Save Your Skin Searching for the Greenest—and Healthiest—Skin Care Products

While consciousness has spread in recent years about the foods we eat, fewer of us think about how harmful the products we put on our skin can be to our bodies and to the environment. But our skin is the largest—not to mention most visible—organ of our bodies, so treating it right can be key to overall good health.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t much help. The agency may be tasked with regulating skin care products along with other topical cosmetics, but it does not consider them as much a risk to human health as ingestible drugs—and as such does not require premarket approval. While the agency does restrict the use of a dozen or so classes of ingredients known to cause harm, consumers are on their own when it comes to finding out what may be lurking in the skin care products they buy.

That’s why researchers at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) created Skin Deep, a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products that compares ingredients in more than 43,000 cosmetics products against 50 toxicity and regulatory databases. The free online database is a breeze to use, despite its data-intensiveness. Users can search for products, ingredients and companies and get back clear, detailed results, including “hazard scores’ on particular products ranging from 1 (safe) to 10 (watch out).

EWG is part of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of nonprofits including the Breast Cancer Fund, the Clean Water Fund and Friends of the Earth, working to phase out chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems in personal care products. Upwards of 1,200 companies have signed onto the coalition’s Compact for Safe Cosmetics, pledging to remove hazardous chemicals and replace them with safe alternatives within three years.

“The Compact is the closest thing we have to regulation or a meaningful seal of approval for cosmetics in this country,” reports the coalition’s website. “It would be better if there were government regulation, but until then, consumers can use the Compact as a tool in their search for safer cosmetics.”

Inside the Bottle

Of course, many consumers would like to shop without spending hours in front of a computer researching which products are safest. That’s where trusted retailers like Whole Foods come in. Any skin care product on the shelves at Whole Foods has passed the muster of the company’s personal-care products czar Jeremiah McElwee and his “Whole Body” team. While the company had always screened out obviously hazardous or harsh products, in March 2008 it upped the ante by banning some 300 additional ingredients common in many personal care products.

Whole Foods adopted its more stringent standard simply because no one else had. “We’ve always taken the path of setting those standards so our customers can come into our stores and not feel like they have to read every single label,” says McElwee. “There’s a certain given that we try to promise our customers when they come through our doors.” McElwee’s favorite skin care products off the shelves at Whole Foods come from Dr. Hauschka and Aubrey Organics.

Not surprisingly, these brands also fare well in terms of safety and environmental footprint according to Skin Deep. Other top all-natural skin care brands with consistently low hazard ratings on Skin Deep include: Kiss My Face, Indochine Natural, Solay Wellness, Wild Thyme Botanicals, Golden Path Alchemy, Holistic Body Care, Earth Tribe and Coastal Classic Creations, among others. Each of these manufacturers has also signed onto the Compact for Cosmetics, so consumers can be sure they are committed to healthier products.

In terms of ingredients that eco-conscious consumers should look for in their skin care products, the list seems to be growing every day. Researchers are going beyond the lab to find natural ingredients that can be harvested sustainably and have been shown to improve skin tone and/or prevent blemishes, inflammation or premature aging. According to leading eco-consumer website The Green Guide, label readers should look for jojoba oil, green tea, argan oil, shea butter, pomegranate and aloe vera, among other plant-based ingredients.

Naturopathic doctor and certified nutritionist Cathy Wong adds that when it comes to the beauty of your skin, what you put in your mouth plays a critical role. Water and fiber help the body eliminate waste products that can otherwise linger and contribute to unhealthy-looking skin. And she recommends limiting the intake of sugars—in excess they can bind with protein molecules and damage skin’s suppleness and elasticity—and upping consumption of omega fatty acids (flaxseed, walnuts, salmon, etc.) which can help limit outbreaks of inflammatory skin problems like acne and eczema.