What Those Beauty Labels Really Mean

Scan the offerings in the beauty aisle and you'll see plenty of virtuous-sounding labels. "Vegan-friendly" shampoo, "cruelty-free" face cream, "natural" moisturizer, "biodegradable" toothpaste -- but what do they really mean? Still more confusing: Some products have certified seals, while others sport symbols that don't quite look official.

So how do you choose a cleanser that's good for both you and the planet? With the help of our experts, we get to the bottom of the most common declarations and sort truth from empty promises.

Label: Organic
Clear rules make decoding this term easier. In 2005, the USDA started allowing makers of qualified organic beauty and body-care products to use a USDA Organic seal. Those items with 95 percent organic ingredients, such as plants grown without the use of dangerous pesticides, can use the seal. Products with at least 70 percent organic content can say "made with organic ingredients" but can't use the seal; those with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" anywhere on the packaging except to identify specific organic items in the ingredients list.

It all sounds clear, until you think about what else might be in there. Say a skin cleanser touts "made with organic ingredients," meaning that at least 70 percent fits the bill. That doesn't tell you anything about the other 30 percent. "Some products can say 'organic' yet still contain parabens," explains Mike Indursky, chair of the Natural Products Association's Personal Care Committee and chief of marketing at Burt's Bees -- not exactly reassuring for anyone wanting to reduce toxin exposure.

Bottom Line
If you want assurance that your moisturizer or shampoo is organic, look for the USDA seal.

Label: Natural
Look at the list of ingredients in your favorite "natural" product. You might be surprised to find petrochemicals along with the honey, shea butter, and olive oil. With no definition set by the FDA or any other regulatory agency for what "natural" means in the world of cosmetics, take a buyer beware approach. "Consumers assume these products contain ingredients that don't pose health risks," Indursky says. "But some products out there are labeled 'natural' that aren't."

Fortunately, several legitimately natural product manufacturers have taken matters into their own hands. Companies such as Burt's Bees and Aubrey Organics have created a Personal Care Committee under the direction of the Natural Products Association (NPA). They're working to define a "natural standard" and creating guidelines for which ingredients do or don't qualify. The group intends to design a seal this spring to help consumers easily identify products that meet the criteria.

Bottom Line
Until we have a true standard in effect, don't assume "natural" means anything. The product's ingredients will tell the real story.

Label: Cruelty-Free
We often associate "cruelty-free" with that pervasive bunny logo. But emblems vary from product to product; big-eared, red-stamped, and leaping bunnies all claim to be testaments of animal-friendliness. Many animal-rights organizations offer the use of these logos to companies who comply with their standards -- but the agreement is based on the honor system.

Only one agency, the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC), conducts a routine check to ensure manufacturers live up to their promise. A union of six animal-rights groups that includes the Humane Society and Beauty Without Cruelty, the CCIC offers its trademarked "leaping bunny" tag to manufacturers who pledge not to test their ingredients on animals or purchase from any third-party supplier who does. (The supplier must sign a compliance declaration.) Manufacturers also agree to an audit every one to three years to verify their continued use of only cruelty-free suppliers. As the market has grown, says Tracie Letterman, chair of the CCIC, "suppliers are now coming to us, wanting to get the logo."

Bottom Line
With no legal definition for "cruelty-free," companies have unrestricted use of this term. The FDA points out that while a company may not have tested its finished product on animals, the ingredients may have come from suppliers who did. To ensure a product is cruelty-free, look for the CCIC's leaping bunny. Note that once the natural standard is created, products displaying the NPA seal will also have to be cruelty-free.

Label: Biodegradable
Your preferred hair conditioner may boast that the liquid inside is "biodegradable." While that certainly sounds eco-friendly, what exactly does it mean? According to the Federal Trade Commission's guidelines, created in conjunction with the EPA, a product labeled "biodegradable" should decompose "into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time." For liquids that go down the drain, decomposition should finish during the waste-water treatment process.

The problem? Because the FTC doesn't review products for safety before they're sold, biodegradable claims may go unsubstantiated until a complaint or tip is filed, explains Mike Davis, attorney for the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

To complicate matters, there's even disagreement over what any given sewer treatment system can render safe. While the FTC says most shampoos and similar products degrade in such systems, reports show that some chemical ingredients still end up in streams, rivers, and bays. A 2007 study released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) identified triclosan, phthalates, and bisphenol A, three potentially harmful chemicals used in personal care products and their packaging, in treated wastewater in the San Francisco Bay. "These chemicals are known to take a long time to break down," says Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D., a chemist with the EWG. "Our wastewater systems aren't designed to treat them."

Bottom Line
"Do your own research," says Bill Walker, a vice president at the EWG. You can log on to "Skin Deep," the group's safety guide, at cosmeticsdatabase.com, and discover which chemicals build up in humans and animals with repeated exposure.

Label: Vegan-Friendly
While no regulatory body oversees the "vegan-friendly" claim, it's somewhat easy to substantiate, if you know how to read the ingredients. Byproducts like honey and milk are obvious no-nos, but the average consumer might not recognize contents that may come from plants -- but also animals -- such as allantoin (uric acid), lactic acid, and caprylic acid.

To make things a bit easier, Vegan Action, a nonprofit public education group, offers its vegan.org stamp to manufacturers who submit signed testimonies that all ingredients come from vegan sources. The group also conducts product reviews, which may include contacting suppliers and performing sporadic lab tests. A manufacturer must renew its certification annually and notify Vegan Action of any changes in ingredients or sources.

Bottom Line
While the Consumers' Union rates Vegan Action's certified vegan label only somewhat meaningful because the group relies on manufacturers' honesty, they do rank it more reliable than claims of "100 percent vegan." Look for the vegan.org seal if animal welfare is your priority.

Text by Abbie Barrett

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