You’d think if you source and make all your own makeup from ingredients you know are safe, you’d never have to worry. But where your tween or teen is concerned, all bets are off!
When my daughter was 12 and interested in exploring makeup for the first time, I steered her toward my own brand, Simple Beauty Minerals. I was so pleased and relieved I didn’t have to sort through dozens of brands. I knew my products were safe. And she was happy and excited to play.
Until she was done with ‘mom’s brand.’
She had started her own YouTube beauty and lifestyle channel and wanted to test out other products.
I had a decision to make.
I could hold my ground. I could tell her she could only use safe cosmetics. And on the surface this sounds like a sane parenting decision, but I also knew it could backfire. Would she then sneak out at night to try other products?
In the end, I opted to let her experiment and trust her to come to her own conclusions.
The search for safe cosmetics
I tell you this because when we first started to try other brands, I initially said, let’s choose safe brands. So off we went to the mall to search. I knew where to start, and I thought we would have some luck. Wow. Was I surprised at how elusive the ‘safe cosmetic brand’ really is!
Dangerous ingredients in cosmetics is a topic that is starting to appear in mainstream news stories.
It’s very common for ingredients like lead, mercury, and other nasties to show up in makeup and body care products from lipstick to hair straightener. These ingredients do get absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes and can definitely affect your health – and the health of your daughters, once they reach the age where they are interested in makeup. In fact, many of the cheap brands that appeal to tweens are the worst in terms of containing dubious ingredients lists.
Most people don’t know which ingredients are safe, and which ones to avoid. And to make matters worse, branding can often be deceptive. It can be difficult to discern between a truly authentic organic brand vs. one that is greenwashing (appearing to be environmentally-responsible even though it’s not.) To make matters more complicated, some brands contain a few good ingredients but cover them in a wash of undesirable ingredients.
Safe makeup shopping tips
When shopping for cosmetics and personal care products, knowing what to look for on packaging ingredient labels and a brand’s promotional marketing can give you great confidence that you are making good choices for you and your family.
Be sure to check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics database to verify the safety of your current products, as well as to help you find safer products.
The next time you shop for makeup and body care, here are some pointers and potential red flags to look out for.
The Cosmetic Dirty Dozen
- Fragrance (unless it is scented with essential oils or the label says “phthalate free.”)
- 1.4 dioxane – related chemicals include myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth (see a pattern here? Avoid the ‘eths), PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, oxynol
- Petrochemicals, including mineral oil, petroleum jelly, and paraben
- Sulfates, including sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and ammonium lauryl sulfate
- Chemical sunscreens including oxybenzone and methoxycinnamate
- Antibacterial compounds, such as triclosan and chlorphenesin
- Synthetic polymers, such as sodium polyacrylate, carbomer, dimethicone
- Synthetic colors. Look for, and avoid FC&C or C&D, followed by a color and a number
- Tolulene (in most nail polishes)
If you’re thinking this is looking like a lot to remember, you’re right!
One last note on ingredients: Legally, cosmetic companies have to disclose the Latin name of botanical products. Some of these sound pretty scary. If in doubt, look it up- you may be pleasantly surprised!
In the U.S., FDA regulations require beauty product companies to list the ingredients on the outer package of products, or on the immediate label if the product doesn’t come in an outer package. If you shop at beauty counters where testers are displayed outside of their packages, you may need to ask to see the box the product comes in.
When shopping online, look for the ingredients list. This may appear on the product sales page, or you may be able to zoom in on the photo to read the ingredients list on the package. If you can’t find an ingredients list anywhere, it’s best to pass on the product.
Deceptive marketing techniques
Just because a product looks green, or organic, or natural, doesn’t mean it is. Keep an eye out, and look beyond the label for these potential red flags:
- Brand names that sound green
- Packaging that looks green or natural
- Logos with a natural look, such as a leaf or earth symbol
- A green certification seal that you don’t recognize
- Some variation of the word ‘organic’ in the brand name (such as organix or organica)
A natural-looking package can be a good place to start, but don’t stop there. It’s quite common for attractive green packaging to mask undesirable ingredients. Be aware, too, that some product labels make a big deal about the natural ingredients the product contains (such as jojoba oil, herbal essences, tea tree oil, etc.). It’s easy to focus on the good stuff and forget about the bad.
Be sure to thoroughly check the ingredients list before making your purchase. You have your Pocket Guide handy, right?
Natural vs. synthetic
If a product is natural, does that make it healthy for you? Are all synthetics bad?
The answer to both questions is ‘not necessarily.’
Just because a product is 100% natural does not guarantee it is safe. For example, not using an effective preservative can cause health and/or skin issues. Personally, I think it’s more important to be safe and non-toxic than 100% natural. And there are some ingredients that are synthetic (or man-made) and completely safe in my book. One example is phenoxythanol – a broad spectrum preservative with a very good safety record.
What you should know about organic products
The USDA and other organic certifying bodies regulate agriculture, not cosmetics. The FDC regulates cosmetics and body care products, but not agricultural products. Where the two overlap it can get a little confusing.
Organic is a term that refers only to agricultural (plant- or animal- based) ingredients in a product that have been produced under strict standards without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics. A personal care product can labeled as organic if it contains at least 70% organic ingredients. Organic body care products can contain some safe synthetics and still be legally classified as organic.
A product that is legitimately organic should list the organic certifying agency on the label. Look for familiar organic seals such as USDA, OTCO (Oregon Tilth), and Ecocert (Europe). If you see a seal you don’t recognize, do a search on it to make sure it’s legit. Some companies will create their own seals or purchase vanity seals that don’t assure you of anything.
Products that say they ‘contain organic ingredients’ are just that – products with organic ingredients. They may contain toxic ingredients, too – so do your due diligence. Certified organic products are usually trustworthy, but I always read the labels carefully just to be on the safe side. Remember, too, that even if a product is generally safe it might not be good for you personally. Especially if you or your child have sensitive skin or are prone to allergies, test a product on a small area of your inner arm first and watch for adverse reactions before going wild with it.
One last thing to keep in mind is that smaller companies may not have the resources to put organic labels on their products. This doesn’t mean they’re not safe! Many small cosmetic companies are highly dedicated to providing products that are safe and healthy. Always check the ingredients – and don’t be afraid to reach out to the company owner with your questions!
Finding the balance
Finally, while it’s important to keep ourselves and our kids safe and healthy, it’s definitely not healthy to fret about it. The good news is that even a brief hiatus from using conventional products can cause a dramatic decrease in the number of harmful chemicals found in the body.
As a manufacturer, I am a purist. I feel it’s my responsibility and my joy to provide products that are, to the absolute best of my knowledge and ability, safe and healthy to use, and to be transparent about what I offer. However, as a consumer, I am most certainly human. For the most part, I’m a health nut. But I sometimes eat ice cream or a candy bar on Halloween, and I sometimes use products or engage in behaviors that some would say were not healthy.
Similarly to parenting… If I were so strict about healthy living that my kids could never have fun, what good would that do? In the end, you’re in charge of your family’s health. The best you can do is to keep yourself informed, set your own limits, and relax.
I’m happy to report that after her brief experimental phase, my daughter has come back to safe and healthy brands on her own accord. At 15, she is now not only careful to use safe and healthy beauty products, she is writing her English research paper on the safety of mineral makeup.
Needless to say, I’m delighted but not surprised. After all, she knows her ingredients!
- Natural Cosmetics: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - April 14, 2016
- 5 Healthy Beauty Tips for Expecting Moms - January 24, 2013