Clean, Nontoxic Beauty
Those of you who have read goop for a long time know that we try to do well by our bodies, our kids, and the environment as much as possible—but we make allowances for real life, too. Not only is any concept of “perfection” untenable (and maddening), but it’s not so enjoyable, either. Pizza, a cigarette at a party, a perfect martini, a daily glass of red…these aren’t “cheats” or “indulgences”—these are just moments that can make a week more pleasurable, a night out with friends more fun.
This is the thing: We like to have the information we need to make our own choices. Sometimes those decisions revolve around fueling our bodies with super clean, almost monastic meals; sometimes those decisions revolve around a grilled cheese and fries. But really it’s about choice. It’s about controlling our destiny.
So what does this have to do with beauty? We believe in clean, nontoxic beauty here at goop: The brands in our goop shop are only those that we believe hold themselves to very high standards in terms of choosing ingredients and formulations that are not harmful to our health. Most important, they are completely transparent about what’s their formulas, which is surprisingly not required by law in the United States.
The lack of policy around chemicals in beauty and personal-care products in this country (for more, read this) is pretty terrifying. Most people mistakenly believe that like many other things in the US, the personal-care industry is highly regulated. It’s not. At all. What’s worse, in our opinion, is the flagrant green-washing and marketing—“natural,” “organic,” “pure”—that lulls people into believing that they’re making great, health-centric choices. That’s just not okay. We all deserve to know what’s in our products so we can choose whether to use them or not.
In the goop shop, we do the vetting for you, so you know that your intention to shop clean aligns with what we’re offering on our shelves.
The great news in all of this is that the personal-care industry is slowly cleaning up its act, in large part because of pressure from consumers like all of us who are clamoring for safer options and more transparency about ingredients and formulas (Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods are making big strides, as you’ll see below). We asked Stacy Malkan, a cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry to give us an update on where we are—and actions we can take today to further the cause. She also put together some guidelines for navigating greenwashing, along with the many claims in beauty that actually mean nothing.
What do you think needs to happen for the industry to evolve more acceptable safety standards?
We need to update the 1938 law that gives the FDA almost no authority to regulate cosmetics. Right now, companies are allowed to put nearly any chemical into personal-care products sold in the US—even known carcinogens—without any safety testing and without disclosing all the chemicals on labels. We’ve learned a lot in the past seventy years! For example, current science tells us that even low doses of certain chemicals can contribute to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, and other health problems that are on the rise. Each day, the average American woman uses about a dozen personal-care products containing more than one hundred chemicals that we ingest, inhale, and absorb through our skin, so they end up inside us.
The good news is companies have already figured out how to make safer personal-care products without using hazardous chemicals—products that work just as well and often better than the old formulas. Yet many of the leading brands continue to use old, outdated, toxic chemistry, because it’s easier than changing.
We need to shift across the board to green chemistry, which is the science of designing chemicals in ways that avoid hazardous substances. Scientists already know how to do this. But large investments from the big beauty corporations are necessary to take this new science to scale. The problem is that since companies can get away with hiding the toxic nature of their products—and marketing them as “natural,” “pure,” and “healthy”—there is no incentive to change. That’s why stronger safety laws are necessary not only for the health of people but also for the long-term health of the American cosmetics industry. People around the world want safe cosmetics. European companies are already far ahead; in 2003, the EU banned chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects from cosmetics. We need to do that here.
What have been recent triumphs? What are the setbacks?
The cosmetics industry is clearly responding to consumer demand for safer products. Walmart and Target have recently announced initiatives to push for safer cosmetics. Whole Foods has already motivated many companies to reformulate to safer ingredients, as part of their Premium Body Care program. Some large beauty brands are now promising to remove certain chemicals such as triclosan, phthalates, and parabens. These are huge victories, and they happened because of activist efforts like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has been watchdogging the industry and pushing for safer products for the past decade. They happened because people across the country are discovering the links between toxic exposures and disease, and they are demanding safer products.
It’s obvious that people want to buy nontoxic products, so it’s stunning that some of the most popular brands continue to use hazardous chemicals even though safer alternatives are available. They just hide these products behind bogus marketing claims of “natural” and “pure” or pink ribbons that make it seem like they care about women’s health.
One of the most disheartening trends in the beauty industry is “pinkwashing”—I wrote a whole chapter in my book about the companies that market themselves as champions of women’s health yet continue to put carcinogens in their products! They slap a pink ribbon on their products and promise some vague “portion of proceeds” will benefit breast cancer awareness, but what they don’t want to discuss is how to prevent breast cancer in the first place. We’re all aware of breast cancer, we need strategies to prevent it, and a good first step would be getting carcinogens out of the products we put on our bodies and our babies. Also beware that many leading breast cancer charities are avoiding this discussion as well, while they take money from the chemical and beauty companies. To learn more about breast cancer prevention, check out my favorite cancer organization, The Breast Cancer Fund, the only national breast cancer organization focused solely on prevention.
Can you walk us through common greenwashing claims in beauty products?
Studies show that people often read product labels for only a few seconds—start reading the label all the way through, particularly if a product boasts one of these claims.
The best advice for finding safe products is that simpler is better. Choose products with fewer chemicals, avoid synthetic fragrances, and use fewer products overall, especially on children or when pregnant. The Skin Deep database from the EWG is a great resource for researching your favorite products to find out what’s in them and how they rate for toxicity. Choose products in the 0 to 2 least toxic range, with the green circles.
(For more on ingredients to avoid, click here.)Chart by Stacy Malkan
|Organic||NothingThere are no standards for “organic” personal-care products sold in the United States—none. People are confused by this because it’s different for food. Food packaging can’t boast the word “organic” unless the product meets the government’s USDA organic standards. But with personal-care products, companies can and often do slap the word “organic” on products that are full of synthetic chemicals. They may have no organic ingredients at all! In many cases, they have organic ingredients listed at the top of the label, followed by the typical synthetic chemicals found in conventional products. Buy USDA-certified personal-care products, which meet the government standard.|
|Natural||Nothing“Natural” on a package means that the company understands that natural ingredients are important to you, but the product may not contain anything natural at all!|
|Green or eco||NothingAgain, there are no legal standards for any of these terms. Even the word “hypoallergenic” has no legal meaning. Some hypoallergenic products contain potent allergens, such as formaldehyde-releasing preservatives or fragrance.|
|Nontoxic||NothingCase in point: One brand of children’s face paint labeled “nontoxic,” “FDA-approved,” and “hypoallergenic” was tested by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. We found that it contained lead (a highly toxic substance) and nickel (which is allergenic). “FDA-approved” is a lie because the FDA doesn’t approve any cosmetics before they go on the shelves.|
What about products that are preservative-free? Is that a good thing?
Not necessarily. Preservatives are important for water-containing products, otherwise microbes could become a big problem. And preservatives are definitely tricky; their job is to kill bacteria, so they are toxic by nature. But some are far more toxic than others. The worst offenders are preservatives that release formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen and potent skin irritant and allergen. These formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are in many popular products; they go by names such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and bromopol. Parabens are also worrisome because they can act like estrogen in the body, and higher estrogen exposures are linked to breast cancer. Many products contain parabens, and the exposures add up.
Are there any worthwhile certifications?
I don’t put much stock in certifications: There are so many, and it’s too confusing to keep them straight. But I do appreciate the Whole Foods Premium Body Care Standards—the standards are tough and the products with this special label at Whole Foods are among the best. Also look for the USDA organic seal—any product that meets that designation is the best of the best.
What are the five most perilous personal-care products and why? What can consumers do to find safer alternatives/options?
When our partners at EWG first created the Skin Deep database, which compiles toxicity data on thousands of products, we were anxious to see which company was the worst offender for making toxic products. We were surprised to find there was no “worst”—the mainstream companies are making basically the same products! Formulations are remarkably similar across the board, from the high-end boutique products to the cheapest drugstore brands. Most haven’t changed in decades. When you pay more for conventional products, you are paying for marketing and packaging, not better formulas.
We did find, however, that certain product types are far more toxic than others. Among the worst are hair dyes, hair straighteners, and perms. Anything that changes the shape and color of hair tends to be quite toxic chemically. While there have been some interesting innovations in hair dye, the truly safe and effective hair dye has yet to be created—we’re keeping an eye out for that! For straightening or curling, stick with heat treatments and avoid the chemicals.
Also among the most toxic: Nail treatments such as acrylics (with formaldehyde glue) and nail products containing acetone, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, or formaldehyde should also be avoided. And last but not least: skin lighteners. These products are problematic not only for what they say about cultural standards of what is supposedly beautiful, but also because they are highly toxic. Most contain hydroquinone, a carcinogen that is banned in most industrial countries but is still legal to use in the US.
If women want to do something about this on a legislative level, what can they do?
There has never been a more important time to get involved. I’m convinced that women will be the ones to lead the charge to a new economic revolution—one that values life, health, and happiness over ever-increasing sales of cheap and toxic stuff. We need to get organized. We need to work together. Here are some things you can do:
Make a commitment to buy safe products: Look not just at the label but at the company. Are you supporting companies that support your values? I’ve stopped buying products from all the mainstream beauty companies and choose instead to buy from smaller, independently owned companies (local if possible) that I have come to know and trust. Check out the Safe Cosmetics champion companies and other companies that have low scores on the Skin Deep database.
Get political: How can we turn the powerful and growing green and organic consumer movement into an unstoppable political movement? All these issues are connected: toxic products made from oil by-products, rising rates of disease, our increasingly unhealthy and pesticide-laden food system, climate change. We need to exert our power as moms, sisters, daughters, sons, and fathers to say no to systems that are poisoning people and the planet, and yes to an economy that values life.
We are creating the world we want to live in through the choices we make every single day about how we spend our money and our lives. Get registered to vote, run for office, vote your values, shop your values, and let’s create the future our kids deserve.
Join me to continue the discussion at my website MovetheMarket.org.