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Are natural beauty brands greenwashing or targets of sensationalism?

A new study from the Silent Spring Institute targets some top natural brands for containing potentially dangerous ingredients. While most media outlets sensationalized the news, I dug in to get the facts and analyze the findings.

I’m very cognizant of greenwashing.

I look for trustworthy labels, read ingredient lists diligently and let out an exaggerated sigh when I see commercials for chemical-laden formulas going incognito as plant-based alternatives because of one ingredient that, at some point, grew out of dirt. I question rich lathers, overtly floral fragrances and products that never seem to expire.

But a recent study from the Silent Spring Institute published in Environmental Health Perspectives—and the subsequent media coverage—raised some important questions: Where do we draw the line between calling out legitimate greenwashing and sensationalism? When do we become so focused only on the problem that we fail to further develop solutions?

According to the research (not the first of its kind), it isn’t just conventional household cleaning and personal care products that contain concerning ingredients—everything from allergens to hormone disruptors. The study called out Kiss My Face, Aubrey Organics, Burt’s Bees, California Baby, Jason Natural, Alba Botanica, Nature's Gate, and others for containing a range of questionable ingredients: natural oils linked to allergies, phthalates found only in the natural products, even chemical sunscreen ingredients and parabens.

Of course, levels were much, much higher in the conventional brands. But we expect that. 

Greenwashing or sensationalism?  

When I called Silent Spring to discuss the details, I was disappointed that beyond pinpointing ingredients and brands, there had been, what seemed to me, little analysis done on the findings. How did Silent Spring choose and classify the “alternative” (natural) products? Which ingredients were most common in the “alternative” products? Which ingredients resulted from manufacturing processes or were byproducts of natural ingredients? I had a lot of questions, met with few answers.

What was even more disappointing, though, was the story from Rodale. In addition to the misleading headline, “Why you can’t trust the natural label” (neither the study nor this article reference any actual “label,” rather, looked at products sold in natural retailers), it negligently gives this advice: Use sunscreens as a last resort.

I’m sorry, but really? With more than 2 million cases of skin cancer found each year, you’re going to recommend people skip sunscreen entirely to avoid using a product that may contain chemical UV blocker octinoxate? That’s like telling us to never eat a vegetable again unless it’s organic.

The story also reports that the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database is essentially useless because not all personal care products fully disclose ingredients. Sure, it has some flaws, but it’s also a strong resource for consumers to wade their way through thousands of products and ingredients.

Feeling helpless yet?

It’s no shocker that none of the coverage mentioned how companies such as Nature’s Gate and Jason (this company’s reps even said the tested product was an old formulation) have improved safety of products with reformulations. Luckily the Rodale story did quote Jessica Iclisoy, founder and developer of California Baby, who—as she also told me—was completely baffled by the results because California Baby doesn’t formulate with any of the problem ingredients the study found in her products. (Iclisoy later sent the products in question out for third-party testing and said the results showed zero for the ingredients Silent Spring reported. She also said researchers admitted to her that products were from 2007 and 2008, not those currently on the market.)

No more scare tactics 

So was the study flawed? At this point, I’m not sure. What I do know is that we’re not going to get anywhere if we continue to only look at problems and not at why they’re happening or how we can change them.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s extremely important that we hold this industry up to the highest standards and that organizations like Silent Spring continue to do this important work. No company should still use parabens or synthetic fragrance, for example, regardless of the market in which the products are sold. And when it comes to these ingredients, the onus isn't just on the manufacturers but also on the retailers and the consumers to communicate concerns and ultimately make an impact.

We saw this type of advocacy manifest with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Compact for Safe Cosmetics that united companies within the natural products industry to fully disclose ingredients. Now we’re waiting on stricter regulations from the government (President Obama recently stated we need them) to enforce such actions from companies.

Still, some ingredients that result from manufacturing processes and even natural ingredients, such as certain types of phthalates, present legitimate challenges for natural brands, many of which I believe are trying to do the right thing, while keeping products at the same cost and with the same results. And we're still seeking more natural alternatives. Luckily, recent developments are showing promise for creating new options and making them more accessible. 

So yes, there are still problems, the system isn’t foolproof, and there is still some greenwashing. But there’s also a lot of sensationalism, and we aren’t going to get anywhere as an industry if we make people scared to use any product by convincing them that better choices still aren’t good enough, and that trusted resources for making those choices are no longer reliable.

Tighter legislation, quality ingredient research, formulation developments, third-party testing, retailer standards... let’s be sure that when we talk about a problem, we look at the potential solutions, too.

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