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The best and worst places to buy safe cosmetics

Where do you buy personal care products? A new report from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ranks some of the country's largest retailers on their personal care policies, safe alternatives, and transparency.

I’m always a bit surprised by the stat that nearly half of natural products shoppers don’t enter their go-to retailer’s beauty department. You may fill up your carts with organic veggies and milk and then make another stop to pick up your shampoo and conditioner … and then maybe another stop for your makeup and skin care. But a new report released by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Retail Therapy, explores why it may be time to rethink how you shop for cosmetics.

With very weak FDA regulations on cosmetic ingredients in place, our retailers have an important responsibility to be the “gatekeepers,” according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. This means screening products for ingredients, offering safe alternatives and—perhaps most importantly—making all of their practices (the good and the bad) publicly available.

I couldn't agree more, and that's why I was so glad to see that the campaign, which has helped raise awareness about cosmetic chemicals and even helped transform the practices of household brands such as Johnson & Johnson, also turned its attention to retailers.

The best and worst retailers 

It was no shock that Whole Foods—the only natural retailer included in the report—was hands down the leader in terms of policies, safe products, transparency, and private-label quality. I have long admired this retailer's ability to prove the power of industry self regulation. But perhaps the most encouraging ranking was that of CVS, which got five kisses (on a scale of one to ten, ten being the best). CVS epitomizes mainstream making progress: It publicly recognizes that current FDA legislation is inadequate and continues to build space for safe alternatives. It even recently reformulated its private-label products.

Beyond CVS, most mass retailers have not prioritized cosmetics safety. Macy’s, which ranked lowest, even relies solely on FDA regulations and does nothing to screen its products. But when I spoke with Janet Nudelman, one of the report’s authors and the director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund, she said what surprised and inspired her was that even in the absence of strong policies, all retailers were at least willing to talk to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

See how all 8 retailers ranked. 

How to demand change 

Just the awareness this report raises, and the fact that retailers are finally having to acknowledge the issue of cosmetics safety, is important for two reasons.  

It means that more consumers will start—or continue—to question the policies of major retailers, not just when it comes to food but also about personal care products. This could prompt stores to crack down on their manufacturers (write to these retailers now!) and as that happens companies will start to use safer ingredients. We’ve seen this change in supply chains in other categories: for example, when in 2008 Walmart announced it would no longer carry water bottles and baby bottles with BPA, it forced companies to reformulate if they wanted to continue selling at Walmart. 

I certainly want mass-market retailers to shift their practices because I believe that will help make natural products affordable for everyone and I believe that everyone should have the choice to buy safer products. As retailers like CVS and manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson make these changes, I will give them credit where credit is due.

But for me, the greatest takeaway from this report is that it reinforces the importance of supporting our local, independent natural products stores—the ones that, despite having a mere fraction of the resources of mainstream retailers, are so far ahead when it comes to safety policies. That's why they don’t just deserve accolades—they deserve the sale. 

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