You pick up a bottle of body lotion that reads: “Naturally derived ingredients.” You automatically assume that the product is healthier and safer than other brands. Most likely, you are wrong. The unfortunate truth about product labels is that they’re utterly misleading.
Labels largely escape regulations in most countries—other than to prevent natural remedies from making health claims about their products. That means that a drink like Snapple can boast that it’s “Made from Nothing But the Best Stuff on Earth,” but still contain harmful Aspartame—an ingredient linked with cancer—in addition to a slew of undisclosed “natural flavors.” Who knows what exactly is in this brew?
The same goes for cosmetics and toiletries. In my blog post about How to Avoid ‘Fake Naturals,’ I include a list of resources that can help you decipher confusing labels. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) skin database compiled one of the most comprehensive reference guides. You can look up more than 73,000 products, as well as specific ingredients to determine their safety rating.
Meanwhile, here are some common pitfalls that are found on labels, what they actually mean, and some suggestions for cleaner alternatives.
- “Cruelty free” doesn’t mean vegan. Many people wrongfully assume that the words Cruelty-free and the bunny symbol mean that the product won’t contain animal-derived ingredients too. That is far from the truth. A natural lipstick, for example, may not be tested on animals, but will still contain carmine, a red dye that is extracted from beetles. This dye can be found in food too! Your alternative: Try Lippy Girl Vegocentric Organic Vegan Lipsticks that are 100% vegan, bee-free, gluten free, and chemical free. Look for the words Vegan and Cruelty-free, if you want a totally animal-friendly product.
- “Key ingredients” or “natural flavors” is not full disclosure. Often a beauty product or food label will reveal only a few main ingredients. If you have allergies or you wish to know more, you will have to dig further with the company. It also begs the question of why they don’t want to disclose their ingredients up front, while many other companies do. They may be hiding a slew of ineffective ingredients like fillers, binders, and toxic chemicals. That is vital information to know. Your alternative: Choose product lines with full transparency like Pangea Organics (using code 51797 to shop) and any of the carefully curated products sold on cult beauty websites like Spirit Beauty Lounge.
- Organic in the name doesn’t mean everything in the product is organic or even natural. This one usually surprises me most of all because the name of the product could be tricking you into thinking the product is organic but will still contain questionable or harmful ingredients. I bought a hand cream like that recently and was amazed to find dimethicone in the ingredients list. It scores a three on the EWG rating with the caveat that it “may be harmful if absorbed through the skin.” Your alternative: Read the labels. Look for the top ingredients to avoid. Choose certified organic products with the symbols clearly shown on the label like Intelligent Nutrients and Bubble and Bee Organics.
- Organic doesn’t mean non-comedogenic. An organic product may still clog pores, particularly if it contains certain ingredients like algae extract which scores a zero rating on the EWG skin database safety list but high scores for being comedogenic on the Acne.org website. Your alternative: Choose formulas with ingredients clearly explained like Nonie of Beverly Hills AHA line that includes a glossary of ingredients and is especially formulated to suit all skin types, including acneic.
- Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthier. Gluten-free foods may have removed gluten, only to have replaced it with high levels of sugar or GMO corn. Gluten-free, and even natural products may still contain other chemicals to avoid like phenoxyethanol, parabens, and other estrogen disruptors that may lead to cancer, infertility, and other issues. Your alternative: Check the sugar content on the label. If it exceeds 20 percent of the carbohydrate content, it’s too much. (Try this simple formula). Look for non-GMO products across the board. Here’s why. Use a gluten-free, non-GMO line like Josh Rosebrook’s hair and skin care products.
- Listing “Fragrance” could mean hidden dangers. Simply using the word “fragrance” in the ingredients could mean that the formula contains harmful pthalates, endocrine disruptors that are likely carcinogenic. Your alternative: Choose natural perfumes like the ones reviewed on The Green Product Junkie. Look for the phthalate-free label.
- ‘Naturally derived’ doesn’t mean it’s natural or organic. Most ingredients are derived from natural sources. It’s the process that these natural resources go through to convert them into a user-friendly format that’s the issue. Petroleum, a common ingredient in moisturizers and the main ingredient in Vaseline, is derived from a natural source too, but you would not want to use it on your skin or in your body. Your alternative: Indie Lee’s Hydrating Body Balm and CV Skinlabs Restorative Skin Balm work the same magic using therapeutic natural ingredients that allow skin to breathe.
- Fancy ingredients on the front of the box don’t mean much. Many ingredient buzzwords are just hype. Celebrating the inclusion of certain ingredients doesn’t mean they will be found in therapeutic enough quantities to make a difference in the product. If they are hidden somewhere in the formula and not in the number one or two spots, then they’re probably not going to be that effective. Your alternative solution: S.W. Basics contains up to FIVE potent ingredients in each formula with nothing hidden.
- “Rich in vitamins and nutrients” sounds great, but they may not work. Take Vitamin C, for instance, a commonly added nutrient in many skin care products due to its many benefits. Once vitamin C is exposed to the air or light, it loses its potency. Its delivery format also counts. According to this article, fat-soluble vitamin C ester is ideal for topical use, while water-soluble vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is best taken as a supplement. When not in that form, it means that it would just be sitting on the skin without breaking down in usable form. Many vitamins and minerals taken internally as supplements face the same issue of not being bio-available in the body. They remain undigested in the gut and doing the very opposite of what you want them to do: creating free-radicals, not destroying them! Your alternative: Buy vitamin-packed skin care in dark glass containers to avoid exposure to light and air like One Love Organics Vitamin C Active Moisture Serum. Use whole food supplements like those found on The Synergy Company website.
With all the information that is available today, you will find many resources for checking labels for safety and accuracy. There’s no reason to fall prey to a catchy slogan again.
- Is It Safe? Cocamide DEA Discovered in 98 Personal Care Products (chagrinvalleysoapandsalve.com)
- What Is Natural? (chemicaloftheday.squarespace.com)
- Case Study: Phthalates (chemicalbodyburden.org)
- Ingredient Spotlight: Vitamin C Ester (oneloveorganics.com)
Full disclosure: I am not affiliated with any of the product lines that I shared here, nor do I receive any benefits from recommending them. Elaine Springer is a delightful acquaintance through social media who recently became a beauty ecologist with Pangea Organics. If you wish to order with her, please use the code 51797 to shop. Thanks to Pangea’s transparency with their formulas and business, I would have chosen them regardless of my friendship with Elaine.