All I want is a new jar of foundation, one of the brands only sold in large department stores. After 20 years of buying cosmetics, I know the routine. If you look like you know where you're going and what you're after, they're more likely to leave you alone. I make it past the saleswoman with the perfume atomizer. I wind my way around a half-dozen brightly lit counters stocked with different makeup lines, and twice saleswomen in those clinical-looking, white lab coats ask if I need any help. Perhaps I'm not walking fast enough. I arrive at the counter that carries my brand and ask for the jar of foundation, in champagne beige. Since my saleswoman is highly trained in not only t he product but also selling (she is on commission, after all), I should expect what's coming.
"Do you need any powder for oil control?" "We have a wonderful new rejuvenating toner that really brings color back into the cheeks." "Our aesthetician from Paris will be here next month-would you like to sign up for a free facial and makeover?" Too many expensive trips to the makeup counter have made me as skilled at saying no as she is at trying to sell. But, still, as I walk briskly to the nearest exit, my makeup swinging by my side in a small, fancy red bag, I can't completely quell that old twinge, the one responsible for my bathroom drawer filled with once-used eye shadows and lipsticks:" Why, do I need it?" "Do I really look that bad?" I vow, once more, to go bare-faced when my pricey jar is empty.
Switch to the cosmetics counter at my local health food store, one section over from the organic produce. Two saleswomen acknowledge me with a smile, then continue to chat as I browse through the displays of natural cosmetics lined up on the counter. They're not on commission, and if their virtually makeup-free complexions are any indication, they're more interested in the vitamins in the next aisle than cosmetics. I'm wrong. My question about the mascaras clearly shows they've tried the products. "This one"-the most expensive, I note-"tends to clump," I'm told. "That one is excellent."
There is no hard sell, just a friendly back-and-forth about the products and the purity of the natural ingredients. Makeup and organic carrots seem, well, a little incongruous in the same shopping cart. But then again, not as incongruous as going out of my way to eat organic carrots but adorning my skin with an unhealthy brew of conventional chemical-filled cosmetics.
Let's face it. There's nothing "natural" about makeup. Indeed the very term "natural cosmetics" is as oxymoronic as they come, since the purpose of a cosmetic by any name is to alter one's natural appearance. But even those among us who consider shimmering blue eye shadow an affront to the laws of nature can't always resist the "healthy" glow a twirl of mascara, a touch of blusher, a swipe of lipstick, a glint of nail color, or a dab of cover-up on that all-too-natural blemish can bring. While you can quibble with syntax, thanks to the ecoconscious demands of consumers in the 1990s, a wide variety of natural cosmetics made with earth-friendly ingredients are now available.
Natural vs. Synthetic
Just as the booming interest in healthier living has put more chemical-free foods on grocery store shelves, putting your best face forward no longer has to mean using cosmetics laden with the potentially dangerous synthetic preservatives and fragrances, artificial colors, and petrochemicals found in more than 99 percent of cosmetics sold in drug and department stores. Natural cosmetics, by comparison, stick close to the earth in terms of ingredients. Mineral pigments are mixed into an array of colors. Vegetable oils, plant waxes, and herbal extracts provide moisture and protection without the harmful drying and comedegenic effects of petroleum-based products like mineral oil. Vitamins A, C, and E, citric acids, and enzymes are used as preservatives. Artificial fragrances are taboo, and many products are also cruelty-free, meaning neither the products nor the ingredients provided by suppliers are tested on animals.
"The primary reason people choose natural cosmetics is the ingredients," says Michael Wrightson of Logona Kosmetik, a German manufacturer of natural makeup and skin care products. The broad palette of hues available ranges from subtle browns and pinks to vivid reds and burgundies, which means you can be as basic or bold with color as you want. Though price tags can approach those of the cosmetics sold in better department stores, the consumer gives up the professional service associated with these large companies, including such "perks" as a skin care analysis or makeover by staff trained in the particular product. But also missing is the hard sell by commissioned salespeople. The bonus: makeup free of the chemical-based ingredients that have been keeping dermatologists busy for the better part of a century, or at least since modern lipstick was invented in 1915.
"Eczema, rashes, acne, and scaliness are just a few of the problems associated with the use of cosmetics," says New York dermatologist Laurie Polis, M.D., F.A.A.D., and while the culprits vary with the individual, Polis puts allergic reactions caused by artificial preservatives, fragrances, colors, and emulsifiers near the top of her list. Natural ingredients can also be allergens, warns Polis, though far less frequently than their synthetic counterparts. Studies funded by the FDA implicate artificial fragrances and synthetic preservatives, particularly the commonly used "parabens," as the major allergens. Pore-clogging petrochemicals like mineral oil are another bugaboo with mainstream makeup. But ironically, the number one problem is bacterial overgrowth, this despite the synthetic preservatives used to combat contamination.
"You put your finger over a bottle of foundation to get it out and a colony of bacteria starts to grow over months or years, or however long you keep the product," says Polis. "We could do science experiments with some of this stuff." Bacteria is a particular problem with creamy cosmetics like foundation, mascara, and liquid blushers or eye shadows, since these pesky germs love to grow in liquids. Polis recommends using clean hands when applying makeup, never sharing it with a friend, and throwing out cream-based products after three months to guard against bacteria-related skin problems.
Natural cosmetics can suffer from the same rapid degradation, but at least the citric acid, Vitamins A, C, and E, and other natural preservatives used to fight bacterial invasion are healthy enough to eat, which is essentially what you're doing when you leave some of the ingredients in makeup on your skin all day. While most substances in makeup don't penetrate the surface of the skin, active ingredients, including preservatives and artificial colors, do find their way into the body to some extent.
Toxic Effects of Synthetics
"In general, the skin absorbs about 10 percent of the active ingredients you put on it," says New York dermatologist Karen E. Burke, M.D., Ph.D. Burke points out that this amount is minuscule compared with actually eating foods containing preservatives, artificial colors, or other synthetic ingredients. But the fact is, no one knows what the cumulative effect of these toxins are on the body over time, especially when combined with the chemicals absorbed much more readily through food and the environment.
Since cosmetics are defined by the Food, Drug, & Cosmetics Act as "promoting attractiveness" and not as drugs, the cosmetics industry is not regulated by the FDA. Safety testing on products is done on a voluntary basis by the industry, and while many manufacturers invest a great deal of money and effort in testing, toxic mistakes have been made. A number of "safe" artificial colors used in cosmetics for decades were banned after further testing found them to be carcinogenic. A handful of artificial colors currently used in makeup are considered potentially carcinogenic, yet they remain on the market. Coal tar dyes are banned from products that are used around the eye area, including eye shadow, because they can cause serious eye injury. Yet these dyes are deemed safe for use in other types of makeup, including lipstick, which is ingested each time you lick your lips.
The most dramatic example of a synthetic chemical that cleared safety testing with flying colors but turned out to be lethal is the preservative hexachlorophene, which was an ingredient in a popular skin cleanser for infants. The preservative built up to toxic levels in the body, leading to brain damage and even death in infants, and is now banned in products for babies.
Read Between the Lines
The best place to find cosmetics made without synthetic chemicals is in a health food store. But beware: Just because the word "natural" is emblazoned on the label of a product doesn't necessarily mean all the ingredients live up to the claim.
Carefully read the fine print before buying a product. Many of the cosmetics sold even in health food stores are hybrids, with such natural substances as herbal extracts and rose hip oil listed alongside synthetic preservatives like methylparaben. Artificial colors can usually be spotted by the letters FD&C or D&C (short for "Food, Drug, & Cosmetic or Drub & Cosmetic), followed by the color and number ("D&C" rec no. 6 barium lake," for example, though sometimes just "red no. 6 barium lake" without the initials). Common synthetic preservatives are the parabens, including methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben. The term hypoallergenic on a product is almost meaningless, since the use of the word is unregulated. It most likely means the cosmetic is fragrance-free, but unless the product is truly natural, it probably contains synthetic preservatives and other common chemical allergens.