Animal byproducts weren’t something Holly Tashian wanted to smear on her face. But it was hard to get away from lanolin, a fatty substance secreted by sheep, which was in many of the cosmetics in her makeup bag.
“I began to realize what I was putting on my face, and it’s pretty bad stuff,” says Tashian, a Nashville, Tenn., musician and a feng shui consultant. “I’ve just gotten turned off about what is going on in the cosmetics industry.”
In order to be certain of the products she was using, Tashian switched to organic makeup, swapping out her lipstick, mascara and eyeliner for those made by the Dr. Hauschka Skin Care brand. She’s still using an old compact of blush powder just because she hates to waste anything but plans to go all-organic once that runs out.
“I want to look better, and, at this age, you see skin go through dramatic changes,” says Tashian, 61. At the same time, she’d rather use products to improve her complexion.
Tashian is part of a growing trend of women who are ditching compacts overloaded with chemicals and preservatives for those with natural and organic ingredients. Makers of natural cosmetics say their products contain plant, animal or mineral ingredients, not synthetics; organic makers say their ingredients are pesticide free.
These niche cosmetics are becoming increasingly popular as consumers look for products that are better for their skin and nicer to the planet.
Recently, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics announced that it had found potentially dangerous levels of lead in lipsticks, saying one-third of the 33 red lipsticks it examined contained an amount that exceeds the FDA’s limit for lead in candy. The FDA, however, does not set a limit for lead in lipstick.
But what, exactly, are “organic” cosmetics?
‘Organic’ is a flexible term
Americans spent some $155 million on the top three mass-market natural personal care brands – Burt’s Bees, Jason Natural Cosmetics and Tom’s of Maine – during the 12 months through October, according to Information Resources Inc.
Sales of organic personal care items reached $350 million last year, an increase of $68 million over 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. That’s an increase of 24 percent, says Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the industry group.
But just because cosmetics companies label a tube of lipstick as natural or organic does not mean it makes for a better pucker or is kinder to the planet.
“Organic means nothing on a label. The word natural means nothing. You can’t trust anything on a label, and companies will lie,” says Ginger Garrett, an Atlanta author who researched scores of articles on the science of makeup in writing a book on the cosmetics used by ancient women.
Cosmetics and their ingredients are not required to undergo government approval before hitting the store shelves, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There are no standards as to what natural or organic means.
“If a company says it is organic because it uses organic flowers, they might be, but there could be a whole lot of different chemicals inside that product, as well,” says Jovana Ruzicic, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
The watchdog group is pushing for federal definitions of natural and organic when it comes to personal care products. “It’s hard for us to recommend organic or natural when there is no definition for them,” Ruzicic says.
The group runs a database of personal care items – from mascara to shampoo – to help consumers find safer alternatives at http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. The site lists ingredients, says whether they’re linked to allergies or cancer, and suggests another mascara or shampoo if the one you like is bad for you or the environment.
Know what’s in there
Garrett says women should avoid three major ingredients in their cosmetics: preservatives called parabens; phthalates, which are often found in fragrances; and talc.
Parabens have been linked to breast cancer, but they are such cheap preservatives, companies rely on them, she says. One study showed phthalates to be harmful to the reproductive system. And talc has been linked to ovarian cancer, she says.
If you are moving to a natural or organic cosmetics line, read the labels, Garrett says. Some may have organic rose petals in them but also contain talc, which aside from being potentially harmful, is not that great as a beauty ingredient.
Tashian says she’s made it a habit to read labels. She has switched to organic shampoo and conditioner. She doesn’t use nail polish, which is often filled with phthalates. And, she prefers natural brands such as Burt’s Bees and Kiss My Face for body lotion and face cleansers.
“I already buy organic vegetables,” Tashian says. “So I thought I’d give organic makeup a try.”