How to Safely Shop for Cosmetics: An Interview with Cheryl Baldwin of Green Seal

Recent studies have shown that colored cosmetics, including lipstick, can contain harmful contaminants like lead and it's long been known that some beauty products are formulated with bug parts. In light of some of these findings, we spoke with Cheryl Baldwin, Ph.D., the vice president of science and standards at Green Seal to find out how to safely shop for cosmetics.

The Fashion Spot: What are some of the possible dangers of using makeup with lead?

Cheryl Baldwin: No level of lead exposure is safe, especially for pregnant women as it can cause abnormal brain development in the fetus. Lead is a proven neurotoxin. Long term health issues can range from memory loss to cancer.

tFS: We often hear of bug parts being used in makeup — is there a danger in that? Why are they used?

CB: Some bugs, like cochineal extract and carmine, are used to create colors used in food and cosmetics. The FDA requires labeling of these colors and materials since some consumers have allergic reactions to them.

tFS: Is lipstick particularly prone to having possibly harmful ingredients in it?

CB: Recent studies have shown that colored cosmetics, including lipstick, can contain harmful contaminants like lead.  One of the concerns about lipstick is that any contaminants in the products can be ingested since the product is used on the lips.

tFS: Is the only "safe" thing to do to buy natural/organic beauty products?

CB: Consumers should take caution with products labeled with terms like “natural” and “organic” because they are not defined by the government. The safest thing to do is to look for products that have been certified for sustainability, health, and safety by an independent, non-profit organization such as Green Seal.

tFS: For people with sensitivity issues, what ingredients should they make sure to avoid?

CB: Sensitivities can be caused by a range of ingredients. It is best to use products that list all of their ingredients so that you know what you are using, and can avoid any known issues. Many companies may label certain classes of ingredients generically, like “fragrance.”  However, there could be sensitizers in that “fragrance.”  Many people find that it is best to avoid products with such generic labeling to avoid sensitivity issues.  Natural products are not a guarantee of sensitivity-free since many essential oils and other natural ingredients are sensitizers

tFS: How about skincare? Are there any ingredients to make sure to avoid?

CB: Yes!

  • Formaldehyde, and ingredients that include formaldehyde like preservatives (e.g., DMDM hydantoin, Quaternium-15, 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol) because formaldehyde is a carcinogen.
  • Phthalates such as dibutyl phthalate are used to help deliver fragrances in products (these are often not labeled since they are included in the fragrance and labeling laws don’t require that all of the materials in a fragrance be labeled in detail), and parabens used for preservation, but can alter hormones (endocrine disruption).
  • Mineral oil (e.g., paraffin, paraffinic oils, naphthenic oils, aromatic oils) and petrolatum are petroleum-based ingredients widely used as moisturizers, lubricants, and binders but can be contaminated with carcinogenic materials like hydrocarbons (there are grades of these materials available with low contamination, but this is not information made available to the consumer).
  • Antimicrobial claims/ingredients like triclosan and quaternary ammonium ingredients (such as –ium chemical) since they are not needed in these products (beyond product preservation) and they have health concerns (irritating, cause asthma) and significant environmental concerns that can lead to resistant bacteria.
  • Heavy metals, often found in color cosmetics that aren’t using the highest quality ingredients.  Heavy metals can cause long-term health issues from memory-loss to cancer.

tFS: Is it more likely that cosmetics made in certain parts of the world would be harmful or are the culprits all over the board?

CB: We cannot say that products from one country are more harmful than those from other countries. What’s important is that consumers should always read product labels to understand what ingredients are in them and buy products with the safest ingredients possible. Colored cosmetics have a greater likelihood of contamination with harmful materials, like heavy metals, so it is best to buy products from companies that you trust – that you believe is using the safest version of ingredients possible.

tFS: Can you tell us about Green Seal? How are you working to educate people about dangers they may be unaware of in their everyday products?

CB: Green Seal, Inc. is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1989 to safeguard health and the environment by developing standards for products and services that meet not only green requirements, but also health and safety requirements, too. These standards will provide an understanding of the “green” beauty products we use.