I have been wanting to write this post for a long time, so I'm happy to finally get around to it. Have you all heard of the term "greenwashing"? It basically refers to advertising that makes a product seem eco-friendly, "green", environmentally conscious, natural, healthy, etc. when it's really NOT. Being eco-friendly is gaining popularity (yay!), and those of us who are dedicated to being kind citizens of the planet and keeping our families' exposure to toxic chemicals to a minimum are sometimes willing to pay more money for products that are "green" (safe, healthy, clean, pure, kind). Well, don't underestimate those big companies. They smell money, and they're all over wanting a piece of it. Except that instead of actually changing their habits, they decide that it's easier to just seem that way and try to confuse us by throwing around words like "natural". I had heard about this phenomenon awhile back, but it took me awhile to really understand it. Reading things like "companies try to confuse you by making false claims" just made me feel exasperated. Ok, so what do I do? How do I not fall prey to their tactics? One really great resource is the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. It ranks tens of thousands of products according to the concerns/risks of individual ingredients. The only problem is that once you start looking through it, you may be overwhelmed by just how many products are harmful. That happened to me about 3 years ago, but keep in mind that these changes take time. And sometimes we don't get the chance to look through the database. You're standing in Target and your kid is about to lose it, you need to get something, so you might need a few more tricks up your sleeve. I'm going to share what I've learned about avoiding the greenwashing trap and show you some examples.
#1. Ignore the front of the bottle, and instead look at the ingredients. By the way, this goes for pretty much every kind of product, be it beauty products, hygiene products, or even foods. They can basically write whatever the heck they want on the front of the package: natural, organic, healthy, etc. It's all marketing, so just don't even read it. Just flip to the back and read the ingredients. If it has a bunch of crap that you don't recognize, it's probably greenwashing. Aveeno baby sunscreen is a perfect example of greenwashing. Look at this bottle of Aveeno baby sunblock:
Natural, pediatrician recommended, mild as water. Ooooooh, ahhhh, must be so nice. Ok, now look at the ingredients:
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone
Inactive Ingredients: Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Flour, Behenyl Alcohol, BHT, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Caprylyl Methicone, Diethylhexyl 2 6 Naphthalate, Dimethicone, Disodium EDTA, Ethylhexyl Stearate, Ethylhexl Glycerin, Ethylparaben, Glyceryl Stearate, Methylparaben, PEG 100 Stearate, Phenoxyethanol, Propylparaben, Silica, Sodium Polyacrylate, Styrene Acrylates Copolymer, Trideceth 6, Trimethylsiloxysilicate, VP/Hexadecene Copolymer, Water, Xanthan Gum
Just glancing through this list, I think I can assume that the average person has no idea what most of this crap is. Ok, oat flour, we understand that, and water. But there is a boatload of other gobbledygook in here. If you're accustomed to reading labels, the root "paraben" may be familiar to you– I see that three times here. Parabens have been identified as endocrine disruptors and are seen in breast cancer tumors. Not only that, but methylparaben, one of the ingredients here, has actually been shown through research (journals: Toxicology; Chemical Research in Toxicology) to lead to increased skin aging and DNA damage (i.e. cancer) when applied to the skin and exposed to UVB rays. Why the heck would that be in a sunscreen? A BABY sunscreen?!!! I'm not going to go into all of the ingredients here, but if you see a label with all kinds of stuff like this, you might want to avoid it. I will say that the EWG's skin deep cosmetics database lists this particular product as a 7 on their scale from 0-10, which falls in the "high hazard" category with the following high, medium, and low concerns:
HIGH concerns: Endocrine disruption, Multiple, additive exposure sources, Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), Contamination concerns, Occupational hazards, Biochemical or cellular level changes
MODERATE concerns: Persistence and bioaccumulation, Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive)
LOW concerns: Ecotoxicology, Data gaps, Enhanced skin absorption
#2. Consider the parent company. If it's a fortune 500 company, you probably want to stay away. Aveeno is made by Johnson & Johnson. In fact, the Aveeno baby wash ingredient list and formula is nearly identical to the classic Johnson's baby wash. Aveeno costs more, but it's basically the same stuff. Greenwashing. Companies that are really making green products are generally smaller and have a company-wide commitment to being green.
#3.Consider the store. I pretty much only shop at Whole Foods, even for body & household products (unless I make them). That's because I trust that Whole Foods has done diligent research for me and only chooses to carry products that are safe, healthy, and kind. It's worth it to me to pay a bit more for that convenience and to support a store that supports good companies. They also have an awesome guarantee that if you aren't happy with a product, they will give you store credit to try something else, even once the package is open. This makes me more willing to try out something new. If you're at Target or Walmart, or whatever big box store, you can sometimes still find good products, but it will probably take some more digging and more time. Many cloth diaper stores are starting to carry more natural body products, especially baby-oriented products. Baby Junk, my local CD store, has a few. You might also look around online, especially if you find a brand that you like and want to get the best price.
#4. Beware of unsubstantiated claims. On the Aveeno bottle discussed above, claims of "natural", "pediatrician recommended", etc were made, but there was nothing to back up these claims. Now let's look at a product that I think is a relatively good one. Here's the front of the bottle:
#5. Plan ahead. When you're rushed, you will be tempted to just grab the product you've always reached for. If you think about how you'll replace X product before it runs out, you will have the time to do the proper research. I started switching out household and body products 3 years ago, and I'm still not completely there, so remember that these things take time. But every time you spend money, you are making a choice about which companies to support. You're making a statement with those dollars as to what is a priority in your life.
Does this make your head spin? Me too! And have you seen the price tags on some of these more natural products? They are not cheap, my friends. Well, sometimes maybe. But that is why I think it is doubly important to make sure that when you do shell out extra money for better products that you are really, actually getting better products, and not just better marketing! It is also why I am making more and more products myself (it is easier than you might think!) and figuring out what I can go without. Paring down your product list and making some yourself has the extra bonus of helping to reduce your waste and might free up a little money in the budget for the more expensive products that you can't make or do without.
What other strategies do you use for choosing products? Which are your favorite body products?