when there are outlets like web pages at these brands’ disposal, there is no real excuse. The beauty industry needs to make a change and that change needs to happen now because consumers have had enough. If the manufacturers of these products know what’s being put into them, the consumers should know as well.