True Colors

beautybarIt’s bad enough that most mainstream cosmetics and body products contain craptastic ingredients. But when a previously trusted “natural” company reformulates a favorite product, it can feel like a betrayal. This has happened to me several times and for a variety of reasons. You all know that I’m a skeptic, but if I find a company that seems ethical and truly natural, I get comfortable. I sidle up to them like a long-term lover and trust blindly. Sadly, sometimes even good companies will let you down.

Packaging changes are a sure sign that something is amiss. If I ever notice this happening, I immediately check the ingredients list on the product, and nine times out of ten, the ingredients have changed. A packaging alteration is an easy way for the company to hide other overhauls in the hopes that you won’t notice. But I have hawk eyes when it comes to product integrity, and I ALWAYS check. Other signs of reformulation might be a change in the smell, texture, or color of a product. I’m going to talk about two packaging changes that I’ve personally witnessed, as well as one incidence of false labeling.

The first story of a packaging change is a sad one. I’ve spoken before about my adventures in curly hair care, mostly within the realm of co-washing. I used to use Beauty Without Cruelty’s Lavender Conditioner to scrub my scalp, and it worked beautifully. It left my hair feeling clean, but never dried it out. It was the perfect consistency and had a delicate, fresh scent from lavender essential oils. It was a bit expensive for a college student, retailing at $10.99, and at some point I strayed from purchasing it and used a Trader Joe’s conditioner instead (until I realized its ingredients were less than adequate…ew). Once I came to that realization, I tried to switch back. However, after using the BWC for a few days, I noticed a lot of build-up on my scalp. It seemed sort of like dandruff, but I had never had dandruff before and my skin didn’t seem to be irritated. I looked at the back of the bottle to check the ingredients. What did I find? They had added a silicone!


Now, silicones aren’t dangerous, to the best of my knowledge. But when you aren’t using shampoo, or sometimes even if you’re using a sulfate-free shampoo, the silicones can build up on your scalp. I had been co-washing with the BWC for about a week before the dandruff-like substance appeared. As soon as I shampooed, the build-up disappeared, and so did my love of the company. I checked their other conditioners, and all had been altered to include the silicone, which was dimethicone. I was heartbroken, and I haven’t found another decent co-washing conditioner since. At some point, I’ll probably try to make my own. Until then, I’ll have to be satisfied with my gentle shampoo and conditioner.

The second product is one that I’m still using, surprisingly. It’s Alaffia’s Beautiful Curls Curl Styling Cream, and I started using it a few months ago. Alaffia pulled the classic packaging change move as they reformulated. Not only, in my opinion, did the packaging become less attractive, but they also added a different preservative: phenoxyethanol.


Phenoxyethanol was created as an alternative to parabens, which were widely featured in the media after they were identified as hormone disruptors.

It’s hard to understand whether or not phenoxyethanol is safe. The European Union classifies it as toxic or harmful for products that are used for around the mouth or on the lips (in terms of organ toxicity). Canada says it’s not expected to be potentially toxic or harmful. It receives a score of 4 on EWG. ECOCERT, a third-party organic certification board, has disallowed the use of phenoxyethanol in products that they certify. There is some concern over Phenoxyethanol causing allergic contact dermatitis.

I have never had any adverse reactions (skin-wise) to products that contain phenoxyethanol. Still, I have no concept of its long-term effect on my body. Here’s a whole page of peer-reviewed studies on exposure to ethylene glycol monoethyl ether, (phenoxyethanol) the results of which mostly focus on men and low sperm count. I’ve glanced through most of them, and each seems to come to a different conclusion. Here’s what No More Dirty Looks has to say about it.

Plant-based products are extremely prone to rancidity. When water and oils are combined, they attract microbial growth more easily. Also, if someone uses a product with hands that haven’t been washed, they run the risk of contaminating that container. Preservatives must have the following attributes:

• Broad spectrum activity (bacteria & fungi)
• Be effective over the anticipated shelf life
• Be preferably liquid and water soluble
• Be effective over a wide pH range
• Not be deactivated by other ingredients

• Be odorless, colorless, and safe

Parabens, phenoxyethanol, urea derivatives, and other synthetic preservatives have all of these qualities, but their long-term effects on our health are largely unknown. And since the FDA doesn’t conduct their own safety analyses, instead relying on companies to do their own testing, we cannot be sure that what’s going on our bodies is actually safe. In addition, there is very little study done on how these synthetic chemicals interact with each other, or how quickly they accumulate inside us. I would rather not use them at all. It’s all well and good to replace the parabens, but, to quote Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Come on, guys. We can do better.

There are more natural, plant-derived preservatives in the market, but they aren’t quite as effective at protecting against a broad span of microbes, and are mostly used to prevent rancidity. Grapefruit seed extract seems to work the best, but still only insures a shelf-life of a few weeks. I personally use products fairly quickly, and have never had a problem even with those that are naturally preserved.

I wonder if Alaffia received customer complaints about the shelf life of their products, or if the phenoxyethanol is just less expensive than citric acid and potassium sorbate. I’m just disappointed. I don’t know whether to continue using their styling cream, even though I love the way it works for my hair. Phenoxyethanol is the only questionable ingredient in that product. Maybe I’ll write to them and plead my case.

My next example isn’t a packaging change, but rather a packaging foible. I recently had a customer inquire about Nature’s Plus Natural Beauty Cleansing Bar. We must have stopped carrying the product because its ingredients were questionable. Yet, when I searched for it online, I could only find two ingredients listed: allantoin and vitamin E. I decided to buy one of the bars, in order to investigate further.

When the soap arrived, it became clear to me that I was being deceived. The packaging was labelled with those two ingredients, but within the copy were the words:

Natural Beauty Cleansing Bar is absolutely free of soap and the harsh, irritating ingredients found in soap, such as caustic soda, lye, tallow, hexachlorophene, and alkalis. Natural Beauty Cleansing Bar is a unique cleanser made from natural, organic ingredients. Humectants and emollients are used to help maintain the skin’s delicate moisture balance and to soothe irritated skin. They are combined with 500 IU of vitamin E and the special astringent and healing qualities of allantoin. This specially formulated cleanser is in a mildly acidic base (4.5 pH) to help maintain the body’s normal “acid mantle.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but the words in that copy seem to indicate the presence of ingredients other than just allantoin and vitamin E. My suspicions were confirmed when I read countless reviews of the bar on Amazon, which indicated that the product produced a gentle foam when dampened. Neither the allantoin nor the vitamin E are foam-producing ingredients. Furthermore, when I actually opened the package that I’d purchased, I noticed that the soap possessed a very strong, chemically fragrance.

Nature’s Plus clearly wasn’t being honest about the ingredients in their Natural Beauty Cleansing Bar, but I wasn’t sure if their lack of transparency was illegal or just annoying. I went to the FDA’s website, looked up their regulations on ingredient labeling in cosmetics, and found this:

 If the product is marketed on a retail basis to consumers, even it it is labeled “For professional use only” or words to that effect, the ingredients must appear on an information panel, in descending order of predominance. [21 CFR 701.3]. As an alternative, when cosmetics are distributed on a mail-order basis, the package mailed to the consumer may contain readily visible instructions for locating the ingredient declaration, such as in a product catalog (currently interpreted as including a website), or instructions for requesting a copy of the ingredient declaration. Mail-order distributors must respond promptly to such requests [21 CFR 701.3(r)]. Remember, if the product is also an OTC drug, its labeling must comply with the regulations for both OTC drug and cosmetic ingredient labeling, as stated above.

So it seems like Nature’s Plus is breaking the law, right? Well, I’m not so sure. I did some further reading on the FDA website.

Apparently, soap is subject to different labeling guidelines than regular cosmetics. I’m still pretty confused about it all. I don’t think this “beauty bar” technically qualifies as “true” soap if it’s mainly vitamin E and allantoin, according to this page, which means that it falls under the FDA’s jurisdiction. This essay, by Harold Hopkinds, (which is located on that page) states:

So long as no cosmetic representations are made for soap, other than that it cleanses, and no claims are made that it will affect the structure or functions of the body or treat a disease, it is beyond FDA regulation. When such claims are made the soap must meet all FDA requirements for a cosmetic or a drug or both, whichever is appropriate. If it’s represented as a drug the label must list all active ingredients; if represented as both a cosmetic and drug or as only a cosmetic the label must list all ingredients.

Something still smells fishy to me. I’m going to write to Nature’s Plus and get to the bottom of the situation. At the very least, maybe they’ll reveal their full ingredients list.

The moral of my story is that sometimes even good companies will let you down. We all have to be vigilant if we want to know, for certain, what’s going in our bodies. Lately, I’m leaning more and more toward creating my own line. I have some tentative future ideas. I’ll keep you all posted.


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