It’s All About Ingredients

USDA Organic Labeling Guidelines

Beauty buzz-words like “all-natural”, “organic”, and “preservative (or sulfate, silicone, etc.) free” are popping up on the labels of new beauty products – and even on re-designed labels of tried and true brands. Sometimes these tiny attention grabbers can be helpful. Sometimes they’re not.

The problem with marketing campaigns for beauty products is that the majority of them are not run by cosmetic chemists. The campaign writers will grab tech-y sounding words and throw them on the label to entice (or scare and confuse) the consumer into making a purchase. For example, a few months ago I was browsing the high-end cosmetics at my local Ulta store when I saw something very confusing on an eye shadow package: “SULFATE FREE”, it proclaimed, along with a laundry list of other ingredients it wasn’t using. I honestly don’t remember what brand it was, but this is a perfect example of using industry buzz-words to trick consumers. I’m willing to bet that over 50% of people who saw that on the box were relieved that they weren’t using harsh sulfates in their eye shadows (phew!), but the other people who saw it – and who actually know what sulfates are – were confused. Sulfates are used to make soap. There’s absolutely no eye shadow in the world that would use sulfates. So why put that on the label? Because they’re taking advantage of the ignorance of their consumers.

Another example I’ve seen is when companies put things like “made with natural shea butter!” on the front label (for “label appeal”), but upon close examination of the ingredient listing, butyrospermum parkii (shea) butter was close to the bottom of the list, leading me to believe that there’s not a high enough percentage in the formulation to do any good; but it’s in there – and that’s a good enough reason to put it on the front of the bottle.

As a general rule, anything listed below “fragrance” is used at about 1% or less. Depending on the ingredient manufacturer’s suggested usage rate, this can make a great deal of difference. Acne medication that uses 1% salicylic acid is known to be very effective, but a hand cream using 1% shea butter (with a suggested usage rate up to 100%) won’t get you very far.

Obviously I’m all for natural products (and organic, if it’s affordable). Bonnie’s mantra is “Naturally Nourishing”, meaning that the majority of ingredients used (about 98.5%, if I had to guess) are derived from plants and botanical sources. The other 1.5% are synthetic, and this is based on cost for the most part (more on that in a minute).

Cosmetic products use the INCI labeling system. INCI stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, which uses standardized scientific or Latin names, rather than ‘common’ names, to identify contents. Ingredients are listed in descending order based on the amount of each ingredient used.

Some ingredients on cosmetic product labels may look scary (did you see the name for shea butter I wrote up there?), but that’s just their INCI name. Some of them are chemicals found in nature which have been isolated in order to harness their full potential. Something like cetyl alcohol, for example, may sound like a drying, synthetic chemical. Actually, cetyl alcohol is derived from coconut or palm oil, which has been used in natural beauty care for centuries. It is a naturally-occurring fatty alcohol with excellent emollient (moisturizing) properties. That doesn’t sound scary at all – in fact, it sounds pretty good!

Now, about those synthetic ingredients (also an aside about preservatives). When it comes down to it, most of my customers are going to make purchases based on product cost. If I use 100% Certified Organic ingredients in my Whipped Body Lotion, for example, you may be paying upwards of $35-$40 for a 5 oz jar rather than the modest $12 that they currently go for. No matter how good the lotion is, if my target market can’t afford to buy it, there’s no point.

Moldy Lotion

The Soap Queen blog shows a very good example of what happens when even salon brands don’t use preservatives.

That Whipped Body Lotion also uses a preservative. As a consumer, you should be VERY wary of any product containing water that doesn’t include a preservative. No matter how careful the manufacturing process, all kinds of funky stuff could start growing in there after you open it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to rub moldy lotion all over my legs (see photo – gross). There are a number of very good certified organic preservatives on the market, but they can be very expensive. I currently use a very mild broad-spectrum synthetic preservative, but I recently found and am experimenting with a low-cost certified organic preservative.

EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is an excellent resource for finding out what those hard-to-pronounce ingredients are doing in your beauty products. I encourage you to grab the nearest bottle of lotion and type in just one ingredient; you’ll be amazed at what you can learn (for better or worse)!


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