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Words like 'natural,' 'organic,' and 'green,' aren't as transparent as they once were. Today, those are some of the major marketing buzzwords used to sell beauty products, and unfortunately, they don't always reflect what's inside the package. It's becoming all the more important for consumers to know what to look for in product labels, so they can avoid being duped by misleading claims.
In honor of Earth Day, I caught up with Adria Vasil, author of Ecoholic and environmental columnist for Toronto's NOW Magazine, for some pointers on how to be a savvy shopper.
Why are companies able to make misleading natural claims?
There are no regulations stopping them from making false claims or exaggerating their marketing. The law is supposed to penalize people for being totally fraudulent, but it's a pretty grey zone. The competition bureau has guidelines outlining how to use green terms, but they're only guidelines, not laws. The only way they're actually going to crack down on anyone for not following them is if we call or email the competition bureau and complain.
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What are your tips for people looking for beauty products that are truly natural and chemical-free?
Don't judge a book by its cover. Just because a product says it's natural on the front label or even uses the words 'natural' or 'organic' in its brand name, that doesn't mean it actually is. Sometimes only one or two ingredients will be organic. So the first thing I would do is flip the product over and scan the ingredient list. A product that claims to be natural or organic should be mostly that, so if the ingredient list doesn't correspond with the claims made on the front, I'd put it down.
Next, look for specifics-3rd party seals, like USDA, that's the top one. You'll also find the Natural Products Association seal. That came out a couple years ago and it tells you the product is 95% plant derived and the ingredients were cleared. BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics is the European system and, again, it tells you all the ingredients have been screened. Ecocert is another one. It isn't perfect, but it tells you what percentages of the ingredients are natural and organic. Having one of those seals means someone is double checking the ingredients and rejecting the worst offenders.
Always have a critical-thinking cap on when you're shopping and make sure to keep in mind that the front packaging is all marketing. Don't forget, there are lots of great companies that are making legitimately green products and we want to make sure we're supporting those and not just giving up on natural products altogether. And just because you're in a drugstore, that doesn't mean you can't find natural products. These days, you will even find drugstore brands with certification seals.
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What are the main ingredients to avoid?
David Suzuki's website includes the Dirty Dozen list of ingredients to avoid. People can also check out Cosmeticsdatabase.com, but some of the products haven't been updated in several years, so I always tell people to check what dates the products were entered before deciding to fully accept what it says. Ideally, you want to be able to make decisions on the spot when you're in stores, so that's why my guidelines are useful-you don't actually have to go online and look things up.
Do you think there are advantages to shopping at a specialty natural store for your beauty products?
Definitely. If there is a health food store near you that has body care and cosmetics, then I recommend going there first because they tend to have screened out the biggest greenwashers. Their brands will be more natural than the ones drugstores typically carry and they won't have the Dirty Dozen ingredients. When you're at the health food store, there will still be a selection of cheaper brands that are not as pure as the pricier, higher-end ones.
Do you think the higher-end natural brands take advantage of consumers by raising their prices more than they need to?
I definitely think they're overcharging. At the same time, you have to keep in mind that companies like Dr. Hauschka are going beyond what other natural brands are doing. All of their ingredients are biodynamic, which means they're farmed in a very new-age way, so it is more expensive to get those ingredients. The truth is, we're used to paying very little for our products, so we have this artificial sense of what things should cost.
Even when you're at the health food store, you should still be looking at the ingredients and comparing prices. You can get a sense of the quality just by looking at the ingredients-like, this one is really natural because I would eat all of the ingredients, versus the ingredients I call synthetic naturals, which came from plants but were lab-altered in some way. The name would look like a chemical, but then in brackets it would say, "from coconuts," for example. Just because it comes from a coconut, that doesn't necessarily mean you should put it on your skin.
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How do you, personally, select the beauty products you're going to buy?
Skin is our largest organ and it really absorbs everything we put on it, so I like to see skincare products with ingredients that I could buy at the grocery store. That is the only way to know for sure that what you're buying is pure, because they're always coming up with new ingredients to replace the old ones that we're scared of. Honestly, straight-up oils are all you need and you can keep your beauty routine really simple without having to resort to chemically processed stuff. I'm not saying every synthesized ingredient is bad-not at all-it's just really hard for the average consumer to tell one from the other, so looking for edible ingredients is a fail-proof method.
Adria Vasil is the author of Ecoholic, available on Amazon. Her next book, Ecoholic Body, will be released next year. For more information, check out her special on CBC Marketpalce or her website, Ecoholic.ca.
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