Beware Greenwashing

I was browsing around the beauty section of my neighborhood health mart the other day and was annoyed at the dizzying array of products in the store containing parabens. I noticed that most women my age or younger gravitated toward the most affordable products. This makes sense; most of us are just a paycheck away from financial insecurity. At the same time, there’s somewhat of a false sense of security when shopping at a “natural market” versus a Walgreens. Many people assume a store promoting health wouldn’t sell anything unhealthy. Take my mom. She still struggles with uncommon English words, no matter how many times I’ve tried to explain, and her eyesight is too poor to read the tiny ingredients list even with magnifying glasses. So she goes to Whole Foods or Down to Earth Natural Market and sees the words “natural” and “organic” largely displayed on the front of the package, and if it’s reasonably priced she’ll buy it. It’s completely understandable.

If your income is small, like my mom, and your first priorities are to pay for food and shelter, is it preferable to buy products that contain chemicals but not as much as cheaper brands? Or, if you’re going to buy products that contain parabens and fragrance anyways, is it then better to buy an entirely chemical laden product that’s very affordable? These are the types of questions I’ve been asked. Shopping today for just about anything has become over complicated, and way too much burden has been put on the consumer. We all know, the less amounts of ingredients, the better; the more words you can easily recognize and pronounce on the ingredients list, the better. But sometimes it’s not so clear cut. There are price and socioeconomic issues. There are accessibility issues. There are language issues. You pick up a product that’s splashed with large healthy key words, but when you read the ingredients list, you see that there’s “fragrance” on the label, which to me negates all the other healthier ingredients.

Last week, the Center for Environmental Health made a case against greenwashing, by filing a class-action lawsuit against dozens of natural beauty companies for allegedly violating a California law mandating that products touted as “organic” need to contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The USDA has not created its own rules regarding cosmetic products, but it has approved California’s organics program, including the state’s rules regarding cosmetics and personal care products. The California Organic Products Act of 2003 outlines rules for labeling of organic personal care products, requiring that any product using the term “organic” on the front of the package must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only use the term “organic” on the ingredient list.

The nonprofit names more than 20 brands in its suit, including popular companies such as Aubrey Organics, Jason, and Kiss My Face. Besides not containing a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients, some of the products contain potentially toxic ingredients, including chemicals such as triethanolamine, cocamide DEA, and butylated hydroxyanisole, and parabens that are linked to asthma, hormone disruption, and even cancer. This is particularly disconcerting for the products aimed at children. CEH purchased beauty products labeled as “organic” from different retailers, and out of the personal care products it tested, CEH found dozens of products were labeled “organic” but contained very few or even no organic ingredients whatsoever. Similarly, in 2008, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps filed a suit charging its competitors with deceptive marketing, including Kiss My Face and Hains Celestial (which owns Jason and Avalon Organics). See the full list of companies using improper organic labels (Note: the products listed are just examples; CEH has identified many more mislabeled products from the companies).

So what are we to do in the meantime? For those who can afford to pick and try and choose the cleanest skincare products around, do so. For the rest of us on very tight budgets, actively research products that fit around our price point with non to as little negative ingredients as possible, look for sales of those products containing no parabens that work for our unique bodies, and help to teach each other and our families. Remember you are your biggest advocate.

via ecouterre and Center for Environmental Health

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