What is a “Safe” Cosmetic?

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In 2000 (OMG, the Dark Ages!) I first started to participate in various industry discussions hoping to define “organic cosmetics”. What I heard was apples and oranges: one set of people who talked about product “safety” in terms of chemical exposures and the other set who said – “organic” ingredients were “safe” because they were food. I repeat – what is a “safe” cosmetic?

We all know about “food safety”. When that phrase is used most people think about control of bacteria and other contaminants. We want food that is free of salmonella, listeria, e-coli, insect parts, etc. Other than that, we generally seem to believe that there is enough information on food packages to allow us to make an informed decision – so long as we don’t get food poisoning.

Cosmetic “safety” has a broader and less clear meaning. “Safe Cosmetics” to some means that individual ingredients are somehow perceived of as “safe”, as we see on packages that state they are free of parabens, sulfates, etc. Additionally “safe cosmetics” includes protection from bacteria exposure or other adulterations (just like in food safety). To others the broader issue of environmental persistence from cosmetic waste moving downstream is a concern when assessing these products.

I point this out for a reason – do buyers have enough info on a package label to make an informed decision about cosmetics? Here are at least three areas of concern: individual ingredient safety, protection from contamination or adulteration, and downstream pollutants. Do you think about all three when you shop for your personal care regimen?

As a world of consumers we are using more of these products than ever. Mintel has reported that 93% of adults shampoo “almost daily”. That is a lot of downstream waste!

Pre-internet most cosmetics were made by large companies that had staff who understood the need to test for bacterial safety. Now I speak with small internet companies and learn that they are not testing the cosmetics for bacterial safety prior to selling over the internet. Scary!

The whole issue of the safety of individual ingredients is an on-going challenge and question. What , exactly, is wrong with sulfates? (There will be a blog). Is the Safe Cosmetics Database always right? (No, not always).

What is the “big picture” effect of cosmetics on us and our world and what should we buy? We need to identify the problems so that we can address them. We need sensible solutions, even if those solutions take time. Consumers need to know what questions to ask of their retailers.

For the short term, look at the big picture and make sure the products you buy have been made by companies that are consistently improving and sold by retailers who can answer these concerns. Ask the questions above, was this product tested? What do you know about the downstream effects of this product?

The stores are the gate keepers, you vote with your dollars. Good luck out there!

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