5 Nasty Ingredients to Avoid When Buying Green Beauty Products

Sustainable personal care goes mainstream as Walmart and Target embrace shampoos and cosmetics good for your health and the environment, but be sure to read the label.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 14, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

When high-level beauty executives for Walmart and Target lead a summit on sustainable beauty, you know times are beginning to change. That's what happened this month in Chicago when the two retail giants cohosted the Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit alongside sustainability leader Forum for the Future.

Heralding the summit as the "first of its kind," Forum for the Future Director Helen Clarkson noted that the two "fiercely competitive" companies have seen a strong bump in customer demand for natural, organic, and sustainably sourced soaps, shampoos, lotions, makeup, and other beauty and personal care items. "Target says that 97 percent of households now buy some natural and organic products," Clarkson noted.

Data from consumer research firm Mintel bear out the trend, showing that 24 percent of people who use facial skin care products look for products with natural, organic ingredients, and 22 percent want products free of certain ingredients, such as parabens or fragrances.

"Natural beauty used to be a prestige, niche market, but now we're seeing the trend translating to mass-market product lines and even the stores' private labels," said Shannon Romanowski, senior beauty and personal care analyst at Mintel.

One glance at the event's attendee list, and you can see mainstreaming in action, with manufacturers Clorox, Dow, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive joining more predictable players such as Aveda and Seventh Generation. Retailers that participated in the summit included Walgreens, CVS, Sam's Club, and Sears.

Where Target and Walmart lead, everyone else follows, said Romanowski. "These retailers are making an effort to really reward the products and brands that use natural and organic ingredients. Shelf space is so valuable at these retailers that if Target and Walmart mandate it, manufacturers are going to do it."

What is it, exactly, that consumers are asking for? Here are the five ingredients you want to avoid in pursuit of sustainable beauty.

1. Pthalates

When a study came out in 2012 linking pthalates in cosmetics and beauty products to early menopause, it was just one more piece of evidence fueling attempts to ban the ubiquitous chemicals, which are used to make plastic more pliable. The efforts are paying off—a 2014 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found consumer exposure to pthalates is on the decline for the first time in decades.

2. Parabens

Parabens are widely used in cosmetics and beauty products as preservatives and antioxidants. (Check labels for names like methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and benzylparaben.) They're under fire for being endocrine disruptors that have the potential to raise breast cancer risk and interfere in male reproductive activity. While research results are still mixed, the public tide has turned against parabens, and consumers don't want them in their products.

3. Sulfates

Most commercial soaps and shampoos create such a satisfying lather because of sodium laureth sulfate and its sulfate relatives, which, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, are found in 22 percent of all cosmetic products. But the ingredients can also undergo a chemical reaction that produces 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen, which has prompted a strong consumer movement to change manufacturing processes to eliminate that risk. “Sulfate-free and paraben-free claims are popping up all over the place,” said Romanowski, "and even consumers who don't know what they are don't want them."

4. Formaldehyde

Classified as a human carcinogen by the National Institutes of Health since 1981, formaldehyde and related chemicals are used as preservatives in shampoos, soaps, and other beauty products. In 2009, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and a coalition of other organizations took Johnson & Johnson to task for including formaldehyde among the ingredients in the company’s iconic baby shampoo. J&J subsequently removed formaldehyde and quaternium-15 from its baby products, but they remain in many of the company's adult product lines.

5. Chemical Fragrances

Some people are allergic or sensitive to fragrances, some people just don't like them, and some find that the chemicals used to perfume many commercial products irritate their skin. Whatever the concern, fragrance-free products are growing in popularity among health-conscious consumers, Mintel's data shows.

Greenwashing is always a concern with a trend like this, which is where Forum for the Future comes in. The organization is working with retailers to set standards for transparency and disclosure in ingredients and labeling and to improve production methods to curtail water use and generate less waste.

Credit for all this change goes to an increasingly savvy shopper. "Consumers have a lot of power to drive change,” said Romanowski. “And consumers today want to feel like they're doing something good for their health and for their family's health."