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Not so long ago, finding a nontoxic body-care product involved a serious dig through the aisles of the local food co-op. Close study was essential: Many of those earthy-looking labels still bore ingredient lists as toxic as those in the conventional drugstore brands. If one managed to track down a reasonably clean product, it was often less successful than its chemical-packed cousins at quelling the frizzies or balancing an uneven complexion.

Still, it seemed better than the alternative: slathering carcinogenic preservatives or hormone-disrupting synthetic fragrances on one’s scalp and skin. So the health-minded learned to accept their frizzy fates.

Today, those in search of healthier beauty are having a slightly easier time of it. In 2010, 13 percent of new hair- and skincare products and cosmetics proclaimed themselves paraben-free, a 5 percent increase since 2008. In 2010, about 9 percent of products in those same categories also made the organic claim, twice as many as 2007. (The organic designation is regulated by the USDA, unlike “natural,” which is essentially meaningless.)

It’s not just kitchen-based companies and tiny food co-ops that proffer paraben-free and organic product lines, either; big-name retailers and manufacturers are increasingly getting into the game.

In 2008, Target stores instituted a “natural beauty aisle,” which sells products that are free of parabens, sodium lauryl sulfates and phthalates. None of those products is tested on animals, and only recyclable packaging is permitted.

The popular drugstore brand Neutrogena launched a “naturals” line that contains no petrochemicals, parabens or phthalates.

Burt’s Bees, a company launched in a one-room schoolhouse in Maine, was acquired by Clorox in November 2008, to the tune of $913 million. Although the sale provoked skepticism among brand loyalists, the products have so far largely maintained their original standards of purity — a strong indication that cleaner products must be good for business.

After decades of limited options, cleaner, healthier personal-care choices have begun to proliferate. Thanks to consumer pressure, innovations in nontoxic preservatives and committed industry watchdogs, today’s personal-care industry looks a little prettier.

There’s still a long way to go, but the improvements are worth noting.

Hair-Raising Discoveries

In 2008, when journalists and best friends Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt got Brazilian Blowouts — a keratin styling treatment promising straight, utterly manageable hair — they were dazzled by their shiny new manes. So dazzled, in fact, that they initially ignored the accompanying stench. But it wasn’t long before they began to wonder just what was in that magical “keratin” concoction. A little research answered their question: formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

They were shocked.

“We said, ‘Wait, how is this possible, how is this legal?’” recalls O’Connor. “It was really eye-opening for me to realize that all kinds of things can and do make it onto the market regardless of whether they’re safe or not.”

Realizing the need for more consumer awareness, “we went looking for a book that didn’t exist, and so we wrote it,” says O’Connor. That book, No More Dirty Looks), has helped thousands of readers understand what is in their personal-care products, which brands and ingredients are safe or safer, and — perhaps most important — which natural products really work. Shiny hair, after all, still matters.

“We’ve heard from doctors whose skin was falling off from the chemicals in the soap they used; teenagers with horrible acne; women who had no idea what their natural hair color was, and found it breaking off in clumps in the shower. Once they switched to clean products, many say their mysterious, persistent problems disappeared.”

Since the book came out, O’Connor says, “We’ve heard from doctors whose skin was falling off from the chemicals in the soap they used; teenagers with horrible acne; women who had no idea what their natural hair color was, and found it breaking off in clumps in the shower. Once they switched to clean products, many say their mysterious, persistent problems disappeared.”

O’Connor says she has definitely noticed changes in the cosmetics industry in the four years since she and Spunt began their research. “We don’t even recognize the landscape,” she says. “In a way that’s terrific. So many more people are actively seeking out information and sharing it online — it’s amazing to see how many ‘green’ beauty blogs there are now focusing on ingredients and ingredient safety.”

As for regulation, O’Connor sees positive changes there, too. “What we saw this year with the Brazilian Blowout was really wild; a few years ago we couldn’t find any information about it and now we have [OSHA] in Oregon saying ‘this isn’t safe, we should not be doing this.’ Congress has put pressure on the FDA about Brazilian Blowouts [to protect salon workers], and just recently the department of Health and Human Services officially added formaldehyde to its list of human carcinogens. These are big deals.”

Stacy Malkan, the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, who has long been at the forefront of the effort to raise awareness about unsafe ingredients in personal-care products, has also noted  changes. In 2002, while working for the group Health Care Without Harm, she cowrote a report called “Not Too Pretty,” about the discovery of hormone-disrupting phthalates in cosmetics. The report garnered major media attention and inspired her to cofound the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In 2008 the campaign issued a follow-up report called “A Little Prettier,” which demonstrated just how successful consumer pressure can be.

“We went back and tested the worst products — worst meaning the highest levels of phthalates or the most different types — and we found significant changes,” explains Malkan. “A good example was the perfume Poison, which was featured in our original report. When we retested Poison in 2008, they had removed most of the phthalates. It happened quietly, and we only know because we retested the products.”

Roots of Change

Today’s trend toward cleaner products has several groundbreaking companies to thank.

The popular skincare brand Origins has been using botanicals and creating mostly natural personal-care products since its launch in 1990. “Plants are an important part of who we are,” says Lynn Mazzella, SVP of global product development and sustainability for Origins. She notes the company’s more recent efforts to improve its ingredient profiles: “We don’t formulate with parabens [since 2009], phthalates, propylene glycol, mineral oil, petroleum, paraffin or DEA, and we’ve never used animal testing in any way, or animal ingredients.”

After 90 years in business, the natural body-care company Weleda is finally beginning to enter the mainstream; last year it reached nearly $450 million in global sales. Today you can find Weleda products on the shelves of big retailers like Target and the occasional Walgreens. This is despite the fact that  they might have to be removed from those shelves when they expire, unlike their chemically preserved counterparts.

A common argument for synthetic preservatives used by large companies is that they are essential to cost-effectively formulating, manufacturing and distributing their products. Even organic producers admit natural preservatives are notoriously fickle and harder to manage. Weleda sidesteps the whole issue by accepting products with a shorter shelf life.

“A typical conventional skincare product that uses synthetic preservatives will have an average shelf life of three years, and a company business model will be constructed around managing inventory that allows for that.”

Hamish Cook, VP of marketing, explains it this way: “A typical conventional skincare product that uses synthetic preservatives will have an average shelf life of three years, and a company business model will be constructed around managing inventory that allows for that. For us, it’s the other way around: We construct our business model based around what kind of shelf life we can have.”

“Because we don’t use synthetic preservatives, we may not have a product with a shelf life of more than two years — so we work very hard to get our ingredients out of the gardens, into the products, and to the store on time.”

Weleda is also careful with packaging, he says, which is lightblocking and airtight. “Part of having a longer shelf life is having the formulation stable, but another part is protecting it from outside influences. Using tubes that are airtight, and keeping the orifice very small, help keep the product at its best.”

European Formulas

While more than 1,000 ingredients have been banned from personal-care products in the European Union (EU), a mere 11 are prohibited or restricted in the United States. That’s because EU personal-care regulations are designed using the precautionary principle: If an ingredient is a suspected health threat, it isn’t used in products, however cheap and effective it might be. As a result, European companies conduct infinitely more studies about cosmetic ingredients.

While more than 1,000 ingredients have been banned from personal-care products in the European Union (EU), a mere 11 are prohibited or restricted in the United States.

Meanwhile, in the United States, safety testing is left up to each company’s discretion. Most conduct tests to rule out acute reactions — a mascara that blinds the wearer, for example, would not be good for business. But U.S. safety testing does not weigh in for long-term harm like endocrine disruption or cancer.

The good news is that the EU’s stricter standards are providing U.S. safety groups with leverage. For example, in 2006 the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics pressured the world’s biggest manufacturer of nail polish, OPI, to reformulate its product in the United States — and worldwide — as it had done in Europe, where dibutyl phthalate was banned in 2003.

Up until that time, most nail polishes contained the “toxic trio” of formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate, or DBP. OPI had persisted in using DBP in the United States until the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics got involved.

“They were adamant about not reformulating their products here, even while they were changing them in Europe,” says Malkan. “So we did a specific campaign, called ‘Miss Treatment,’ that got a lot of attention, and they decided to stop using all those chemicals. Now they even advertise on their Web site that their nail polish is free of them.” After OPI reformulated, two other popular polish brands, Orly and Sally Hansen, removed the toxic trio as well.

Other companies have changed their formulations voluntarily to meet consumer demand for safer products. In 2008 The Body Shop (now owned by cosmetic giant L’Oréal) phased out the use of phthalates in its products, and Aveda (owned since 1997 by Estée Lauder) stopped using any paraben preservatives in its products as of January 2010.

Some retailers are even taking steps to make clean products easier for consumers to find. Whole Foods Markets (WFM) created the Premium Body Care seal to designate the purest, most environmentally safe personal-care products on their shelves. “We got rid of [products with] parabens, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives [like Quaternium-15], 100 percent petroleum-derived ingredients and synthetic colors,” says Jody Villecco, part of WFM’s quality standards team.

Meanwhile, the seal seems to work like a magnet for manufacturers. In the three years since its inception, the number of qualifying products has nearly tripled, from 1,200 to over 3,000.

New and Improving

Positive as these changes are, most safety experts acknowledge that the days of the magnifying glass — and Internet background checks — are not quite over.

The FDA still has no real oversight on the cosmetics industry. Determining the safety of a product remains up to the company that makes it, and not all yet have consumer well-being top of mind. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Web site, “The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the industry’s self-policing safety panel, falls far short of compensating for the lack of FDA oversight. . . . [I]n its more than 30-year history, the CIR has reviewed the safety of only 11 percent of the ingredients used to formulate personal-care products.”

The FDA still has no real oversight on the cosmetics industry.

One way this not-so-regulatory climate could change is if the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 (or something like it) eventually passes. The bill would grant the FDA authority (and, more significantly, responsibility) for ensuring that personal-care products do not contain harmful ingredients.

“The bill would phase out carcinogens and reproductive toxins; it would require full disclosure of ingredients [including in salon products and fragrance, currently protected under trade-secret laws], and it would set up a safety review system under the FDA. It would give the FDA funding through fees on the big companies — they’d essentially be paying for an FDA review instead of their own review,” explains Malkan.

O’Connor, however, adds a caveat. “It’s unlikely that it will pass in its current form — most laws don’t make it from introduction to passing without serious dilution. Still, this means that Capitol Hill is getting involved and it’s very encouraging to see.”

What other changes are on the horizon?

“I think we’ll see even more companies start to formulate in naturals as they recognize the trend,” says Weleda’s Cook. “Companies that have a truly genuine mission and value set will be the ones to watch. The ones that divide their portfolios between synthetic and natural products are going to have to be prepared to answer consumers’ questions about why they allow phthalates, for example, in one product and not in another.”

Ten years ago it would’ve been hard to imagine a Weleda product on the shelves of a retailer like Target, much less a full aisle devoted to products without parabens. Nor would one have anticipated the institution of safety standards protecting salon workers (formaldehyde-free blowout formulas are now the norm) or “premium” body-care seals being linked with safety first. But times are changing. Fortunately for our health, some commendable companies are beginning to change with them.

Choose Wisely

Having a healthy personal-care routine doesn’t necessarily mean chucking all your favorite products.

“Don’t get rid of your favorite going-out lipstick,” Siobhan O’Connor says. “If you’re wearing it once a week or once a month, hold on to it. But if you want to wear lipstick every day, all day, go for a really natural, clean brand.”

Another simple way to cut down on your toxic exposure is to avoid anything with “fragrance” on the label. By steering clear of anything containing synthetic fragrance, you’re eliminating much of your chemical exposure to hormone disrupters, such as phthalates. “That’s huge,” says O’Connor.

But, she points out: “Remember that fragrance isn’t just in perfume. Every single thing we use, including blush and mascara, contains fragrance — it’s masking the smell of something else.” For more beauty advice, plus information on ingredient safety and safe product lines, see O’Connor and Spunt’s Web site,

11 Ingredients to Avoid

  • Formaldehyde
  • Parabens
  • Phthalates
  • Synthetic colors
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Petroleum
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG)
  • Quaternium-15
  • TEA and DEA
  • Synthetic fragrance

This article originally appeared as “Beauty Makeover” in the January/February 2012 issue of Experience Life.

Photography by: John Mowers

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