We've come to expect a lot of our cosmetics. They should be age defying, glow enhancing, light diffusing, acne fighting, oil controlling, sun protective, color corrective, skin nourishing, antioxidant, hydrating, weightless, kiss proof, long wearing . . . all this and natural, too?

 Women use an average of 12 personal care products a day, and men use about half that many, including so-called stealth cosmetics like oil-control powder. Consumers are increasingly demanding that these products be formulated from healthy, nontoxic ingredients. Unfortunately, cosmetic labels that claim the products are "green," "natural," or "organic" have no legal meaning, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacks the authority to regulate the manufacture of cosmetics. The agency can step in to recall a product only if a red flag is raised after it's on the market. For example, the FDA recently recalled more than 5,000 bottles of a particular John Frieda hair conditioner found to be contaminated with a microorganism.

 The chemicals we apply to our faces and bodies, then, may be toxic or even carcinogenic (cancer causing). And make no mistake: One glance at any industry publication tells you that these products aren't being formulated with ingredients from your local garden. They're chemicals. Your herbal shampoo might as well come packaged in a flask from the chemistry lab.  Even if the ingredients in a product can be proven safe, today's eco-aware consumers expect something more: They want their cosmetics and personal care products to be earth friendly.

 The problem is that natural ingredients, such as tea oils and fruit extracts, are expensive and often don't perform as well as the chemicals to which we've become accustomed. We expect our shampoo to foam up into a rich lather, our conditioner to spread uniformly through our hair, and our moisturizers to feel sheer and light. And it practically goes without saying that everything should smell like a field of lavender or a mountain meadow just after a spring shower. Chemists are experimenting to find combinations of natural ingredients that meet the high standards set by the performance, if not the safety, of synthetic ingredients.

Let's look at three key ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products: surfactants, polymers, and preservatives.


make up about one quarter of the ingredients, by weight, of products in the personal care category. The main action of surfactant is to break up oily solvents like the sebum produced by skin. Breaking up these oils allows them to then be washed away with water. Surfactants are combined with additives like dyes, perfumes, salts, and preservatives in products such as foundation, shower gel, shampoo, and body lotion. The surfactants encapsulate these additives to evenly distribute them throughout the product. They also thicken the products, allow them to spread evenly, and help them cleanse and foam. Demand for natural surfactants called alkyl polyglucosides (APGs) has far outpaced demand for traditional surfactants.

Conditioning polymers

Conditioning polymers account for one third of all cosmetic ingredients sold in the United States. Materials with this property, such as glycerin, sorbitol, and propylene glycol, are called humectants, which means they help retain moisture on the skin or in the hair. Glycerin, a natural component of vegetable oils and animal fats, is produced synthetically for the cosmetics industry. It's the oldest, cheapest, and thus most popular humectant.

In hair products, humectants attract water and soften hair while swelling the hair shaft. They also keep the product itself from drying out. They stabilize fragrances, including natural botanical scents such as mint and lemon oil, and keep the scent from seeping out through plastic bottles or tubes. In products like shaving cream, humectants improve what industry insiders call "hand feel"—getting the product to feel smooth, slick, and non-sticky in your hand. Finally, they help keep the growth of microorganisms in check. Researchers are working to develop natural ingredients versatile enough to possess all of these properties. The difficulty in doing so helps explain why many mainstream cosmetics companies haven't been quicker to adopt natural ingredients.


Preservatives such as parabens, formaldehyde releasers, and isothiazolinones are additives that have been of particular concern to consumers. They're used to retard bacterial growth, which prolongs a product's shelf life and keeps it from causing infections of the skin or eyes. The cosmetics industry is experimenting with so called self-preserving cosmetics, in which plant oils or extracts act as natural preservatives. Studies show that some of these botanical preservatives also have deodorant, antiinflammatory, or antioxidant properties. A few appear to be effective in treating acne or discouraging the formation of dental caries (cavities). However, these botanicals often are unable to repel specific microorganisms, such as yeasts or Staphylococcus (staph), that attack humans, not plants. They can also irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions, and many have a strong odor that some people find unpleasant.

Choosing healthy makeup also means opting for packaging that's safe for you and healthy for the earth. Airless packaging, for example, creates an environment in which many bacteria can't reproduce. Jars with open mouths inevitably become contaminated with bacteria. Pumps with one-way valves, however, keep air from entering the opened package and make contamination more difficult. Careful manufacturing processes keep the product itself sterile as it enters the bottle or jar.

Lightweight, minimal packaging made from earth-friendly biodegradable materials like bamboo or cellulose fibers generates less waste for the landfill. Bioresins and bioplastics made from corn or sugar are being developed to replace plastic jars and pumps. Some specialty brands now offer recycling programs for their plastic containers. Even mainstream companies are out to prove that their cosmetics and product packaging are produced in green manufacturing facilities. Still, the products have to catch the consumer's eye on the shelf, and it's tough to produce a flashy earth-friendly package. In the end, consumers must decide whether it's more important to buy a jar you can see through or to be confident about what's inside it.