Shopping in a store's personal care section can be like revisiting chemistry class. The product labels, particularly on conventional products, sport nearly unpronounceable ingredient names—phthalates, sodium lauryl or laureth sulfates and parabens—that few customers could probably identify in a multiple-choice test.
The problem is that there's not a good cheat sheet, a shortcut that lets consumers know whether the ingredients in a given product are safe and natural. Some of those shampoo bottles and creams say organic, but the lack of a specific standard for personal care under the National Organic Program means that even products bearing an organic label may have questionable ingredients. The Natural Foods Merchandiser consumer research found shoppers are uninformed about what's really in their toothpaste or deodorant, a finding backed up by the experience of retailers and manufacturers.
"It's much easier with food," says Shelly Lewis, regional vitamin buyer for Jimbo's Naturally, a four-store naturals chain in the San Diego area. "When we tell a customer a product is natural, we mean that the ingredients come from plants, herbs and minerals, and don't contain petrochemicals. But many of the cosmetics and personal care products in drug stores and supermarkets rely heavily on ingredients derived from petrochemicals, which [can] contain carcinogens."
Setting a standard
Durham, N.C.-based Burt's Bees wants to create a sort of Cliff's Notes for personal care in the absence of a national standard for natural and organic ingredients. The company decided to take the lead in drafting a natural standard after a survey of 500 women customers found a great deal of misinformation and some strong opinions surrounding natural personal care products.
"Most women simply didn't know about the dangers of parabens, propylene glycol and other problem ingredients," says Mike Indursky, chief marketing officer for Burt's Bees. The company's survey showed that 78 percent of respondents thought the term natural should be regulated, 83 percent thought there should be one meaning for natural, and 65 percent thought a product should contain at least 95 percent natural ingredients in order to use the word natural, according to Indursky. "Unfortunately, you can put the word natural on a bottle and have virtually no natural ingredients it," he says.
Burt's Bees is working within the natural personal care products industry to adopt the guidelines, which can be found at www.burtsbees.com/thegreatergood. The standard dictates that all products labeled natural must contain at least 95 percent natural ingredients that come from a renewable and plentiful source found in nature. It also sets parameters on which non-natural ingredients are appropriate and which should never be used. Retailers can use the proposed standard as a guide, or create one for their own stores, so that customers know exactly what ingredients the products on their shelves will—and won't—contain.
The foul five
Petroleum-based ingredients were shoppers' No. 1 concern in NFM's survey, with more than 40 percent saying they would rarely or never use products containing them. "Most of these ingredients are byproducts of the natural gas refining process," says Celeste Lutrario, head of research and development for Burt's Bees. "They're basically waste. It's possible to purify them, so they don't contain contaminants like 1,4-dioxane [a recognized carcinogen], but most people don't pay to have that done." Mineral oil, another consumer concern, is also a petrochemical byproduct.
"Sometimes it's hard for the consumer to determine whether an ingredient is chemical or natural," says Kristan Markey, a research analyst for Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C. "For example, vitamin E, which is used as a preservative, can either be derived from plant sources or created in a lab."
Propylene glycol is the second most-avoided ingredient for shoppers, with 35 percent of those polled for NFM saying they rarely or never purchase products containing it. Unfortunately, it's also one of the hardest to avoid, being found in 6,000 of the 25,000 personal care products tracked by the Environmental Working Group on its database at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. "By law, … a product can consist of up to 50 percent propylene glycol," Markey says. "It fulfills many functions, including skin conditioning and viscosity decreasing. In property, it's similar to ethylene glycol, or antifreeze, though it's not toxic when you eat it. However, some people suffer an allergic-type skin reaction to propylene glycol."
"It's also a petrochemical byproduct," Lutrario says. "It's also what they call a carrier material, which means it can carry material through the skin and into the bloodstream." Burt's Bees and many other natural manufacturers use alternative emollients such as jojoba, almond oil or glycerin in place of propylene glycol.
Phthalates are one of the most studied and controversial ingredients, with some research suggesting they are carcinogens. The problem is that they're often added to fragrances to help them last longer, and in this capacity they don't have to be listed individually on product labels. They are also a plasticizer, appearing in nail polish to keep it from chipping. Certain phthalates (including those most common in cosmetics) are banned in all personal care products in the European Union, including those types known as dibutyl phthalate and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, and many companies have opted to go phthalate-free. The EWG database on product ingredients can also help retailers answer whether a particular product contains phthalates.
The NFM survey also found that about 30 percent of shoppers are concerned about parabens. "Parabens are widely used in cosmetics because they're one of the best preservatives out there for prohibiting the growth of yeast, mold and bacteria," Lutrario says. "However, the research is starting to show that they're an endocrine disruptor, which can throw hormone levels out of whack."
"There are several paraben health concerns," Markey says. "It's controversial, but some studies show a link to breast cancer, and there's strong evidence of skin toxicity as well as reproductive effects."
The problem for natural companies is that parabens work so well. Lutrario says many companies, including Burt's Bees, have replaced, or are working to replace, parabens with natural alternatives, but often the trade-off is decreased shelf life—two to three years instead of the three- to four-year industry standard.
"Preservatives are a gray area," Lewis says. "It's unrealistic to think you can safely sell products with no preservatives." Retailers may need to decide where to draw the line on some preservatives that have a vital function in product safety.
Another consumer concern is the use of surfactants such as sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates. These foaming agents are usually why a shampoo makes a thick, fine lather. "It's a powerful degreaser, originally used as a garage floor cleaner," Lutrario says. "The issue is that it's so powerful, it removes your skin's protective barrier." She says products containing true soaps—made from a fatty acid or fatty oil—may not foam as much, but are much gentler to use.
Even completely natural ingredients can have side effects, though. For example, Markey mentions that the European Union recently listed 26 essential oils, such as clove tea tree and lavender that can cause potential skin reactions. And some natural ingredients are misunderstood. Fifteen percent of naturals shoppers, for example, avoid lanolin, but Lutrario says that reaction may be based on a misperception. "Many people think that lanolin comes from inside the animal," she says, "but, in fact, it is simply boiled off the wool of sheared sheep."
One thing is clear: In the bewildering world of personal care ingredients, the retailer with the most information and the ability to demystify the subject stands to gain long-term customer trust and loyalty.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 38, 40