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Decoding Natural Personal Care Product Labels

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

8 Min Read
Decoding Natural Personal Care Product Labels

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser

Personal Care

Compare the following organic products' ingredients labels and you'll get an idea of the vast difference between food and body care products, and the inherent problems in creating comprehensible labels for personal care items:

Muir Glen Organic Tomato Sauce: Organically grown and processed tomato puree, sea salt, organic onion powder, organic garlic powder and naturally derived citric acid.

Shaman Earthly Organics Mango and Mint Moisturizing Shampoo: Purified water, organic lavender hydroflorate, organic aloe barbadensis gel, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium lauroamphoacetate, cocamiopropyl hydroxysultaine, papaya extract, passionflower extract, cherry bark extract, organic chamomile extract, mango extract, organic green tea extract, organic marigold/calendula extract, retinyl palmitate, ascorbic acid, organic quinoa extract, decyl glucoside, panthenol, citric acid, tocopheryl acetate, cyclomethicone, dimethicone, peppermint oil, menthol, sodium hydroxyglycinate, essential oil blend.

For a translation, see right. But understand that a simple fact of life drives the shampoo label to such techno-chemical wordiness: A shampoo, moisturizer, deodorant, toothpaste or other personal care product is expected to do more than a can of tomato sauce. You want your tomato sauce to taste good and look, smell and pour like tomato sauce. But you require your shampoo to lather nicely, remove dirt, smell pretty, make your hair fluffy, add shine, sit on your bathtub ledge for months, preserve that expensive dye job, seal your split ends, get rid of dandruff and, ideally, make your hair look like Cindy Crawford's.

It's a lot to ask from a product, and ingredient labels on personal care items reflect those demands. But by reading a label, how do you determine if methylparaben and ascorbic acid will make hair lank or lovely? How do you steer your customers to the products that will work for their skin types? How do you judge if an eye cream is worth that $20 price tag?

It helps to learn the lingo. Negotiating the complicated labels is easier once you understand the definitions of all those polysyllabic ingredients and what their functions are.

Here's a look at some common personal care ingredients and their definitions:

Retinol is a form of vitamin A, panthenol is vitamin B, ascorbic acid is vitamin C and tocopheryl is vitamin E. These vitamins are named frequently on personal care product labels because they are antioxidants, which help prevent the skin from aging.

Surfactants are what make shampoos, shaving creams and some toothpastes lather and clean. Common surfactants are DEA (diethanolamine) and almost anything that begins with sodium and includes a "laur"-based prefix: sodium lauryl sulfate, laureth sulfate, laurylsarcosinate, and on and on. These surfactants can be either synthetic or coconut-derived; the origin doesn't have to be spelled out on the label.

There's a debate over surfactants that leaves some manufacturers hot and lathered. Aubrey Hampton, founder of Aubrey Organics in Tampa, Fla., says synthetic sodium lauryl sulfate causes eye irritation, skin rashes, hair loss, allergic reactions and scalp problems similar to dandruff. Others say sodium lauryl sulfate is fine; it's sodium laureth sulfate that's too alkaline and harsh on the skin and hair. Both are harmless as long as they're washed off the skin, according to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a panel established in 1976 by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.

Some manufacturers opt for olefin, a coconut-based surfactant they believe is gentler than sodium lauryls and laureths. Soapwort is a natural surfactant but doesn't lather as well as some synthetics.

DEA also has its problems. According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (Three Rivers Press, 1999), a National Toxicology Program study showed an association between the topical application of DEA and cancer in laboratory animals.

Emollients And Humectants
These are the oils, waxes and butters that moisturize skin and hair.

Popular moisturizing oils for natural products include jojoba, apricot, palm kernel, carrot, wheat germ, sesame, safflower, avocado, calendula, olive and almond. For sensitive skin, such as that around the eyes, consider essential oils, which have a lighter molecular weight and tend to evaporate rather than creep into the eyes, says Kathy White, ingredient information specialist at Dr. Hauschka Skin Care in Hatfield, Mass.

Most manufacturers of natural personal care products recommend avoiding mineral oil, or petrolatum. "Mineral oil causes a lot of problems when used on the skin—[such as] photosensitivity; and it tends to interfere with the body's own natural moisturizing mechanism, leading to dry skin and chapping," Hampton says. "You are being sold a product that creates the very conditions it claims to alleviate. Manufacturers use petrolatum because it is unbelievably cheap."

Butters such as shea, avocado and mango can be more economical than other moisturizing oils because they become spreadable when mixed with water. Lanolin, a wax product from the oil glands of sheep, is a popular emulsifier, which helps bind water to the skin.

Liposomes, which make fatty lipids easier to absorb into the skin, are a trendy ingredient in moisturizers. Liposomes also help stabilize ingredients in a moisturizing cream, says Curt Valva, Aubrey Organics general manager. These are costly to produce and can drive up the price of a product.

Other synthetic-sounding emollients that really are natural include: cetearyl alcohol glycerin, which is solid coconut and palm oil cut with alcohol for smoother consistency; dimethicone copolyol, a water-repelling silicone derived from sand; sodium hyaluronate, a gelling ingredient found in the fluid in the eye; and hyaluronic acid, a natural protein used in cosmetic oils to help reduce swelling.

Propylene glycol and glycerin can be synthetic or natural. Glycerin can be derived from animal or plant fat or created in a laboratory. "Ideally, [propylene glycol] is a vegetable glycerin mixed with grain alcohol, both of which are natural," Hampton says. "Usually it is a synthetic petrochemical mix used as a humectant, [which] has been known to cause allergic and toxic reactions."

Plants used for moisturizing include aloe vera, papaya, iris, mango, tangerine, cactus extract, cucumber, artichoke, watercress and parsley.

A hydrosol, also known as hydrolate, hydroflorate or floral water, is water that contains plant essences. It's produced by steaming plants, bark, flowers or roots and then removing the essential oils that float to the top. The remaining liquid is hydrosol. There are currently no national standards for the water-to-plant ratio in hydrosols.

Tanning And Sun Protection
Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is a common ingredient in self tanners. A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients says DHA comes from bacteria combined with glycerin. Beta-carotene has also been shown in some studies to make the skin more receptive to tanning.

The most natural sunscreen ingredient is PABA, or para-aminobenzoic acid, which is found in the vitamin B complex. PABA can cause rashes, swelling or allergies in some people.

Preservatives allow personal care products to perch on a shower ledge rather than a refrigerator shelf. The most common preservatives are parabens (methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, propyl-). "Water is the only ingredient used more frequently in cosmetics," says Ruth Winter in A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients.

Winter says parabens are safe; Aubrey Organics' Hampton calls them "highly toxic." Adds Aubrey: "They have caused many allergic reactions and skin rashes. Methylparaben combines benzoic acid with the methyl group of chemicals."

Urea, a component of urine, is the second-most widely used preservative. Common forms are imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea. Winter says ureas are safe; Hampton disagrees.

Dr. Hauschka's White points out that "most preservatives have toxic properties, even natural ones."

Some companies market preservative-free products, using herbs such as peppermint, tea tree oil and clove, which have preservative properties. Citric acids from fruits also serve as natural preservatives. The shelf life of products made solely from these types of preservatives can range from several months to two years, compared with five years or more for products using parabens or ureas.

Antibacterial and antifungal herbs include St. John's wort, calendula, fennel and neem. Alcohol helps boost the antimicrobial effects of preservatives and removes residues from the skin, says Aubrey's Valva, but it can be drying.

Antiseptics, Toners, Astringents And Exfoliators
Witch hazel, tea tree oil, birch leaf, yarrow and sage are natural astringents. Antiseptic plants include lemongrass, red clover, comfrey, rosemary, sage, echinacea, chamomile, zinc oxide and tannin. Tannin, found in green tea, is also an anti-inflammatory, as are seaweed, chamomile and cornflower. Look for them in products designed to reduce swelling and puffiness, such as eye or hemorrhoid creams.

Papaya and pineapple have exfoliating properties. Crushed nuts, oatmeal, cornstarch and fruit acids also exfoliate. Malic acid, which comes from apples, and lactic acid, the result of fruit fermentation, are the most common fruit acids.

With a little knowledge and a good dictionary, it's possible to decipher even the most convoluted personal care product labels.

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

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