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Shopping for Natural Cosmetics :: Learn How to Spot a Fake

A Feelgood Style reader recently asked:  It seems more than a few companies advertise themselves as green but it’s difficult to find information on exactly what chemicals we should avoid and why.  What are some of the ingredients that should raise a red flag and why?

Great question!  With all of the false information out there on cosmetics labels it can be very difficult to determine which products are safe, and which brands are handing you a line of bologna.  Everyone seems to be jumping on the green bandwagon.  The problem is, it is pretty easy for cosmetics to appear all natural or healthy without actually being those things.

Why?  The way our laws in the US are set up right now, the FDA oversees cosmetics safety.  Officially, anyway.  In actuality, cosmetics in our country are extremely under regulated.  For example, out of the over 10,000 cosmetic ingredients available for use only about 10% have been tested for safety.  With the average person using around 10 different cosmetic/personal care products daily, that is a huge grey area.  Lax or nonexistent rules on ingredient usage and labeling rules makes safety in cosmetics a bit of a free for all.  Unless you know what to look for.

Truly Natural Cosmetics Will Show You the Ingredients

The good news is that we can protect ourselves by learning to read cosmetic labels and choosing which types of products are right for us.  Ingredient listings can be confusing, and even misleading, but that is a red flag in itself.  If a brand does not disclose a full ingredient listing for each of their products, you should be skeptical of their safety.  A manufacturer creating safe, nontoxic products should be proud to display exactly what is in each product.

Except maybe for fragrance, and this is where we often run into trouble.  Why not list fragrance ingredients?  Trade secret.  If you are a cosmetics manufacturer, even a safe and nontoxic one, you probably don’t want your competition coming up with a product that smells just like your top seller.  This is where companies are protected by a nondisclosure rule on trade secrets.  Many manufacturers will simply list “fragrance” or “parfum” on their ingredient listings, and this includes those who use natural essential oils as their only scent ingredients.  So, don’t be too quick to judge a product on their fragrance ingredients.  Most companies who use natural scent ingredients will say so on the product label or on their website.  If that info is not readily available, I give it the sniff test.  Smell too strong to be natural?  It’s probably synthetic.

Ingredients to Avoid

So, wouldn’t it be nice if we had an easy to read and universally agreed upon list of cosmetic ingredients to avoid?  Then we could just memorize them and be on our merry way.  Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy.  We have a good list here on FGS that will familiarize you with ingredients best avoided and why.  The problem is that these ingredients go by several names and not-so-clean manufacturers are pretty good at hiding them in their ingredient listings, making them hard to read or just plain confusing.

The first ingredients listed on a product label are what the cosmetic contains the most of – the base of the product.  This is a good place to start, check to see if the product is petroleum or mineral based, or if it is made of synthetic cleansers (usually sodium lauryl sulphate or something with “eth” in the name).  Now jump to the end and see if you can catch any synthetic preservatives.  I have seen many products who actually have a pretty clean ingredient list only to mess it up at the end with junky preservatives.  Preservatives are very important to certain products.  Without them water-based products could grow bacteria, which is definitely not healthy.  But there are safe preservatives out there.

To help break this down a little bit, I have included a Cosmetic Ingredient Cheat Sheet below.  This lists the main ingredients to avoid while shopping for cosmetics, what they are, and how to identify them on a product label.  For a more in-depth look at each ingredient, read my Ingredients to Avoid page at Organic Beauty  Bookmark it, save it to your phone, send it to your friends.

The Bottom Line

My last, and maybe most important, tip on shopping for safe cosmetics:  Shop brands you trust.  If a company is committed to making nontoxic cosmetics (read their commitment page or story on their website) and you’ve checked their list of ingredients they never use, then follow them and buy their stuff.  Sure, brands reformulate and things can change.  But I have followed some of the same companies, and bought their stuff, for the past 8 years.

Any questions while shopping, refer back to the list for help.  If you cannot find an answer there, please use the FGS contact form and I will be glad to get back with you and answer your questions.

Cosmetic Ingredient Cheat Sheet

DEA, TEA — Used in creamy & foaming products, like shampoos & moisturizers; DEA, Diethanolamine, TEA, Triethanolamine

Phthalates — A carrier for synthetic fragrance; Benzylbutyl phthalate (BzBP), Di-n-butyl phthalate or Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Diethyl phthalate (DEP), and sometimes Fragrance

Formaldehyde — An impurity released by some chemical preservatives; Formaldehyde, Formalin, Urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and Sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate

Parabens — Synthetic preservatives; alkyl parahydroxybenzoate, butylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparabens

Petrolatum — Emollient or lubricant; petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil

Propylene Glycol Helps a product to retain moisture Propylene Glycol, Proptylene Glycol, 1,2-Propanediol. Related synthetics: PEG (polyethylene glycol) and PPG (polypropylene glycol)

Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate — Foaming agent; Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Anhydrous Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Irium

1,4 Dioxane — A by-product of ingredient processing; recommends looking for common ingredients which may contain the impurity, identifiable by the prefix or designations of ‘PEG,’ ‘–eth–,’ ‘Polyethylene,’ ‘Polyethylene glycol’ ‘Polyoxyethylene,’ or ‘–oxynol–’ (FDA 2007).

Synthetic Colorants — (FD&C colors) FD&C or D&C followed by a name and number (FD&C RED NO. 40)

Synthetic Fragrances — May be listed as “fragrance” or “parfum”, see information above

Synthetic Sunscreens — 4-Methyl-Benzylidencamphor (4-MBC), Oxybenzone Benzophenone-3, Octyl-methoyl-cinnamates (OMC), Octyl-Dimethyl-Para-Amino-Benzoic Acid (OD-PABA), Homosalate(HMS)

[Image by Andrew Stawarz at, Creative Commons license]

Written by Liz Thompson

I am an organic beauty expert, writer, and mom of two young environmentalists who can already spot a toxic product when they see one. Read more about me at Organic Beauty, and find me on , Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.


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