Fears of toxic substances in conventional beauty products are leading consumers to seek out grooming aids with claims to being "organic." Reports such as Not Too Pretty, released last week by U.S. environmentalists and listing levels of phthalates in 52 brand-name cosmetics, are fuelling the trend. The chemicals, plastic softeners widely used in deodorants, hair sprays and especially nail products, were withdrawn from infant teethers in 1998 after consumer pressure.

While cosmetics companies say the amounts of phthalates used are perfectly safe, the Centers for Disease Control are conducting their own study on exposure levels, to be released this fall. "When you pick up a cosmetics bottle, there's a list of chemicals," Bryony Schwann, a member of one of three groups that funded the study, told The Los Angeles Times. "Women don't have any idea what those chemicals do. How would they know about phthalates when they're not even labelled on the bottle?"

Just like the legions of consumers buying organically grown vegetables in the hope of avoiding pesticides, cosmetics buyers are increasingly choosing products that bill themselves as "fresh," "pure" or "organic." "It has become very trendy," says Christina Tudor, natural body-care buyer for Whole Foods Canada in Toronto, the recently opened northern outpost of the upscale U.S. healthy-food chain. "People care now about what they are putting on their skin."

Organic Style magazine, launched last year, documents the vogue among Hollywood starlets and the upwardly hip, for everything "natural" -- from yoga, juicing and hemp clothing to eco-friendly housing and soy drinks. And they're willing to pay a premium for it. Health magazine, a U.S. monthly with a circulation of 1.3 million, recently published the results of a survey showing that 63 per cent of women would spend extra money on a product if it said it were "natural" or "organic."

But Canadian labelling laws mean that both of those terms are often virtually meaningless. In this country, a beauty product can call itself "natural" if just 1 per cent of its ingredients are plant-based, Health Canada spokesman Andrew Swift says. And, since the listing of ingredients on cosmetics is not required, the remaining ingredients could be anyone's guess. In Britain, laxity over cosmetics labelling has led the Soil Association -- a U.K. organization that certifies organic food and farming -- to create its own certification program for health and beauty products, although involvement is voluntary. No equivalent program exists so far in North America.

Instead, we are increasingly seeing products like Almay's new Organic Fluoride Plus Nail Care line. The Revlon-owned company uses the term "organic" simply to indicate that is a "healthier" alternative to traditional nail-care products, spokesman Mike Muyal says.

How? Because it doesn't contain toluen and formaldehyde, both toxic chemicals widely used in nail products. A kinder, gentler alternative perhaps, but "organic" implies something quite different. The rush to cash in on the natural trend has inspired its own backlash. Kim Erickson, author of the recently published Drop-Dead Gorgeous (Contemporary Books), is sharply critical of the cosmetics industry's continued use of chemicals that are known to cause health problems. Her book contains a "nine deadly ingredients" list of chemicals commonly found in beauty products, including lead (used in hair dyes), propylene glycol (a major ingredient in antifreeze that is linked to dermatitis and kidney damage, used as a moisture-carrying ingredient) and talc (which can cause lung irritations and is used in body powders and antiperspirants).

But she is equally scathing about so-called enlightened chains such as The Body Shop. According to Erickson, the chain's "naturally inspired" products are barely distinguishable from those of conventional cosmetics companies: Ingredients such as sodium laureth sulphate, a detergent and common skin irritant, is found in many of the company's soaps and shampoos. The Body Shop counters that the levels it uses are perfectly safe for consumers, a view echoed by McGill University's Joe Schwarcz.

The director of the Office for Chemistry and Society says the organic beauty movement is a gimmick to sell more products. "There's no reason to believe that anything organically grown is more significant than anything technologically assisted," Schwarcz says. "Nature is not benign. There are a lot of toxic substances in nature. The whole idea that there are a lot of dangerous chemicals in cosmetics is just bunk. The cosmetics industry does a lot of testing to ensure its products are safe. Sick and dead people do not make good customers."

But chemist Charles Friedman, who oversees development of Burt's Bees natural body-care and cosmetics line in Durham, N.C., says there is a qualitative difference between synthetic ingredients and the natural products that are similar to what humans produce from their own skin. "All Burt's Bees salves, balms, lotions, creams, butters, cleansers and treatments contain either -- or combinations of -- fatty acids, glycerin, triglycerides [vegetable oils], and wax esters [jojoba oil, beeswax, carnauba wax, candellila wax, lanolin]. The bottom line is that our products feed the skin because these ingredients are compatible with the skin."

But don't call them organic. Friedman says the limited availability of certified ingredients would make it difficult to produce a purely organic line. Still, sales of the company's new cosmetics collection, which includes appealing shades of lipstick, blush, eye shadow and pressed powders with prices ranging from $30 to $18, are soaring. "When one considers that the average lipstick user can ingest close to four pounds of lipstick in her lifetime," Friedman says, "we offer a welcome natural alternative."

Often people don't seek alternatives until they experience health problems. Brian Phillips, owner of World Salon in Toronto, went natural after contracting dermatitis from the chemicals he was handling daily as part of his job. After discovering that other staffers were also getting sick, Phillips banned perms from the salon. He introduced plant-based hair dyes after reading a University of California report linking hair dyes to bladder cancer. "Beauty shouldn't kill you," he says.

Jean Eng founded Toronto's Pure + Simple salon after a personal journey to address the effects of an adolescence plagued by acne. At 48, she looks about 20 years younger -- and with radiant skin. In addition to selling her own line of private-label products, Eng screens other brands claiming to be natural or organic before they enter her salon. She is part of a larger movement in the salon industry to offer alternative beauty treatments as part of a more conscious approach to what we consume.

Ivana Knezevic, an Eastern European chemist who recently opened Serenissima, a European-style apothecary in downtown Toronto, sells face and body products that she has created herself from all-natural ingredients. She says even the preservatives are natural, which means the products have a shelf life of two to three months. Knezevic's pharmacology training was plant-based, and she believes that natural is better for you. "We have a synergistic relationship with plants. Our chemistry is closer to theirs than to anything you would create in a test tube."

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