By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

With all the talk about natural cosmetics, organic makeup and getting the chemicals out of personal products, you’d think that finding basic, non-toxic facial foundations would be a simple matter.

MAKEUP Volkova dreamstime

Finding a pure foundation requires good eyes — with which to read the label. (Photo: Volkova/dreamstime.)

You’d be wrong. We took five foundations that claim to be “natural” and free of concerning chemicals and matched them against Skin Deep, the database that rates makeup for toxicity.

The results surprised us. And they remind us once again that the labels touting “organic”  and “natural” ingredients, can be deceiving in body products. A cosmetic can use those labels, and still contain compounds that raise red flags.

In many cases, the words “organic” on the label may only mean that some of the ingredients are organic. The cosmetics industry is not as tightly regulated as the food business where products must meet certain strict criteria to win the USDA’s “Certified Organic” label. In cosmetics, the wording “organic” may be more about marketing. When products are partially organic, yet use the label, the Organic Consumers Association calls them “organic cheater brands.”

Happily, our search for a non-toxic foundation was not an exercise in futility. We found pure formulations that we can slather on without being dogged by doubts about their long-term safety. We found them among five foundations we tried. We chose these five because they claim to have organic and natural pedigrees and seemed to represent a sampling of what’s out there on the market:

  • Christopher Drummond’s “Beyond Mineral Makeup”
  • Almay’s pure blends cream foundation

First a word about our method. Skin Deep, the database we used, was put together by the Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C. and is widely considered to be a responsible, public-use source of information. It is intended to help people sort out the labels — not to scare them, but to help them find out more about what that tiny type on the back of their makeup, body lotion or bath oil really means.  The database flags all sorts of ingredients, from those that may only irritate your skin to those that could alter your body chemistry enough to increase your risk of cancer, fertility problems or thyroid issues.

Dangerous compounds in cosmetics aren’t likely to sicken you overnight, but increasingly scientists worry about the accumulation of chemicals in our bodies that could make us vulnerable to diseases over time.

The EWG uses the term “body burden” to describe this threat.  As we add pile on the body products – shampoo, lotions, makeup – the chemicals in them (parabens, phthalates, nanoparticles, mercury, to name but a few) accumulate in our bodies, creating a chemical “burden” that scientists are only beginning to understand. The EWG advocates believe that we should be aware of the presence of these chemicals, and try to reduce our exposure to them with the conservative and judicious use of body products. Put another way, there’s no need to run screaming from your bathroom (unless you’ve spotted a dangerous spider in there), but you should peruse the labels and reduce your contact with the chemicals of concern. Until more is known.

We tried foundations, because they’re right there on your skin, all day long. If anything should be pure, these should be. So here is what we found:

Aubrey is a pretty big name in natural and organic products and we were pleased to find that they had a mineral foundation in large containers, making it more affordable than many comparable brands (around $25). It went on smooth and worked to cover fine imperfections.

Aubrey's Silken Earth mineral foundation
Aubrey’s Silken Earth mineral foundation

But turns out the words “organic” on the label aren’t a foolproof way to choose a foundation. The Skin Deep database gave this product a Level 3 or “Moderate Hazard” rating on its 10-point scale. The reason, mainly, was the inclusion of “silica” – which sounds and is natural – but has been linked to cancer and “organ system toxicity”, according to the database. It can be rated low, moderate or highly toxic, depending on its product usage and the risk of inhalation, and in this case EWG assigned this ingredient a high hazard rating. Still, this is a tricky matter. As with many cosmetics, there is a significant “information gap” because so little is known about cosmetics formulations — the ingredients are not well studied and U.S. laws do not require any independent reviews.

Aside from the silica, most of the remaining ingredients in the Aubrey foundation were considered in the safe range. We reached two conclusions: We were surprised this product wasn’t listed as “low hazard” and we could envision it moving into the safer category with small changes, potentially.

This is a new line that looks quite promising. It’s hand-crafted, all natural and based on organic ingredients. We were excited to get a small sample of this makeup, which makes an earnest effort to leave all the bad stuff out.  There’s no titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and bismuth oxychloride — which are not chemicals of high concern, but can irritate skin, according to Drummond, a celebrity makeup artist. The coverage with this foundation was terrific, and though it felt a tad heavier than some mineral foundations, it was a smooth feeling and not drying.

The foundation of this foundation was new to us; it relies on organic cornstarch and White Kaolin clay as the base ingredients.

Skin Deep does not rate this product in total, so we looked up those two key ingredients in the database. The reports were encouraging, both the cornstarch and the Kaolin clay are listed as having “No Toxicity” (the cornstarch) or “Low Toxicity” (the clay). Based on these ingredients this makeup would receive a 0 or 1 rating, about as good as it gets on the harmful chemicals barometer.

The remaining ingredients are mainly essential oils, some of which can irritate skin in larger amounts, like Bergamot oil, which gets a 2 rating on Skin Deep. The Bergamot was not irritating in our experience. It was nice to see a new line that’s truly pure and non-toxic.  Kudos to Drummond for bringing it to market.

We tried this foundation in “light” (which sometimes makes a difference in the ratings) — over many years, in fact. A pioneer in mineral makeup, they seem to have gotten it right.

The foundation in light scored a 2, which is in the Low Hazard category on the Skin Deep scale. This product gets a favorable mention for providing sunscreen coverage – and the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in this product are listed as “Non-Nano” versions, a plus because so little is known about the safety of nanoparticles, which are creeping into many sunscreens and cosmetics. Early word from activists is that nanos may not be so healthy for our skin.

As for the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, these are additives that create color and act as sunscreens in skin products. The EWG has decided that their benefits in providing sunscreen cover outweighs any slight risks. (Though Chris Drummond will tell you they can be drying and irritating, which may be true for some users).

A concern: Bare Escentuals, even though it has achieved great success and is a mainstay at Sephora and other beauty bars, has not signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, which would require full disclosure of all ingredients and that the company comply with EU Cosmetics Directive, which bans certain known toxics.

This was one of two liquid foundations we tried. Almay has branded itself as clean and pure, and the claim on the label that this product is 97.4 percent “natural” was intriguing.

We were back up at a 3 or Moderate Hazard rating, however. In this case, the offending agent was sodium borate, which was listed as being linked once again to “organ system” toxicity and reproductive effects. To see the references for this conclusion, visit the Skin Deep report on sodium borate, which is used in cosmetics as a ph balancer. The gist of it: It’s considered safe in cosmetics, depending on the concentration. Here again, we don’t know enough to judge, which seems to be reason #805 for more government regulation and better disclosure.In sampling it, we first had to readjust to the liquidity of it. It seemed positively watery next to the mineral products, but it was blend-able and felt light on our skin. Thankfully, it dried, leaving a little sheen, which was not unappealing, just notably different than the matte effects of the mineral makeups. It also smelled great, which raised our suspicions. What this yet another of the countless products that chase out the harmful ingredients, only to sour the deal with synthetic fragrances?
We were pleasantly surprised. Apparently, that scent is from essential oils from pansies!

In the end, Almay’s pure play was OK — free of talc, free of parabens as advertised — but not as pure as pure could be.

We felt compelled to try this one with its claim of being organic and natural and formulated by physicians, or so the labeling implies. First, it did wear well. As one would expect from a tinted moisturizer, it was not as heavy as a liquid foundation. But it did even out the skin, imperceptibly. Take that or leave it, depending on what you’re looking for.

It has sunscreen protection, but it uses Titanium Dioxide in nanoparticles.Here’s the interesting part, though. For all its natural and organic claims (that it is made with non-GMO plant products and contains no parabens), this product ranked highest on the hazard scale of all those we tried, a 4 — making it a Moderate Hazard. The ingredients of concern: alcohol and aluminum hydroxide. (Get your aluminum out of your deodorant just in time for it to sneak back in in your foundation!)

In addition, Physician’s Formula is not a signer of the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.

And yet, a caveat is in order here with regard to the Aubrey, Almay and Physicians Formula products. Of all the many foundations out there, these still rate better than most. Many of the top labels have foundations ranked at the high end of the Moderate Hazard range, with some “age-defying” products hit the buzzer in the “High Hazard” category.

From our small sampling, we can say this: When you see pure and organic, it may not mean pure and organic. Think of it as  meaning “better than average”. And if you buy something, regardless of its pure and organic claims, check it out at Skin Deep.