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From Overpriced Creams to Toxic Toiletries

By Mary Kearl, 2009

How safe is your daily beauty and hygiene routine? What about the products your kids use? Read on as Julie Gabriel, author of "The Green Beauty Guide: Your Essential Resource to Organic and Natural Skin Care, Hair Care, Makeup and Fragrances," reveals what the makers of your favorite shampoos, lotions, lipsticks and more beauty essentials don't want you to know about the safety, cost and effectiveness of their products. In the pop-up photo gallery, find Gabriel's top ten beauty commandments.

Continue reading Gabriel's best savvy shopping tips, below the photo gallery.

Thou Shalt Not... Buy beauty products that contain controversial ingredients. The culprits include: formaldehyde, phenols, sodium laureth sulfate, coal tar, toxic dyes, and synthetic fragrances.

Ten Commandments of Green Beauty

    Excerpted from "The Green Beauty Guide", by Julie Gabriel

    Here are the "Ten Commandments of Green Beauty." Memorize them and repeat them every time you crave that new shimmery pink blush, dreamily squeeze and sniff a flower-scented lotion at the beauty counter, or read about a celebrity must-have hair mousse in a glossy magazine. Once you learn these commandments, you will gain a better perspective on what you are really paying for at cosmetic counters, and whether any of this can hurt your skin and put you at risk for a serious medical condition in the future.

    Reprinted with permission by Health Communication, Inc. ©2008.


    Believe that you have to spend a lot of money on organic beauty products. Many inexpensive natural cosmetic lines have wonderful products that perform just as well as expensive ones because most plant extracts, vitamins, and minerals are not exclusive to one company. High-quality ingredients do not necessarily cost a lot more; many cosmetic companies buy ingredients from the same farm or wholesale supplier. There are many organic beauty manufacturers who grow their own ingredients, too. The only difference may be the concentration of these plant juices and extracts, and in the next chapters you will learn how to choose products that really deliver.

    Buy cosmetics based solely on advertising claims or celebrity endorsements. Very few celebrities actually use the products they advertise. Neither do models whose faces are used in the ads, no matter what models say in interviews. Read the label, scan the ingredients list online using the Skin Deep ( tool for chemical hazards, read online reviews, and then decide whether this product is worth your money or not.

    Believe that just because a cosmetic product is called "natural" it is generally safer. Cosmetics may claim to be "natural" or made with "organic" ingredients, but may still include paraben and formaldehyde preservatives, synthetic fragrances, phthalates, or other controversial ingredients.

    Believe there is such a thing as a magic beauty bullet. There are no secret ingredients that can instantly cure all your skin's woes, but there are many new, effective active ingredients that can do wonders for your skin.

    Compare your skin or hair to those of celebrities. And then spend hours moaning over a pimple, a wrinkle, or a stray lock. All celebrities are humans with their flaws and insecurities, and their picture-perfect skin is not due to the use of some secret potion but rather skillful hairstyling, makeup artistry, and computer retouching.

    Buy beauty products that contain controversial ingredients. The culprits include: formaldehyde, phenols, sodium laureth sulfate, coal tar, toxic dyes, and synthetic fragrances.

    Share or abuse your beauty products. Don't borrow mascara or lipstick, keep the jar of moisturizer open, lick the tip of your eyeliner, apply face cream with dirty hands, dilute shampoo with water -- simply put, contaminate your beauty products and shorten their life span. Never use beauty products when their "best before" date is overdue.

    Believe that you need every kind of moisturizer out there. That you need a special moisturizer for hands and another one for the rest of your body; that you need an eye cream and a separate face cream and a really cute neck serum; that you cannot use baby bath gel to cleanse your face; that you should have a different sunscreen lotion for each part of your body. In other words, do not let smart marketers manipulate you. Less is more, especially when it comes to organic formulations. From an oat scrub to a honey mask, the best things in beauty come incredibly cheap, and you don't need to spend tons of money to look great and be healthy.

    Believe that a celebrity endorsement makes it better. If a famous doctor, chemist, dermatologist, yoga guru, hairstylist, or movie star created the formula, it would not mean a world of difference. Lots of dermatologists, biologists, herbalists, and even aerospace engineers are involved in whipping up beauty products. It's the juice that counts, not the bottle, as Aubrey Hampton, the pioneer of organic beauty, used to say, and your skin doesn't care whose name is on the packaging. Read the ingredients list, ask smart questions about the concentration of particular ingredients, check reviews, be skeptical, and take everything with a grain of sea salt.

Beauty Expert Reveals Hidden Dangers

AOL Health: Your book reveals that a hidden cancer-causing petrochemical has been found at high levels in babies' and adults' personal care products. Why isn't it included on the ingredient list?

Gabriel: 1,4-Dioxane is not an ingredient that manufacturers knowingly add to shampoos or baby washes. It forms during a chemical process called ethoxylation, which makes chemicals less harsh and more "gentle." According to the Organic Consumer Association, ethoxylation is used to produce such common cosmetic ingredients as "myreth," "Oleth," "laureth," "Ceteareth," any other "eth," "PEG," "polyethylene," "polyethylene glycol," "polyoxyethylene," or anything that sounds like "oxynol" in the ingredients list. Some of the "organic" brands found to contain 1,4-Dioxane include JASON Pure Natural & Organic, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Kiss My Face and Nature's Gate Organics. No one has ever tested conventional skincare products for the presence of 1,4-Dioxane. I am afraid that such findings would be even more shocking.

AOL Health: In your book, you say that about 90 percent of cosmetic ingredients have never been analyzed for health impacts by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board. Why is that?

Gabriel: Unless a manufacturer comes up with a potion that dramatically alters the physiological functions of the skin, it is considered a beauty product -- something innocuous, harmless. But our skin is very capable of absorbing everything that touches its surface, and many cosmetic products today contain penetration enhancers that virtually push the chemicals into the skin. Most often, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review board analyzes the isolated chemical on animals over a relatively short period of time. We humans are exposed to a whopping amount of various chemicals every day over decades. Many of these chemicals are stored in our fatty tissue. No one can predict how these chemicals interact with each other and what "Molotov cocktail" we are brewing inside after 10 or 20 years of diligent "pampering."

AOL Health: You site a study that found that of the popular cosmetics tested, 80 percent contained phthalates -- which weren't listed on the label. How is that possible?

Gabriel: As chemicals, phthalates are known as gender-benders -- hormone mimickers that are capable of messing up our hormonal balance even at low doses. This puts us at higher risk for infertility, obsesity and hormone-related cancers such as breast, uterine and prostate cancers. Sadly, we are exposed to phthalates from a number of sources, including artificially fragranced skincare and makeup, air fresheners, car interiors, plastic packaging, wires -- even MP3 player accessories. While itís virtually impossible to eliminate all sources of phthalate exposure, we can still do a lot. For example... even I, with my dedication to using all green and natural, when it comes to skincare and makeup, canít resist Cool Water by Davidoff and Pleasures by Estťe Lauder. But Ö I donít spray the chemical fragrances all over my body. I apply one or two spritzes on my clothes.

AOL Health: What is the danger of using aluminum-containing antiperspirants?

Gabriel: Aluminum is another gender-bender... it mimics the action of human hormones and triggers various receptors associated with the sex hormone estrogen. Aluminum salt (potassium alum) in "rock" deodorants isn't any safer. Luckily, there are lots of very effective deodorants without aluminum available today. I've been test-driving quite a few, and I currently use Tom's of Maine roll-on deodorants, which are quite effective.

AOL Health: What are some easy tips for understanding beauty product ingredients?

Gabriel: Always look at which ingredient comes second in the ingredients list. Most often, water will be listed first, and water is water... Then scan the label down to the end of the list. As a rule, all "nasties" are listed at the end of the list. Some people assume that if something appears at the end of the list, only a very small quantity of a chemical was used. According to current legislation, ingredients that are used in concentration less than 1 percent can be listed in whatever order. But if you think about it, 1 percent is quite a lot. One percent is the equivalent of a teaspoon per bottle of shampoo or body lotion. Imagine that you rub a teaspoonful of something potentially cancer-causing all over your body. Does it make you feel healthy and glamorous?

AOL Health: Is the generic version of a beauty product as good as the brand name version?

Gabriel: It all depends on the ingredients. Active ingredients are rarely tied to one single brand, and there's a big chance that a manufacturer of a $200 moisturizer is sourcing the "magical" peptide from the same lab as the maker of a generic anti-aging cream. I often find that generic versions of popular skincare contain fewer chemical ingredients, which makes them potentially less irritating.

AOL Health: What does it mean when products contain the words "natural" or "organic"?

Gabriel: The word "natural" when it comes to cosmetic labels is pretty meaningless, unless it means a transparent, not-wearing-any-makeup coverage. You can take a few drops of aloe vera, add them to a mix of petrochemicals and preservatives, and it warrants the use of "natural" on the label. The word "organic" is very popular today. To make sure that it has any meaning, check out the ingredients list. How many ingredients are actually certified organic? The truly organic product will contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, not counting water.

AOL Health: What are some best practices for staying safe and healthy, when buying and using beauty products?

Gabriel: When you buy a product in a drugstore or a supermarket, choose the one that contains as few ingredients as possible. When you find something that works for you, buy in bulk and store the loot in a cool, dark place. I know it may sound unpractical, but making your own beauty products is really the only way to make sure you know what goes into your shampoo or body lotion. Youíd be amazed how easy it is to make your own body lotion and... you will be saving tons of money, too.

AOL Health: What else does the beauty industry keep hidden from the consumer?

Gabriel: As a member of a beauty industry, Iím going to spill the beans: Ingredients of the average $50 cream cost only around $1. Period. The rest of your money pays for the pretty jar, the lovely cardboard box, the advertising and the celebrity endorsements. This shocking gap between the price we pay and the real cost of the product prompted me to start making my own skincare. All of my cleansers, toners, moisturizers and anti-aging treatments are homemade, and my skin has never looked better.

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