There was a time when using non-toxic, environmentally friendly green beauty products was relegated to a socks-and-sandals granola set who shopped at the health food store. In the words of a 1960s Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin’. While health food stores and their staff remain a wonderful resource for toiletries and so much more, green beauty has gone mainstream in a big way, and many of us are taking a second look at our medicine cabinets.
When reconsidering the ingredients in your morning beauty regime, taking time to read labels is the first step, but even this can be a challenge when the list is a mile long (a major indication that this product is not made with only natural ingredients, if that’s what you’re looking for). Learning an entire lexicon of chemical names and the different certifications granted to brands feels like it should come with a university degree. That said, being informed and knowledgeable empowers you to make a confident personal choice about which products are right for you.
Here, we break down the ABCs of green beauty terms to know now, including what to look for and what you may wish to steer clear of.
Aluminum is a non-magnetic metal that forms a gel to temporarily plug sweat ducts, preventing sweat from reaching the skin, and is used in antiperspirants and deodorants. There is some research to suggest that, when absorbed by the skin, it can have estrogen-like effects. But, as with many cosmetic ingredients that have been the target of consumer concern in recent years, deciphering the research is often confusing. The U.S. National Cancer Institute says “because studies of antiperspirants and deodorants and breast cancer have provided conflicting results, additional research would be needed to determine whether a relationship exists.”
BHA & BHT
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are closely related synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers. They can cause allergic reactions. They were recently reviewed under Health Canada’s Chemical Management Plan, which found current levels of exposure to be safe, but they still might cause you irritation.
Clean products are those made only using ingredients that are not suspected of being harmful to health, but not necessarily naturally derived. Like many terms used by the burgeoning green beauty industry (including “green” and “natural,”) it’s not a regulated term, so if you’re concerned, read the ingredients.
The Dirty Dozen
The dirty dozen is a term coined by the David Suzuki Foundation as shorthand for 12 ingredients of concern that are found in personal care products. Used in any category of beauty items, the dirty dozen includes BHA and BHT, coal tar dyes, DEA, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, parabens, parfum, PEGs, petrolatum, siloxanes, sodium laureth sulphate and triclosan.
Founded in France in 1991, Ecocert is an independent and accredited certification body for ecological and organic cosmetics, and the only label that guarantees organic certification for the consumer. Certification is voluntary, and to ensure an environmentally friendly cosmetic product, the Ecocert standard requires that ingredients be derived from renewable sources and made using environmentally friendly processes, and that a minimum of 95 percent of a product’s ingredients come from natural origins. Look for one of two Ecocert labels on product packaging from more than 1,000 companies. The “natural and organic label” means that a minimum of 95 percent of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10 percent of all ingredients by weight come from organic farming, while the “natural cosmetic label” means that a minimum of 50 percent of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of five percent of all ingredients by weight come from organic farming.
Five free is a labelling term for nail polishes that do not contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, and camphor. Like “green” and “natural,” it’s not a regulated label.
Formaldehyde is a colourless, flammable gas at room temperature with a strong odour. In personal-care products, “formaldehyde releasers” are typically used as a preservative and can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Used in hair treatments, nail polish and eyelash glue, formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers may be labelled as methylene glycol, diazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15.
Fragrance is a group of chemicals used to add scent to a product. Because of the proprietary nature of a signature scent, companies are not required to disclose the exact ingredients that go into a fragrance, even though some people are allergic or sensitive to these ingredients. Found in perfumes, colognes and any personal care product with a scent, it may be labelled simply as “fragrance,” parfum or as diethyl phthalate, or DEP.
There is no governing body or accredited labelling system to designate natural products or ingredients, so proceed with caution and read full ingredient listings.
Organic describes products made using ingredients grown and processed under a regulated code that prohibits pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified organisms. In Canada, any product labelled as organic must also contain the name of the certification body. Look for the “Canada Organic” logo.
Parabens are a group of related chemicals that are used as preservatives to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, extending a product’s shelf life. According to U.S. nonprofit Breastcancer.org, “parabens can penetrate the skin and act like a very weak estrogen in the body — potentially turning on the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. Parabens have been found in breast tissue and breast cancers, but this really doesn’t mean much. Parabens have been found in many other tissues because of their wide use.” Typically labelled as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben, they’re used in skin care, powders and hair care products. While the Canadian Cancer Society concluded “More research is needed to provide answers,” it’s an ingredient many have chosen to avoid.
Petroleum, petrolatum or mineral oil jelly is a petrochemical used as a skin protectant. It’s used in hair care, soaps, skin care and lip balms to lock in moisture and add shine. According to Health Canada, “Food, drug and cosmetic petrolatum products are made from highly refined petrolatum at pharmaceutical or cosmetic grade. In the E.U., petrolatum is acceptable in cosmetics if the full refining history is known. In Canada, if an ingredient is susceptible to impurities, the manufacturer must make sure the ingredients and products are of good quality and safe when used as directed.”
Propylene glycol is an alcohol used as a skin-conditioning agent (a.k.a. moisturizer) that may irritate skin or cause contact dermatitis. Used in hair care, skin care and sunscreen, it may also be labelled as dihydroxypropane, propanediol, hydroxypropanol or methyl glycol.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Sodium laureth sulfate is used as a surfactant to help make ingredients bubble, lather and foam that can be a skin and eye irritant. Look for the letters “ETH” on the ingredients list of shampoos, soaps and face washes.
Vegan and Cruelty-Free
Vegan is a term used to describe products that do not include any animal-derived ingredients and are never tested on animals, whereas cruelty-free denotes products that were developed without any animal tests.
Wildcrafted ingredients are those that are sourced in the wild, as opposed to those that are farmed. Although grown in nature, wildcrafted does not necessarily mean they are certified organic, as that labelling is highly regulated to specific growing conditions.