As Beautycounter’s Head of Environment, Health, and Safety, Mia Davis receives many questions about skincare ingredients, including: “How can you have safe products if you use some synthetic ingredients?” People are understandably confused about the difference between ingredient “safety” and ingredient “source.”
“Safety” is about health. Does the ingredient or product in question have the potential to harm a person’s health, and if so, in what way and at what levels? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define “safe” for cosmetics ingredients or products, so it is currently up to companies to determine what “safe” means to them. Most companies start and stop with acute reactions (e.g. irritated skin as a result of using a product or ingredient).
At Beautycounter, we take the concept of safety much further. We research what is known about every single ingredient we consider using in our products; we look for toxicological information and evaluate potential long-term health effects. Most ingredients have big data gaps, meaning that there is a lack of information—they’ve never been assessed for their potential to cause cancer, reproductive harm, brain or organ toxicity, and more. When a chemical is understudied, that doesn’t mean it is safe. It just means that we don’t know about its potential effects. We try to give preference to ingredients with safety data over those without it, and we use comparative analysis of similar chemicals to determine whether we’ll allow an ingredient with a data gap in our products.
“Source” is about the origin of the ingredient or product. Is it a natural ingredient, meaning it was produced by nature without human intervention? Is it synthetic and was therefore made in a lab?
The source of the ingredient does not necessarily determine the safety of the ingredient. There is a lot of overlap between natural ingredients and safe ingredients, to be certain. But not all natural ingredients are safe, and not all synthetic ingredients are unsafe.
Lead, for example, is a naturally occurring metal that is harmful to human health. It’s ubiquitous in the environment, and even though it was banned from gasoline and paint decades ago, it is still commonly found in the soil and dust of many U.S. homes and businesses. It’s also frequently present in natural, mineral-based cosmetics, even though lead and other heavy metals do not appear on ingredient lists and cosmetics companies do not have to test for the presence of these compounds. Lead is natural, but it is not safe.
On the other hand, dimethicone, a silicone that is a synthetic chemical, is a large molecule that sits on the skin or hair, and has a very low hazard profile. Scientific evaluation indicates that its use in cosmetics poses little-to-no potential harm to people’s health. Some people have skin sensitivities to this ingredient, but no more than other ingredients, including natural ones. After reviewing a comprehensive toxicological review of the ingredient (which Beautycounter commissioned before we decided whether we’d use this ingredient), I believe it is safe for use in cosmetics.
The vast majority of synthetic chemicals come from oil or gas (depending on your definition, some can come from wood pulp and other natural sources). As an environmental and public health advocate, I will not unconditionally defend the petrochemical industry, which is often responsible for creating huge toxic messes in the ecosystem and in our own bodies. But to say or imply that natural ingredients are inherently safe and synthetic are inherently dangerous is worse that an oversimplification—it just isn’t true, and it serves to confuse the issue and actually put consumers’ health at risk.
If a cosmetics user is concerned about the safety of her products (and most of us are—who wants a carcinogen in baby shampoo?), she should ask the company what they are doing to ensure she’s getting the safest product possible. The naturalness of the ingredients may or may not play into the real safety of the products.