What is Green Beauty?

Okay not to scare you or anything, but we absorb 60 percent of what we put onto our skin. And, according to the Organic Consumers Association, the average woman absorbs five pounds of toxic chemicals each year just from her beauty products. With that in mind, flip over your favorite concealer and take a look at the laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients that are, essentially, going directly into your body where they potentially interact with the hundreds of other chemicals contained in the plethora of beauty products that you slather on each day.

These chemicals can include lead, which shook up the beauty industry in 2007 when the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released an aptly-named “Poison Kiss” report alleging 61 percent of brand-name lipsticks contained lead in excess of .1 parts per million and estimating that women eat nine pounds of lipstick over their lifetimes, just by licking their lips. Really.

The problem gets even bigger when you realize that beauty products don’t just stop at our skin: They wash down the drain, into the water system and up the food chain. That means that fish you’re eating could contain the same chemicals you (or your neighbor) sudsed up with.

So why don’t we all just switch to cosmetics that forgo potentially harmful chemicals in favor of safer ingredients like shea butter and beeswax? It all comes down to allegiance. Take EcoStiletto’s founder, Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff. Once she graduated from the cheap-o drugstore brand mascara she pilfered during high school and settled on a cosmetics counter special that she identified with her look, she was pretty much sold for life. Until she realized there was mercury in it.

What’s truly amazing is that the more we learn about this stuff, the more we realize that cosmetics don’t need to be expensive or contain loads of chemicals in order to help you look gorgeous. Nor do you have to spend a fortune, drive for miles or search the Internet for hours to find them. We scored sustainable beauty at department stores, drug stores, beauty stores like Sephora, and online—and a lot of them are downright cheap! Given that these eco-friendly products perform as well as, or better than, their conventional counterparts, maybe it’s time your beauty routine got a green makeover.

But before you stock your makeup bag at the health food store, remember that just because it says “natural” on the label, that doesn’t mean it’s chemical free. In 2007, Kline and Company released the “Natural Personal Care: Competitive Brand Assessment and Ingredient Analysis” report, profiling 26 brands and finding that half of the brands positioned as “natural” actually contain mostly synthetic ingredients such as parabens, propylene glycol, phthalates, petrolatum, chemical sunscreens, silicones, and surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate.

Shocker.

Obviously, it would be better for all of us if we could check our critical thinking at the drugstore door and trust that a label declaring something’s “natural” really does mean it is. But until beauty gets better regulated, you still need to do a little bit of homework to make sure your products are safe—by your standards. Read your labels, and look for “USDA Certified Organic” and “ECOCERT,” which means a product is government certified as 95 percent food-grade organic—zero chemicals or synthetics in it manufacturing or ingredients—in America and Europe, respectively.

Besides the impact on your pretty little self, the impact of all these cosmetics should impress any consumer. Many green beauty companies are exploring different ways to proactively offset their carbon footprints—and yours, if you choose them over conventional beauty products. It seems like a little thing to buy a lead-free lipstick, paraben-free moisturizer or Fair Trade shampoo, but each decision you make adds up to affect your carbon footprint. Buy a sustainable product and not only do you stop chemicals from going onto your body and into the ecosystem, you also support a business that is thinking outside of the box about sustainable sourcing (shrinking), developing (still shrinking), packaging (shrinking even more) and transporting (shrunk!) their products. You take a dollar from a conventional company and give it to a green company, thus tilting the economic balance in favor of sustainably-minded businesses. Your green beauty buy may seem small, but stack it up with the hundreds of purchases you make each year and the thousands made by the friends whom you talk to about what you buy—Get the picture? It’s like that old Faberge commercial: “She’ll tell two friends, and she’ll tell two friends”—it all adds up. And all of our footprints get smaller.

P.S. About that packaging: Before you toss out your old containers, think about recycling it. The EPA estimates that nearly 75% of our waste output is recyclable and/or compostable, yet we send nearly 70% of our trash to the landfill. Many people who religiously separate their cans and bottles from the rest of their trash stop short at recycling the containers that hold their beauty products—yet so much of it can go in the blue bin! You can recycle toilet paper rolls and empty tissue boxes, shampoo and conditioner bottles: Look for the number in the chasing arrow symbol on the bottom of the container, and find out what types of plastics are recyclable in your area. Razors and toothbrushes are typically not recyclable, but there is are brands made from recycled plastic with built-in recycling programs that practically do it for you. Some companies even give you an incentive to recycle: Stella McCartney shoppers were recently emailed a label to send back Care by Stella McCartney empties—and got a free chance to win a $1,200 handbag in the bargain. Who can say no to that?

P.P. S. Labels can be confusing, so here’s our short list of what to avoid. Where you find these chemicals, more are likely to follow, so use these as your red flags for products to put back on the shelf—and out of your life.

• 1,4-dioxane
• butylene glycol
• butylated hydroxyl
• diazolidinyl
• dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
• DMDM hydantoin
• ethylene glycol
• formaldehyde
• hydroquinone
• quaternium-15
• paraben (methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, hexyl- and others)
• petroleum
• propylene glycol
• sodium laureth
• sodium lauryl sulfate
• toluene
• urea imidazolidinyl

Now go on, get pretty!