Good to Know Guide: All-Natural Beauty Products

What to look for to ensure your cosmetics are truly healthy

Photo: Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

With the dizzying array of cosmetics on the market now, it can be hard to find the cleanest and greenest, especially when there are so many all-natural wannabes fighting for your attention. Here are a few tips on singling out the most healthful options:

Labels You Want…

USDA Organic: Like food, cosmetics can be certified organic if at least 95% of the ingredients came from farms certified under USDA National Organic Program standards. But “organic” on cosmetics can be a tricky word. Unlike food products, any cosmetic can feature the word “organic” in its name or in the name of the company that makes it, even if the product doesn’t meet USDA Organic standards. These cosmetics just can’t use the familiar USDA green-and-white seal you recognize on food. So look for that “USDA Organic” seal anytime the word “organic” appears anywhere on a cosmetic, to make sure you’re getting the real thing.

The NATRUE Label: An even more comprehensive certification, NATRUE has strict limits on which ingredients can and can't be used, and ensures that cosmetics not only have natural or organic ingredients, but that they also are produced in a way that doesn’t introduce harmful contaminants, a common problem in most cosmetics. The certification also requires that the packaging doesn't emit chemicals that could introduce impurities.

NPA (Natural Products Association) Natural Standard Seal: This certification doesn’t guarantee that ingredients were grown organically, but it does require any ingredient used to come from natural sources (basically, plants, animals, or minerals, not a lab). Any ingredient, natural or not, that is suspected of causing human health risks is prohibited.

…And Ingredients You Don’t

The certifications above won’t appear on every product you might want to buy. Some companies make products with completely natural, organic ingredients, but are too small to afford the costly process of applying for a certification. If you don't see certifications on the front of the label, flip the package over and scan the ingredients. The Environmental Working Group (a public-health nonprofit) has listed the following ingredients as being the most likely to trigger allergic reactions or other health problems. So you definitely want to avoid these six:

DMDM hydantoin and imidazolidinyl urea: these break down into the carcinogen formaldehyde

“Fragrance” (which usually means that the added scents are synthetic) and dyes: these are linked to allergies and hormone disruption. If you like scented products, check the ingredient list for essential oils—the all-natural way to add fragrance.

Parabens: which are linked to hormone disruption

• Ingredients containing the letters “PEG” or “-eth”: these could be contaminated with a cancer-causing ingredient called dioxane

Triclosan or triclocarban: antibacterial compounds suspected of interfering with hormones and of contributing to antibiotic resistant bacteria

Triethanolamine: triggers allergies and damages the immune system

Why It Matters

If you’re making an effort to eat organic food and eliminate pollution from your home, it makes sense to “organify” your makeup bag, too. That can be difficult, though, because the cosmetics industry generally lives by its own set of rules. There’s very little safety testing required of the ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products, and aside from prohibiting a few ingredients, the Food and Drug Administration takes a hands-off regulatory approach to what goes into your favorite foundation or eyeliner.

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