It happened again and I couldn’t believe it. Another “natural” label had me fooled at hello. At first glance, this line had all the trappings of a natural product including the word Natural in the name. So I carelessly ordered a cleanser and lip volumizer without my due diligence. I should have known better.

Any time a website doesn’t disclose a full list of ingredients up front—it’s a sign, and not a good one. A truly natural company proudly ticks off every herb, cold-pressed oil, organic certification, and lovingly chosen ingredient. It earns bragging rights.

But there are some companies that can even mislead a label maven like me (at least, I’d like to think I am by now!). They’re the ones that give off the appearance of looking natural, but aren’t.  The act of duping consumers into thinking a company is natural has come to be known as greenwashing.  Check out Green Beauty Team’s informative post about it here. It’s a must read.

This time, I decided to ask “Chemical of the Day” researcher, Stephanie Greenwood, founder of Bubble & Bee, how to navigate the confusing world of “natural” ingredients. Then I asked her to share what steps she has taken in her own line to ensure that her products remain as clean as they appear.

Here are the surprising “natural” ingredients that may be hidden—and dangerous—in your green products.

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Q: You’ve been writing (and I’ve been avidly reading) the “Chemical of the Day” posts for six years now. What motivated you to become such an ingredients super sleuth?

A: Well, it started out in 2005 when I was diagnosed with adenomyosis at age 25. The doctors said the only solution would be to either get pregnant or have a hysterectomy and neither was an option for me! That’s when I started to research about hormones and what could be causing the imbalances that led to my condition. That research led me to endocrine disruptors in our environment, foods, and in personal care. After a bit of trying to find products without these suspect ingredients, I started making my own, which, of course led to the business Bubble & Bee Organic. Once we had that established and running, I wanted to start spreading the word about chemicals to avoid through this resource.

Q: Is deciphering an ingredients label becoming more complex now than ever before or are labels required to be increasingly transparent?

A: Sometimes it takes sleuthing! The market seems to be getting safer in general, but at the same time, as demand for safe/natural/organic products increases, it seems that the amount of shady ingredients lists also increase! For instance, I’ll see shampoos without any lathering agents listed (despite the product lathering up like crazy) or lotions without emulsifiers listed. Companies are starting to understand that people want “clean” ingredient lists, so they’ll just conveniently leave off a few ingredients to make it look good. Or you might find something that’s totally organic but it’s not preserved safely, or that uses a toxic essential oil like wintergreen. There are many aspects to safety!

This label says “100% All-Natural Ingredients” yet it contains Propylene Glycol and Diazolidinyl Urea–both on Stephanie’s list of top five chemicals to avoid, plus it has grapefruit seed extract that sounds natural but isn’t, according to her research.

Q: Aside from a seemingly natural ingredient like “wintergreen oil,” should we be on the lookout for other natural ingredients that could be dangerous in a skin care product?

A: Here you can find my list of essential oils to be avoided and another article about natural-sounding ingredients to avoid.

Q: With so many brands appearing in the green beauty world, it can get really overwhelming to navigate them all. What information do consumers need to find out before buying into the latest “natural” beauty product or fad?

A: Well, of course I always suggest organic certification—that at least ensures that what’s on the label is exactly what’s in the product.

If it’s not certified, I start out looking for the basics—are there ethoxylated chemicals (things with “-eth” or “-20” etc, in them), parabens, synthetic fragrance, synthetic sunblock ingredients, aluminums?

Then if it looks ok from there, I’ll ask myself—how does this product work? Do the ingredients match up with the physical properties of the product?

If you’re looking at a new company, test their customer service by asking simple questions about how a product lathers, or how it’s preserved. This will give you insight as to how the company will treat you down the line if you have an issue with a product.

Product have you stumped? I’m always open to helping people decipher ingredients lists so anyone can come to me for personal advice as well.

Q: What’s the criteria you use to determine a true skin care expert? How much does that factor into your trust in a brand?

That’s a great question. Well, one thing that I look at is FDA regulations—how well do they adhere to proper marketing of products? Do they make claims that cross the line in to drug territory? (Acne treatments, anti-aging, sanitizing, treating eczema—these are all drug claims.) If someone adheres to FDA cosmetics regulations that’s a good sign that they know what they’re doing, and they actually care about honesty and following the law.

Another thing I would look at is if they have a grasp on the basics of how skin and hair work. Do they understand pH? Do they understand conditions like perioral dermatitis and rosacea? Or do they blindly follow one methodology like the oil cleansing method and claims that it will work for *everyone* (which it doesn’t.) I’d also look at their formulas—are they using essential oils that shouldn’t be used on skin, or other ingredients that are potential irritants.

Q: What are common misconceptions about natural beauty and how can we protect ourselves from making mistakes?

A: I would say that it’s really easy to trust the front of a package—if it’s attractive and green and says it’s natural or organic it’s easy to trust that. Always read your ingredients, inform yourself about common ingredients to avoid, and don’t be afraid to ask questions like:

  • How is this preserved?
  • What makes it lather?
  • How do the oils and water mix together?
  • Is this a full ingredients list?
  • Do you make the product in-house or is it outsourced to a lab?
Q: I loved your post about the cosmetics products that you vouch for [here] and noticed that you removed one or two products that you previously approved because they did not list any preservatives in it. What can happen to a product that isn’t preserved well?

A: Within a matter of hours a water-based product without a preservative can start to grow bacteria, mold, and other pathogens. Applying a product to your skin with bacteria growing in it can be dangerous–get that bacteria in a cut and you could have a serious infection.

Q: It’s hard to navigate the safe preservatives too. Many natural companies use Japanese Honeysuckle, which you have written about extensively [here] as not necessarily being as sound an ingredient as the companies would have us believe. What preservatives do you consider safe?

A: Safety has more than one component than the toxicology of an ingredient, especially when it comes to preservatives. A lot of the natural preservatives on the market will only work under certain conditions (pH, in the presence of other preservatives, in airless packaging, etc). So, I can’t vouch for any in particular because there’s not a fail-safe one to turn to—it’s all about the overall formulation.

Q: What measures have you taken to keep Bubble & Bee products as clean and green as possible?
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Bubble & Bee products that I use, love, and would repurchase if I haven’t already (including the Pit Primer, $7.99, above): Splash of Lime Toning Mist–every bit as refreshing as it sounds and acts as a primer too, $19.99.

A: First, I would say by choosing as many organic ingredients as possible and having organic certification. If there’s a case where we needed a product to do something that an organic ingredient couldn’t do (say, for instance create a lather in a salt scrub) we would ask—what is the safest, most natural option available?

I personally review and research each ingredient that we’ve chosen, and make sure that I can defend any question that comes in about any ingredient in any product.

Second, we do all of our formulating and manufacturing in-house.

There are many companies that start up without much knowledge of cosmetic chemistry, so they’ll outsource the formulating and manufacturing to an outside lab. I’ve seen labs create formulas for companies and just outright lie about the ingredients used. And then the company owners who don’t know any better, will accept what the lab tells them and then they end up with an ingredients list that doesn’t add up. Or they’ll end up using ingredients that were sold to them as safe, but had hidden negative effects they weren’t aware of. By formulating all of our products and manufacturing in our certified organic production facility, we control the process and what goes in our products.

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Pit Putty, the first natch deo that ever worked for me and still does, $10.85

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Raspberry & Lemonade Foaming (yes, foaming!) Salt Scrub–like no other scrub I’ve ever used and a repeat buy for years, $24.95

Thanks a million, Stephanie.

Now that you’re armed and savvy, discover how to decipher a product label according to great tips from Formula Botanica Director, Lorraine Dallmeier.

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