Consumer News

Decoding Cosmetics Claims: Non-Toxic

Without a strong legal definition for "non-toxic," cosmetic companies are making it up as they go along.

Consumer News

Decoding Cosmetics Claims: Non-Toxic

Consumers don’t just want to know what goes into the products they’re putting on their bodies. They want to know what’s left out.

Non-toxic claims are cosmetics companies’ way of telling consumers that their products are safe to use. But when it comes to the ingredients that are deemed toxic or “dirty,” what one cosmetic company may put on its “No List,” “Never List” or “Dirty List,” another may permit in the formulations of the products it sells.

This is due in part to the fact that there is no legal definition for “non-toxic” outside of the FTC’s Green Guides, which say only that a non-toxic claim likely conveys that the advertised product is non-toxic both for humans and the environment. And while the FDA prohibits or restricts the use of 11 ingredients in cosmetics (in contrast to the European Union, which prohibits or restricts the use of more than 1,300), the agency does not generally review the products for safety before they are sold to consumers.

Given these regulatory loopholes it’s not surprising to find “synthetic fragrance” on NakedPoppy’s “No List,” but not on fellow beauty retailer Credo’s “Dirty List.” Credo says in an addendum to its list of prohibited ingredients:

Credo prefers natural fragrances over synthetic fragrances. We do allow synthetic fragrances (but no phthalates, nitromusks or polycyclic musks, as explained in our Dirty List).

A quick note on fragrances: the difference between natural fragrances and synthetic fragrances, like the difference between natural flavors and synthetic flavors, may not be as big as you think.

Natural fragrances are derived from natural sources, whereas synthetic fragrances are created in a lab. But both can consist of more than 100 chemicals, some of which may be synthetic. Trade secret protections enable cosmetic companies and others to list any number of ingredients simply as “fragrance.” Which is why when consumers see “fragrance” on a label, there’s no real way of knowing everything that went into the ingredient, including anything that might be considered toxic.

The number of ingredients designated toxic, either implicitly or explicitly, also varies from company to company.

On its homepage, Thrive Causemetics, which describes itself as a “conscious beauty” brand, lists four ingredients that it says never make it into its formulations: parabens, sulfates, phthalates and fragrance. Credo says its Dirty List contains more than 2,700 “specific ingredients and types of ingredients that are used in mainstream beauty products, but Credo prohibits due to safety and/or sustainability reasons.” Another “clean” beauty brand, Beautycounter, has over 1,800 “questionable or harmful chemicals” on its “Never List.”

What you can do

In a 2018 blog titled “Don’t Get Fooled by Greenwashing: Here’s How to Find Truly Non-Toxic Cosmetics,” NakedPoppy argues that, “The simplest way to find truly healthier cosmetics — and steer clear of greenwashed ones — is to rely on clean beauty companies dedicated to screening out products that aren’t good for you.” That’s pretty convenient for NakedPoppy.

But what consumers need to do – and what NakedPoppy suggests doing later in the blog “[i]f you’d like to take matters into your own hands” – is examine the ingredients list. It may not be simple, and some ingredients like fragrance may remain a mystery even after close vetting, but it cuts through the marketing of a largely meaningless term.

Find more of our coverage on “clean” beauty here.

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