The other day, I was called an “eco-warrior.” It seems it hasn’t gone unnoticed by my co-workers that my beauty greenness has spiked from pale lime to deep hunter in just a month. Everyone knew I was re-evaluating my personal regime, and every time I put down the phone from speaking to the owner of another green beauty line, I’d leap up to share the latest revelation.
My cosmetic eco-consciousness began when my daughter was born two and a half years ago—but as the green category has been inching its way from niche to mainstream, I’ve begun to question who is walking the talk and who is simply riding on the coattails of a market trend.
This growing demand is something the industry—even its big players—has been compelled to respond to. A few of L’Oréal’s brands now offer products free of parabens, aluminum, sulfates and/or silicone; Estée Lauder-owned line Origins has an 11-product organic range, some of which are USDA certified; and Clarins now owns organic skin-care line Kibio. But confusion remains in the beauty aisles, in part because of “greenwashing”—the practice of making ambiguous claims that, upon closer inspection, don’t hold up.
Compounding the situation, there is no governmental regulation in Canada on what defines an organic (or “green,” for that matter) beauty product. Therefore, with no official standards to comply with, companies are free to label their products any way they like, leaving judgment in the hands of the consumer. “It really is an issue of ‘buyer beware,’” says Bill Baker, general manager of Consonant Body, an organic skin-care company. “They need to know what they’re reading. And I don’t mean the claims or certification seals—I mean the ingredient list.”
So why do I now want to go green with everything from my lip balm to my sun protection? For one, what we apply to our skin is absorbed (some believe up to 60 per cent). Then, “there’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests a lot of these ingredients are at best harsh and irritating, and at worst thought to be tied to specific health issues,” says Baker.
Of course, the reasons most of us use conventional beauty products is that they’re widely available, consistent in their results and, quite simply, they’re what we’re used to. We expect our shampoo to foam, our foundation to last 12 hours, and our mascara to be impervious to water. We just never really stop to think a) how they do that, and b) if they should.
So the challenge many eco-brands face in winning over consumers is getting them to shift their expectations. The plant-based raw materials used in many green products vary from crop to crop, which can affect their look or feel—companies work fastidiously to correct this. “A friend of mine calls it ‘a new normal,’” says Baker.
An organic apple isn’t as pristine as a pesticide-treated one, but there’s something pure in its so-called flaws. That’s not to say all eco products look like they were handmade on a hippie commune. Indeed, some green brands look just as seductive as upscale department-store lines. “Organic beauty deserves the same kind of opulence when it comes to packaging,” says Julie Gabriel, author of The Green Beauty Guide. But what matters most is what’s inside. Note the order of the ingredient list; to be truly green, you want to see the organic and/or plant-based substances close to the beginning. Beyond that, there should be “no petrochemicals; no synthetic fragrances or dyes; no parabens or other human toxins (toluene, quaterniums, phenoxyethanol) or other ethoxylated compounds; no plasticizers leaching into the product from the packaging,” says Gabriel. But she adds that it’s not critical that everything be organic. “Vitamins, clays, minerals and water cannot be organic, and yet they are great for your skin and safe for the environment.”
It can also be tricky to decipher the difference between chemicals and scientific names used for natural ingredients, because Canada adheres to the INCI (International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients) standard. Therefore, shea butter is listed as butyrospermum parkii, and aloe vera goes by aloe barbadensis.
When it comes to third-party organic certification, note that while it is an added assurance of purity, it doesn’t mean the product is completely natural, since no one is following a universal set of rules. Ecocert, one of the most widely recognized European organizations, will certify products containing sulfates and petrochemicals. [See our list of ingredients to avoid when greening your makeup bag] On the flip side, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) doesn’t have a separate set of standards for cosmetics, so if you see its logo, it means the product has met the guidelines as they apply to organic food. Regardless, reading the ingredient list is the best way to determine whether a product is truly green.
That’s why I now find myself scrutinizing the side of my moisturizer as intensely as I do the ingredients on a box of cereal. It doesn’t mean I’ll never try conventional products again; I just want to know that when I order a salad, I’m actually eating something healthy.
First published in FASHION Magazine April 2010