by Diane Wolfe
Scan the beauty aisle and you will see plenty of labels. “Vegan-friendly” shampoo, or “biodegradable toothpaste” But what do they really mean?
From baby shampoo to facial and beauty cream, there are plenty of mysterious ingredients gracing the labels of health and beauty products on the market these days. And then there are the labels that say things like “organic,” “all-natural,” or “animal cruelty free,” which can leave you just as confused (or more) than the ingredients list does. Whether it’s for the well-being of your children, family or just you, understanding beauty labels can empower you to make better knowledge-based consumer decisions. Here’s the scoop.
Label: Organic Clear rules make decoding this term easier. In 2005, the USDA started allowing makers of qualified organic beauty and body-care products to use a USDA Organic seal. The term “organic”, as it appears on beauty labels has four variations:
100% organic: The product must contain only organically produced food ingredients, and the label will display the USDA Organic seal.
Organic: The product must contain at least 95% organically grown food ingredients, and the label will display the USDA seal.
Made with organic ingredients: The product must contain at least 70% organically produced food ingredients. The label will not have the USDA seal.
Organic ingredients: Products that contain less than 70% organically produced food ingredients can only include organic ingredients on its ingredients list, but these products cannot display the USDA Organic seal.
Look at the list of ingredients in your favorite “natural” product. You might be surprised to find petrochemicals along with the honey, shea butter, and olive oil. With no definition set by the FDA or any other regulatory agency for what “natural” means in the world of beauty products, take a buyer beware approach.
Fortunately, several legitimately natural product manufacturers have taken matters into their own hands. Companies such as Burt’s Bees and Aubrey Organics have created a Personal Care Committee under the direction of the Natural Products Association (NPA). They are working to define a “natural standard” and creating guidelines for which ingredients do or do not qualify. The group intends to design a seal this year to help consumers easily identify products that meet the criteria. Until then, don’t assume “natural” means anything.
Label: Cruelty-Free We often associate “cruelty-free” with a bunny logo. Only one agency, the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC), conducts a routine check to ensure manufacturers live up to their promise. A union of six animal-rights groups that includes the Humane Society and Beauty Without Cruelty, the CCIC offers its trademarked “leaping bunny” tag to manufacturers who pledge not to test their ingredients on animals or purchase from any third-party supplier who does. Manufacturers also agree to an audit every one to three years to verify their continued use of only cruelty-free suppliers.
With no legal definition for “cruelty-free”, companies have unrestricted use of this term. The FDA points out that while a company may not have tested its finished product on animals, the ingredients may have come from suppliers who did. Look for the CCIC’s leaping bunny on the product. Note that once the “natural” standard is created, products displaying the NPA seal will also have to be cruelty-free.
Animal Testing on Products
Label: Biodegradable Products may boast that the liquid inside is “biodegradable”. While that sounds eco-friendly, what exactly does it mean? According to the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines, created in conjuction with the EPA, a product labeled “biodegradable” should decompose “into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time”. For liquids that go down the drain, decomposition should finish during the waste-water treatment process. You can log on to “skin deep” at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com, and discover which chemicals build up in humans and animals with repeated exposure.
Label: Vegan-Friendly While no regulatory body oversees the “vegan-friendly” claim, it’s somewhat easy to substantiate, if you know how to read ingredients. Byproducts like honey and milk are obvious no-nos, but the average consumer might not recognize contents that may come from plants–and also animals–such as lactic acid.
Know When to Toss Them Now that we know a bit more about what our beauty product labels mean, how long does it last? Beauty products do go bad according to Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist at Cosmetech Labs in Fairfield, NJ. “At best, they stop performing as well as they used to, and at worst, they can cause irritations or infections.” Beyond the obvious signs like dried mascara or separated foundation, it can be tough to tell when something’s past its prime. U.S. labeling regulations do not require an expiration date on most cosmetics. So, here’s an easy “when-to-toss timeline” to go by, recommended by Wilson: Every season: Toss mascara and liquid liner Every six months: Toss your skin-care regimen, sunscreens, and liquid foundation Every year: Toss your hair care products According to the FDA, natural beauty products have an even shorter shelf life, because their botanical ingredients may be susceptible to microbial growth. Think about pure extract, oil, pulp, fruits. What’s more, though natural preservatives like essential oils of cinnamon, orange, rosemary, and thyme can be potent, when used at low levels they may not be as strong as synthetics.