Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Thanks to viral articles like this, and terrifying claims like, "No endocrine disruptors!" boldly printed on packaging, people are freaked out. Just last week, Lena Dunham Instagrammed a picture of her makeup on set with the caption: "Hannah's makeup is going clean, mean & green." It's the perfect environment for so-called natural and safe beauty brands to step in and assuage our fears with products that won't disrupt our endocrine systems, whatever that may mean.
Once upon a time, natural beauty products meant soap peppered with brown flakes, or a hunk of shea butter in a glass jar sitting on the dusty shelf of a weird-smelling health food store.
Starting in the late ‘70s, a proliferation of commercial brands like Aveda, Burt's Bees, Neal's Yard and others popped up, marketing to earth moms and hippie types. Fast forward to now: the Clorox Company owns Burt's Bees and Gwyneth Paltrow just released a $140, largely organic night cream. We're in a whole new era of beauty marketing, and you're damn right to be confused.
First of all, there's the labeling. According to the FDA, words like "natural" "non-toxic," "clean," and "safe" have absolutely no official or legal meaning when it comes to cosmetic labeling, yet they're being used more than ever.
Is argan oil the second-to-last ingredient on a label filled with synthetics? Doesn't matter. You can still call your product "naturally derived." There is some oversight for the "organic" designation on cosmetic products, however. It's regulated by the USDA, and requires a certain percentage of organically grown ingredients to be present.
Even if a company does get "organic" labeling, though, that's also fairly meaningless. "An ingredient's source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic," reads a response to a FAQ on the FDA's website on whether organic ingredients are safer than "ingredients from other sources."
Which brings us to that other dirty clean-beauty word: chemicals. Technically, plant-derived substances are still chemicals, and they can be unsafe, which is why you should never put certain essential oils directly on your skin, for example. Natural chemicals can potentially react with your skin and other substances in products to cause reactions, the same way that synthetics can. There are even studies that show that natural things like soy, lavender, and tea tree oil might be -— wait for it -— endocrine disruptors.
And guess what? Chemicals actually can be useful! One example, retinol and its many other vitamin A derivatives, a favorite of dermatologists, can do incredible things for your skin. Same with niacinamide. And peptides. Allergies, which is likely your biggest risk with any topical beauty product, don't discriminate between natural or synthetic — you can have an allergic reaction to anything, from coconut oil to synthetic fragrance.
But despite packaging ambiguity, people are buying into the messaging, which means they're buying natural beauty brands in record numbers. According to Karen Grant, the NPD Group's beauty industry analyst, natural brands account for 21% of overall skincare sales in the US; in 2002 it was only 3%. And while skincare in general has been having lousy sales the past two years, Grant notes that 72% of all growth in skincare is because of the natural market. (The NPD tracks this sector of the industry based on brands that "profile themselves" as natural, which includes brands like Korres, which has been accused of greenwashing, and "a wide berth of other brands.")
The clean beauty mindset started in the wellness and clean eating space, according to Shashi Batra, the founder of natural beauty e-commerce site Credo, which has a store in San Francisco. "What is happening from a cultural sense, in parallel with food, is there's a conscientiousness that's building around everything we buy in our lives," he says.
In keeping with this Goop-y lifestyle, new beauty companies have emerged and marketing has shifted. Brands have started to pivot away from the word "natural," overhauling the stodgy, leaf-adorned image in favor of sleek logos and modern packaging.
Goop, Honest Beauty, Beautycounter, and RMS all market themselves as safe brands and look right at home next to every blogger's Diptyque candle of choice. The message: This is not your hippie aunt's face cream.
Goop, Honest Beauty, Beautycounter, and RMS all market themselves as safe brands and look right at home next to every blogger's Diptyque candle of choice.
This all dovetails with what shoppers want. "We did a study many years ago to ask consumers if they care about things being all organic. What we found, to put it mildly, is that most consumers are light green, not dark green," the NPD's Grant says. "They want to be sort of natural and were most concerned about safety."
The internet is partially responsible for the safety outcry. Emails about aluminum in deodorant causing breast cancer (not true) and the amount of lead in lipstick (not dangerous) reached a fever pitch in the early aughts. "It made consumers much more aware, and when marketers noted that consumers were more aware, you started to see claims like ‘sulfate-free' and ‘no parabens' [on packaging]. That started to snowball in the mid-2000s and has been growing since then," says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and a co-founder of The Beauty Brains.
Do most people even understand what sulfates or parabens are? It reminds me of that Jimmy Kimmel video in which he asked people who claim to be gluten-free to define "gluten" and they couldn't. I'm not saying this to be condescending. I'm a former oncology nurse practitioner with graduate level training in pharmacology, anatomy, and physiology who had to read medical studies as part of my job and it's very, very difficult for me to weed through all this ingredient information and the associated medical studies to understand them. So I imagine it's difficult for a lot of other people, too.
It doesn't help that the FDA has very little oversight over the cosmetic industry, except for certain products like sunscreen and to mandate that labels cannot misstate benefits. The beauty industry essentially regulates itself, relying on existing ingredient safety data and performing tests on its own; ingredient information can be found at the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review site. So it's not hard to understand why people are suspicious, especially in light of two recent Johnson & Johnson alleged talc cover-up cases, in which two different juries awarded more than $120 million in damages to women who developed ovarian cancer. The decisions solidified the image of the Evil Corporation, even though there is no conclusive medical evidence that talc was responsible for causing the cancer.
No one entity has been more instrumental in convincing shoppers that their beauty products are going to kill them than the Environmental Working Group (EWG), though. The not-for-profit agency introduced its Skin Deep Database 12 years ago as a tool that gives grades to cosmetic ingredients and specific products ostensibly based on studies and safety data.
The database started with 7,500 products and now lists over 60,000 products. The EWG often infuriates cosmetic chemists and scientists because of its confusing ratings methodology and vague results. Seriously, try to understand this explanation.
I've searched dozens of products in the database, and more often than not, I seem to get a four rating out of ten, which means the product in question is deemed a "moderate" hazard; often there is also a notation that data is "limited." A lack of data sometimes seems to be enough for the EWG to give a product a more ominous rating. "In my view they are just fear mongers," says Romanowski.
The EWG doesn't see it that way. "We want to practice the precautionary principle. There are tons of potentially harmful ingredients in cosmetics. We know they're being used, like things being associated with hormone disruption, things that are associated with cancer. We use scientific studies to back up our methodology," says Ashley McCormack, the senior manager for development and marketing at the EWG, when asked how the organization responds to accusations of fear mongering. Those associations are weak at best, though.
While certain ingredients like formaldehyde and phthalates definitely have some damning data against them when used in certain concentrations, a lot don't. The problem is that many scientific studies aren't performed on humans, are inconclusive, or there just aren't enough of them.
This article by the American Cancer Society is one of the best I've read on the limitations of studies and safety testing. Because of the sheer volume of substances you come into contact with every day, it is almost impossible to establish causality except in very obvious cases, like smoking causing lung cancer. Just because parabens were found in breast cancer tissue does not mean they caused the cancer. But that's not an exciting headline to click on.
Most importantly, and a concept that is most overlooked by safe cosmetic proponents, is the dose of the chemical. Toxicity is dose dependent. "It's not just the poison that's the poison, it's the dose that's the poison," explains Romanowski. "At a high enough level, every ingredient that is in a cosmetic can be toxic. What fear marketers ignore is that the level matters, not just the fact that there's an ingredient in there. But consumers don't really think that way. They're like, ‘Well, if there's a chance it can disrupt my endocrine system, don't put it in there.'" The EWG definitely operates under the "better safe than sorry" principle of risk, and this has resonated with shoppers. To me, though, it's the equivalent of being afraid to walk around outside because you might get hit by a car.
In October of last year, the EWG launched a special "EWG Verified" label that brands can apply for. "Consumers were asking us for it," says McCormack. "They always say, ‘When I'm shopping I don't want to go to a database or use an app. Is there any way you could just put things on the product so I will know at the point of purchase what I'm buying and that it meets your standards?'"
Even some brands that don't necessarily identify as natural or non-toxic have started labeling what's not in their products, as certain ingredients become demonized.
The label requires an extensive application process and the EWG verifies by product, not by brand. It can cost from hundreds to several thousands of dollars per year to remain certified, but brand interest has been high. Fifteen brands and 140 products have already been certified, and hundreds more are in the pipeline, according to the organization. McCormack says that some brands have even changed their formulations to meet the EWG's requirements, showing just how desirable this label is.
Because of this mindset, even some brands that don't necessarily identify as natural or non-toxic have started labeling what's not in their products, as certain ingredients become demonized. Misleading labeling is increasingly common, like when cheese is labeled "gluten-free" even though it would never have contained gluten in the first place. Romanowski sees a lot of this sort of abuse. "It happens all the time, especially in hair care. You'll see ‘sulfate-free' but [it will be] on conditioner, which never contains sulfates, so it's a completely worthless claim."
Parabens, which are preservatives that prevent bacteria from growing in products, have become the Ramsay Bolton — a guy everyone tries to stay as far away from as possible lest they get fed to his dogs -— of ingredients. In 2014, Europe banned five different parabens, which generated headlines and caused outrage in the US. The fact that Europe has banned 1,400 cosmetic ingredients compared to only 11 here is an often-cited statistic.
What isn't often reported, though, is that the most common parabens used in cosmetics — methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben — have not been banned in Europe. (The European Commission did set concentration limits on butylparaben and propylparaben and they're banned for products used on babies' diaper areas, but they're not uniformly forbidden.) The report even states: "In addition to Propylparaben and Butylparaben, other parabens, like Methylparaben and Ethylparaben, are safe, as repeatedly confirmed by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). They are also some of the most efficient preservatives."
But who cares about details? The headline was, "EUROPE BANS PARABENS," consumers freaked out, and companies dropped their parabens.
It's enough to make you want to throw away everything in your medicine cabinet. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, founder of brainy beauty site The Beheld, author of the upcoming book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives, and self-described "lefty liberal type," did just that, whittling her routine down to nothing but coconut oil. She's since re-embraced Olay.
"In general I do live a healthy life and I think that's part of my beef with natural products overall is that it's this focus on a micro-fix for your health. I'd be surprised if there was a consumer who is falling down because of something in her lotion." She likens it to the now-ubiquitous women's magazine tip to eat one square of dark chocolate everyday — not so effective in the big scheme of things.
I understand the desire to combat the terrifying world of the unknown and feel like you have some control over something. Hell, you can't even eat a comforting Chipotle burrito bowl these days without worrying that it will make you deathly ill. And no one's denying that we are potentially exposed to an insane amount of chemicals everyday in our food, air, and water. So if being able to choose a certain brand of soap makes you feel a bit safer and therefore more in control, that's a great thing. But I think it's misplaced fear and it makes me sad that people are afraid of their face creams.
There is absolutely no convincing evidence that your beauty products are going to make you sick, despite a big chunk of the industry telling you they are. But I also don't necessarily think the EWG or natural beauty brands have Mr. Burns-type figures sitting in back rooms sneering, "Excellent. Today we're going to say bad things about mineral oil and charge people $42 for marula oil instead."
However, you'd do well to remember that beauty is a business; it's not a philanthropy. The EWG is selling their new label to companies, who will surely pass on the cost to consumers. "Safe," "natural," "clean" beauty companies want to sell you stuff the same way Pantene does.
Batra, Credo's founder, was an early Sephora executive, so he clearly knows how to sell things. Ditto Gwyneth Paltrow, whom people perennially want to be like (though please recall that Gwyneth once admitted she loves the occasional cigarette), and Beautycounter's founder Gregg Renfrew, who has a long resume in the retail sector. That they are savvy sellers isn't a bad thing necessarily. I love Beautycounter's cream cleanser and I've recommended Goop's cleansing balm and eye cream to friends, because they're great products on their own merit. Drunk Elephant's glycolic acid serum is in constant rotation in my regimen. And Credo has amassed an incredible assortment of gorgeous indie brands that anyone sick of mass produced sameness will love, even if they have never heard of parabens.
But I happen to like them in spite of the fact that they call themselves safe, not because of it. I've tried plenty of "safe" and "natural" brands that are terrible, too. Eminence's organic products have given me rashes on more than one occasion, and it's still difficult to get color cosmetics right without using synthetics, an issue exemplified by Gywneth's uneven Juice Beauty makeup collection.
"Natural beauty has become encoded with class."
There are bigger issues to tackle here obviously, beyond our own endocrine systems. Whitefield-Madrano points out that the people who are probably most at risk for harm by chemicals in beauty products are workers with high exposures, like the nail salon workers described in that blockbuster New York Times piece and the Brazilian blowout formaldehyde controversy a few years ago.
Then there's cost. While there are exceptions, natural brands tend to be more expensive than drugstore brands. If they are indeed safer, are we excluding a whole at-risk population who can't afford them, much as we did with organic produce? "Natural beauty has become encoded with class," says Whitefield-Madrano. "Consumerism is not the answer."
And let's not forget about environmental issues, which was the concern of the original natural beauty product pioneers. Romanowski points out that we should probably stop using mineral oil and petrolatum, not because they're dangerous, but because they're not environmentally sustainable. But this pertains to natural brands also. With the popularity of argan oil in natural products, there have recently been concerns about overharvesting.
Finally, there's the question of regulation. A safe cosmetics act, which the EWG supports, has been stalling in Congress for years. I'd also like to see it revived with more debate, because it's not clear who would ultimately benefit. Romanowski thinks it might actually hurt smaller brands, who would have to spend more money to jump through more bureaucratic hoops. But I do think there needs to be more regulation around confusing product labeling. If it's confusing to me, a person who reads labels for a living, then it's definitely confusing to casual shoppers.
Awareness and educating yourself is great; paralyzing fear isn't. If some new conclusive evidence appears convincing me to throw away my shampoo, I will dutifully report it and write a mea culpa. Until then, I'm not going to be terrified of toxins.