Skincare products claim to do a lot. Some zap zits. Others smooth wrinkles. And many skincare products are now adding “all-natural,” “organic,” and other ~green vibes~ to their labels.
But as it turns out, most of these claims are only skin deep. Misleading ingredients, empty buzzwords, and lax regulations have created a skincare market that’s less than trustworthy.
We faced these skincare half-truths head-on. Here’s what we found.
The Difference Between Regulated And Approved
First things first, no cosmetics are FDA-approved. The FDA only “approves” food, drugs, and medical devices. Everything else is only FDA-regulated.
The FDA regulates skincare under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. These laws ban companies from selling polluted or misbranded products.
But as for everything else? Well, brands have a lot of wiggle room. For example, brands don’t have to prove their products’ safety. Nor do they need to show evidence that backs up their claims.
All Natural Means Nothing
According to the EWG, all-natural means nothing. The FDA has never legally defined the term for cosmetics and has no rules on its use. So, any brand can say its product is all-natural, whether or not it’s true.
Frankly, it’s an easy way to stand out. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper gives Lucky Strike cigarettes their hit slogan “it’s toasted.” Really, all tobacco is toasted. Theirs wasn’t special. But they said it first. That’s what mattered.
This is an example of the blue ocean strategy. Brands add earthy designs to their products to attract eco-friendly shoppers. But this doesn’t mean they’re safer. They want you to notice them.
But natural doesn’t always mean better. And just because a product says it’s natural, it doesn’t mean it is.
Organizing Organic Ingredients
The FDA doesn’t regulate organic cosmetics. Rather, these claims fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, the USDA’s National Organic Program only pertains to food ingredients like crops and livestock. This doesn’t include non-crop plants and essential oils.
The USDA uses four categories for certified organic cosmetics. A product’s percentage of organic ingredients determines its label, from “100% organic” to “organic” to “made with organic ingredients.”
Any cosmetics with less than 70% organic ingredients can’t use the term “organic” on the main label. But they can identify any USDA-approved organic ingredients on the information panel.
Identifying Two-Faced Toxins
An EWG study found that women use around 12 personal care products a day. In doing so, they expose themselves to around 168 chemicals. And yes, this includes “non-toxic” cosmetics.
“When companies claim to be non-toxic, they are specifically referring to leaving out ingredients that have been linked to toxic responses in humans,” Adina Grigore, founder of S.W. Basics of Brooklyn, told Harpers Bazaar in 2015.
The FDA has already banned some of the most harmful chemicals. But toxins can still legally find their way into a formula.
For example, take ingredients like “fragrance” and “PFAs.” These are umbrella terms for thousands of chemicals that companies are not required to reveal, according to a 2021 Byrdie interview with Yashi Shrestha.
The Major Hypoallergenic Hangup
Like “all-natural,” there are no federal standards or definitions for the use of the term hypoallergenic. So, “hypoallergenic” means whatever a company wants it to mean.
But as anyone who has had an allergic reaction knows, our bodies don’t have a gray area when it comes to allergens. Your body either reacts, or it doesn’t.
For some of us, it means a rash or sniffles. For others, an allergic reaction can be deadly.
Furthermore, anyone can be allergic to anything. So, the only real way to make sure a product is hypoallergenic for you is to read the label.
Reading The Back Label Is Your Best Bet
Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer. All companies want to make a sale. It’s your job to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
But if reading skincare labels were easy, we would’ve done it by now. Keeping track of all the scientific jargon is exhausting. Luckily, the EWG created the Skin Deep program to help.
Skin Deep compares ingredients on product labels to nearly 60 regulatory databases. Their database contains over 60,000 products, from moisturizers to sunscreen to foundation.
Think Dirty offers a similar resource in an on-the-go mobile app. Simply scan the product’s barcode. Then, Think Dirty will pull up info about the product. If it contains “dirty” ingredients, then Think Dirty suggests a cleaner option.
Skincare brands might try to get slick with clever lingo, but you can get slicker. Thanks to the internet, shopping for sustainable and safe skincare has never been easier.
So, pay attention to labels. Research what you can. And most importantly, listen to your body.
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