by Corinne Keating

Organic. Natural. Eco-friendly. These terms should be straightforward on beauty labels, but often they leave consumers more confused than comforted.

You turn the bottle over to investigate, but reading the ingredients list is like trying to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. When you find a brand you love, you may not want to know what’s in it — only that it gets the job done. Yet, knowing which ingredients to avoid assures you that your product is truly safe and your brand loyalty is ethically earned.

Different Standards Lead to More Confusion Over Ingredient Safety

Many beauty blogs and experts discuss concerns over potentially toxic ingredients found in foundation, lotion and shampoos that make appearances on the ingredient lists of even the most so-called “natural” brands. It gets more confusing when you read about the drastically different standards that the U.S. and Europe brands have to abide by. If an ingredient is banned elsewhere, what are you supposed to think?

It’s logical that the body absorbs what is put on the skin. Ingredients like belladonna have been used since ancient times in beauty products and are safe in trace amounts. Certain ingredients become more toxic because of overuse or exposure over long periods, when that ingredient is found basically in every product.

(RELATED: See Alden’s own green beauty routine!)

Decide Which Ingredients Meet Your Safety and Ethics Standards

So, what’s safe and what’s not? With a little self-education, you can decipher even the most complicated of product labels.

Obviously, many drug store brands get away with more. Some products are squeaky clean, while others are downright dirty when it comes to fillers, dyes and harmful ingredients. Some brands are in between, and given questionable industry standards, many decide to just live with that.

From nail polish to shampoo, judge whether your beauty products meet your own safety standards and ethics:

  • In general, Europe has more rigorous regulations than the U.S. More advocacy and public pressure here in the states hopefully will shift that.
  • Beware of questionable natural and organic ingredient claims. Check the label, because a certified USDA organic seal means “95 percent or more” organic ingredients. That remaining five percent is still need-to-know.
  • Be wary of products that claim “made with natural ingredients” or “made with organic ingredients.” There’s too much flexibility for carcinogens (like formaldehyde) or miscellaneous synthetic ingredients with such definitions.
  • The FDA doesn’t actually require rigorous testing before a product hits the market. So, there are literally thousands of beauty products that have likely never been tested.

Blacklist and Quick Scan Questionable Ingredients

There are certain questionable ingredients to blacklist, which are easy to memorize for quick scanning:

  • Parabens: A preservative to keep away yeast and mold. It’s linked with an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Synthetic colors: Beware Blue 1 or Red 27. Synthetic colors are suspected carcogins and are banned in Europe. Many are made from petroleum.
  • Fragrance/parfum: That one word can mean a hundred different chemicals, with more than one or two in the bottle. Phthalates and synthetic musks interrupt your hormones and their proper production and regulation. Fragrance formulas are considered to be trade secrets. “Fragrance” is never fully defined on the label.
  • Triclosan: It’s claimed to be antimicrobial, but there’s limited scientific support that it’s any better than washing with soap and water. It’s a known endocrine disrupter and affects thyroid and reproductive hormones.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES): A surfactant found in over 90 percent of cleaning and personal care products and are irritants to the skin, eyes and lungs. It doesn’t sound so bad, until you learn that SLS’s join with other chemicals to create carcinogenic nitrosamines. This can lead to respiratory and kidney damage.
  • Formaldehyde: This chemical, along with formaldehyde-release preservatives (FRPs) is used to prevent bacterial growth, but is a carcinogen. It’s linked to nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers, is known to cause allergic skin reactions and is considered damaging to the immune system.

Hack Ingredients While In-Store With Technology

Ingredients on labels change. New items are approved or banned. When standing in the store with a product in hand, how do keep all that in mind?

There’s an app for that! Just open your chosen app while in the store and compare. The following apps are useful for staying up-to-date about brands, ingredients, company ethics, research and regulation compliance:

  • Think Dirty: Uses a “Dirty Meter” on a scale of 1-10 to rate products for cacogenic, developmental and reproductive toxicity and more, according to published evidence from non-profit and government agencies.
  • Skin Deep: Search over 62,000 products that have been reviewed by staff scientists, who compare ingredients against over 60 regulatory and toxicity databases.
  • Good Guide: Review over 120,000 products and create your own personal lists. Good Guide also checks out factors like a product’s environmental impact and if a company has a climate change policy, its Freedom House Score and more. It’s easy to use with just a few taps.

If this seems like too much work, the good news is that the FDA is getting tougher on regulations for more transparent labels with natural ingredients every day due public pressure. Initiatives such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) call for the U.S. to phase out chemicals and ingredients that are banned in the European Union.

In the meantime, you can keep up with EcoCult’s beauty reviews. Good luck, beautiful!

When she isn’t writing for her blog, Why So Well, Corinne Keating enjoys a good read, a long run, and a strong cup of coffee.