How to Read Food vs Beauty Labels
It feels like an eternity ago, but it was the year I really dug into "whole food" or "real food" nutrition lifestyle and safer, low-tox, "holistic" living.
I started with food and nutrition.
First, I learned all about reading ingredients labels, terms to avoid, tricks of the trade, and more. I listened to podcasts, read articles, bought books. Eventually, I enrolled in the NTC program at the beginning of 2015.
Then, I started to teach others what I learned (because at the end of the day, I believe I am here to teach and inspire others).
Here's the thing, though. I overgeneralized and assumed the food rules transferred over to the beauty industry. I started trying to follow the "rules" for this industry, and found it to be much more difficult.
So I ended up using coconut oil for... uh, everything! Toothpaste, conditioner, makeup remover, moisturizer, body lotion. It was cheap, however, I can't say it was super effective. (Thank goodness we were living in FL away from everyone we knew at the time! My poor husband.)
Luckily, I've found that a ton of ladies in my situation have done the same.
I stumbled upon Beautycounter thanks to my mentors, Diane Sanfilippo and Liz Wolfe (The Balanced Bites Podcast). I was on Diane's team then and she raved about the charcoal bar. I consider Liz the safer skincare expert and I believed in her knowledge and research...
But I will admit... I WAS CONFUSED.
I looked at Beautycounter's ingredient labels... knowing they had The Never List(tm) - aka 1,500+ ingredients they vow to never use in their products because of safety concerns - and strict standards, and I didn't understand why the labels were so long or why ingredients I would avoid in my food were listed in the beauty product.
I should be able to eat my beauty and skincare products, right? Errrr, maybe not? Doesn't everything get absorbed... in like 26 seconds?!?
If I felt confused... I'm sure there are several of you that ALSO feel confused... so let's break it down!
I've learned majority of this information from Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter's VP of Social & Environmental Responsibility. She is an amazing, super knowledgable resource I cannot recommend enough if you are interested in this information. (Click here for her blog. Follow her @beautycounter.hill.nerd on IG)
Food Industry Facts
While we are a bit "safer" in the Food Industry regarding regulation, the Food and Beauty/Skincare/Personal Care Products parallel one another. This gives me hope that as one industry changes, the other will follow.
Through the years, we have been dumping chemicals into our food products at a rapid rate:
1950s = 800 chemicals
1960s = 3,000 chemicals
2014 = 10,000 chemicals
What's more alarming? The FDA has never reviewed over 3,000 of these ingredients and 5,000 chemical food additives are NOT required to be on food packaging!!
How is this even possible? It's a loophole called GRAS, which stands for Generally Recognized as Safe.
Of course, this started innocently so companies could use common ingredients like "vinegar" or "sea salt," but if you give a mouse a cookie...
It has turned into companies taking advantage of the system...
"Critics of the system say the biggest concern, however, is that companies regularly introduce new additives without ever informing the FDA. That means people are consuming foods with added flavors, preservatives and other ingredients that are not reviewed at all by regulators for immediate dangers or long-term health effects.
Scientists and advocates worry about the growing number of ingredients that the FDA doesn't know about and is not tracking.
Rather than going through the painstaking FDA-led review process to ensure that their new ingredients are safe, food companies can determine on their own that substances are "generally recognized as safe." They can then ask the FDA to review their evaluation — if they wish. Or they can take their ingredients straight to market, without ever informing the agency." (Click here for more).
Food Rules vs Beauty Rules
Let's compare some of the common "food rules" and how they apply to the personal care industry... but before we dive in, I have to bust a myth that I used to believe about these industries because it governed a lot of my thought process about beauty products... I mentioned it above.
Not all topical products are absorbed into your body, especially not in 26 seconds. This is a classic internet meme... you know what they (now) say, you can't believe everything you read on the Internet.
In fact, some products are designed NOT to be absorbed by the body at all and rather sit on top of the skin.
(Thanks to Beautycounter for debunking these myths for their consultants! Direct quote from our newsletter: "We encourage all of our Beautycounter Consultants to share our graphics (vetted by our science and legal teams) and the approved facts and stats documents posted on Behind the Counter. Thank you for helping us maintain our credibility as the clean beauty leader by sharing the most accurate information possible.")
Rule #1 - The less ingredients, the better.
When looking at packaged food labels, having less ingredients that you know IS better. However, when it comes to beauty or skincare, it is okay if the ingredient list is long IF the ingredients are screened for safety.
These are products that are being created for a specific purpose... sometimes that can't be done in 5 ingredients or less.
Here is an example of Beautycounter's popular No 3 Balancing Charcoal Mask ingredient list:
Ingredients: Aqua/Water/Eau, Kaolin, Charcoal Powder, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Illite, Glycerin, Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Extract, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Xanthan Gum, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leafd Powder, Olea Europaea (Olive) Leaf Powder, Zingiber Officinale (Ginger) Root Powder, Salicylic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Pentylene Glycol, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Extract, Allantoin, Lactic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil*, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sodium Hydroxide, Chlorphenesin, Phenoxyethanol. *Organic/Biologique
When I first saw it, I thought "wait a second... this is better? This is safer?" And the answer is YES, it is!
Click here to view the mask & scroll to this list. You can click on each ingredient and find out the source, why it's used, and what product it is used in. Click here to learn about each ingredient in Beautycounter's products.
Rule #2 - Preservatives are bad.
Ideally, we would all buy and use our food and products in a very timely fashion, right? But even doing so, they can go rancid quickly.
Safe preservatives help prevent mold and bacteria from growing in our products.
And please, pay attention to the expiration dates on your products! I remember seeing a sunscreen that was a year or two expired and naively thinking "Well, what could go bad in here?!" Uhhhh... Mold. Bacteria. Gross.
One example is the synthetic preservative, Phenoxyethanol, which appears in the charcoal mask. Click here to learn about this preservative, a favorite among safer beauty brands, and debunk the studies against it.
Rule #3 - Synthetic is bad.
This is definitely a crazy one when you are in that "real food" world, but synthetic ingredients may be safer than natural ones.
For example: Colorants in cosmetics.
Why? Heavy metals are a naturally-occurring product of the earth. When a beauty company claims to be "all-natural" but does not test for heavy metals, you may actually be using products that are damaging to human health.
A quick rundown of health issues caused by heavy metals: lowered IQ + other neurological effects, heart damage, kidney damage, lung damage... and all cancers.
Click here to learn more about heavy metals in cosmetics.
In addition, the term 'organic' is a completely unregulated area of the personal care product industry and can be listed on labels without being truthful. Sadly, this does not hold much value.
Rule #4 - If you can't pronounce it, don't use it.
Many companies use the INCI, or the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. This is an internationally recognized system for listing ingredients that makes simple ingredients like Aloe or Shea Butter "appear" as chemical names, namely Aloe barbadensis Leaf Juice or Butyrospermum Parkii Fruit. However, it allows ingredients to be "read" across the globe.
I remember saying I chose math as my major because it was the same all over the world... solving a calculus problem in the US looked the same in China and the same in Africa. I suppose this is a similar way to think about it for this industry!
What to do: Check your products and ingredients. Find brands you trust.
Use trusted, verified sources to look up the long names you are unsure or even scan your products. My favorite resource is ewg.org/skindeep or the Healthy Living App.
Note: Companies are not required to disclose the ingredients they use in this industry.
There are many reasons why I am comfortable using and recommending Beautycounter: the standards, the testing, the education, the transparency, the sourcing, the advocacy.
It is so rare to find a company pushing for stricter standards in the marketplace they reside... but Beautycounter is doing so because we believe in safer beauty, we know it's possible to combine performance and safety, and our mission is to get safer products into the hands of everyone. Learn more here about Beautycounter.