The battle for beauty
“Who is this that cometh out of the
wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed
with myrrh and frankincense, with all
powders of the merchant? “
–Songs of Solomon 3:6. The Old Testament:
King James Version.
“The aloe and essential oils work together to counter the drying effects and smell of the alcohol, creating a product that leaves my hands clean, moisturized, and smelling heavenly!”
–Teen cosmetics reviewer ”Emily,“ promoting
O Rosemary + Mint Hand Sanitizer,
listed for $3.99 on teensturninggreen.org.
By Joel Preston Smith
The battle being raged in California over green-washing in the cosmetics industry has all the hallmarks of a fiery Biblical sermon, delivered in static over The Home Shopping Network; there are pillars of smoke, promises of everlasting youth, a sacrificial David, multiple Goliaths, supermodel super-scientists, exotic dancers and nipple cream.
Maybe I’m reading the wrong Bible.
David—David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps—is real enough, as are industry giants Avalon, Jason, Estée Lauder, Ikove, Juice Beauty, Stella McCartney’s CARE, Giovanni and Nature’s Gate. Bronner’s company, headquartered in Escondido, Calif., filed suit April 28, 2007 in California Superior Court to force these cosmetics manufacturers, as well as two international certification organizations, Ecocert and OASIS, from making “misleading” green claims on their petrochemical-and-dioxane-laced products.
The drama resurrects the question of who, if anyone, regulates the cosmetics industry, how safe are personal-care products, what constitutes a tolerable falsehood, and what is merely self-evident, over-glossed free speech?
It also reveals the hidden side of an industry that blurs the distinction between consumer advocate and snake oil salesman, hawking the nebulous promise of perpetual youth, rejuvenation in an eight ounce bottle; the kind of immortality you remove each night with moist toilettes.
The Food and Drug Administration, which briefly prescribed a 9-mm. handgun as a “medical device” last December, wants to reassure American consumers that it is, vigilant, and well-equipped to shoot down any cosmetics offenders. “Strong federal safety requirements govern cosmetics and personal care products sold in the U.S.,” proclaims the FDA’s online guide to its oversight of cosmetics, “and it is a federal crime to put an unsafe cosmetic product on the market.”
Why then is David Bronner, son of Magic Soaps’ founder Emanuel Bronner, policing the industry?
“Because right now, it’s anything goes,” says Bronner. “They could be throwing in nuclear waste, and as long as they throw some aloe vera in with it, they’re getting away with claiming it’s organic.”
Bronner argues that the above-named companies are engaging in deceptive business practices and saturating the organics market with bogus, harmful products. Ecocert, an organic certifier based in France with subsidiaries in 11 countries, fired off a brief to the California court, arguing that its organic certification was merely intended as “free speech.”
“Basically, they’re arguing that it’s corporate puffery,” Bronner rejoins, “and that consumers understand that when they read the label. They’re saying they shouldn’t be held accountable for what’s actually inside the package. We’re saying we want them held accountable.” Bronner sent more than 100 products to an independent lab for product testing, and has made the toxicology results public in both his lawsuit and on the Magic Soaps’ website.
The FDA does claim that “improperly labeled or deceptively packaged products are considered misbranded and subject to regulatory action,” but gives stricter attention to the use of colorants than to ingredients. A request for a record of the agency’s law-enforcement actions against cosmetics manufacturers eventually produced public affairs specialist Sebastian Cianci, who said that a list of the agency’s regulatory actions would take several days to a week to compile. She has yet to return my calls.
Stella McCartney’s CARE bills itself as “everything your skin needs, and nothing it doesn’t” in a website, featuring a nude fashion model hugging a lamb. Avalon Organics’ website quotes blind-and-deceased beauty spokeswoman Helen Keller (“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”) and ensures shoppers that its products offer “the goodness of all natural and organic botanicals.” Giovanni Organic Cosmetics runs a website featuring a wheel within a wheel (which has to be seen to be believed), and notes that the poles (not Proles) of the world have drawn together “to form a new global domination,” birthing a new form of superhero—clad in leather, with nice abs—charged with fighting “the effects of damaged hair” strand by strand, armed with Giovanni’s all-organic “Magnetite Fe3O4.”
All these company’s “organic” products have tested positive for petrochemicals, or 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen, and by-product of the inclusion of ethylene oxide, which acts as a cleansing agent in liquid soaps, body washes and shampoos. Juice Beauty, Giovanni and Ikove all formulate products with cocamidopropyl betaine, a detergent whose use has led to increased reports of allergic reactions in the U.S., which promoted Medscape to confer the suspect petrochemical with the dubious distinction of “Allergen of the Year” in 2004.
If the companies who manufacture petrochemical organics can’t be kept in check, then surely the organizations that certify organic products are trustworthy. Wrong, Bronner contends in his suit. Bronner notes that OASIS, which fronts itself as the first U.S. Organic Standard for the Beauty and Personal Care Industry, “dropped their standards,” requiring only 85 percent organic products, in order to more broadly market its role as a certifier of organics.
“They’re getting away with it through what we call ‘water games,’” Bronner charges. “You just swap your [industrial or tap] water with water from aloe vera. You toss it in, and suddenly all your product turns organic! Our contention is that the main ingredients have to be organic.”
Cargo Cosmetics, in the fiscal quest to turn a brighter shade of green, has gone so far as to stamp seeds into its packaging, and hired starlet Lindsay Lohan and two other B-list celebrities to create five of the company’s 12 lipstick colors.
While the FDA may lack funding to regulate polarized superheroes, some have reasonably argued that the feds should throw a little more preemptive weight toward keeping toxicants out of cosmetics, and unsubstantiated claims off product labels.
The FDA, ironically, requires no pre-market approval or safety testing of cosmetics, which Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, claims is a formula for disaster. The most public and outspoken critic of cosmetics giants such as Revlon and Estée Lauder, Malkan has called attention to lead in lipstick, phthalates in skin creams and packaging, and a host of carcinogenic and neurological toxins delivered by an industry focused on the appearance of youth, vigor and vitality.
As the communications director for the San Francisco-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Malkan argues, “The FDA isn’t protecting consumers. There’s no real oversight, and very little testing. All you have to do to market a product is put it in a package.”
In 2004, concern over toxic ingredients in cosmetics inspired Jane Houlihan, director of research for the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. to launch Skin Deep, a searchable database of 41,027 personal-care products manufactured by 1,338 companies. Sean Gray, a senior analyst for the nonprofit, built the original platform for an interactive website that currently matches 8,228 ingredients in those products against 50 toxicity and regulatory databases.
The Skin Deep database is not a definitive toxicology resource; many of the products listed therein have significant “data gaps,” meaning that they may be listed as having a low health hazard simply because they haven’t been subjected to toxicology tests (as well as other studies). According to the Environmental Working Group, “Nearly 90 percent of ingredients have not been assessed for safety even by the [cosmetic] industry’s own safety panel.” For Example, tocopherol, otherwise known as Vitamin E (used in anti-aging creams, mascara, eyeliners and lipsticks), rates a Hazard Score of two in Skin Deep. While considered safe as a food or cosmetics additive by the FDA, the American Hospital Formulary Service recognizes that in some formulations and unique conditions, Vitamin E can cause liver dysfunction and is “potentially fatal” to low birthweight babies—not a circumstance of much concern to cosmetics users. But because it appears in a toxicology database, Skin Deep lists it (and some other typically safe ingredients) as a health concern.
A search for Jason’s Natural Cosmetics reveals 245 products, which rank in the health index from a baseline of zero, a “low” health hazard, to a “high hazard” of 10. The company’s Aloe Vera Pure Beauty Oil rates a zero, but Jason’s Satin Soap for Hands and Face includes not just rosewater; it also employs a witches’ brew of chemicals linked, in the Skin Deep matrices, to cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders, allergies, organ system toxicity, immunotoxicity, and skin, eye and lung irritation. One-hundred percent of facial cleansers and liquid hand soaps “have lower concerns” than Satin Soap, according to the database.
Pieces of silver
While organizations such as the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics emphasize public education and outreach, Bronner is stuck slogging it out in court, supported in part by the Organic Consumers Association. He says he’s spending from $10,000 to $20,000 every month in a legal battle he believes won’t likely draw a verdict until 2010. Bronner, whose company pulled in $29 million in gross revenues in 2008, says he had a few meetings with other organic suppliers prior to filing suit, looking for backing, but it came in the form of a pat—as in between the shoulder blades—not in the form of co-plaintiffs or financial support.
“I got a lot of verbal support, but no one other than the OCA wanted to sign on. They didn’t want to get kicked out of Whole Foods,” Bronner admits.
Gay Timmons, chairman of the board for OASIS, says Bronner’s lawsuit has no merit, partly because Bronner sued the trade association prior to its ever establishing a formal organic standard. Bronner filed April 28, 2008, only four months after OASIS signed its incorporation papers, and four months before the organization enrolled its first member under a what Timmons describes as a “draft working standard.”
Timmons notes that OASIS, counter to Bronner’s contention, has never lowered its standards. She says members earn the OASIS seal only if 85 percent or more of a product’s ingredients are certified organic—a requirement that hasn’t diminished since OASIS was founded. She also contends that OASIS does not allow ethoxylation—the chemical process by which fatty acids are made more soluble in water, and 1, 4 dioxane is created as a byproduct—in the manufacture of any of its certified products.
Backing, if it could be called that, has come in a peripheral lawsuit filed in May of 2008 by the California State Attorney General’s Office against Whole Foods Market California and its 365 Organic Everyday Value line of personal-care products. The suit also names Avalon Organics, Beaumont Products and Nutribiotic as defendants; the company’s products were found to contain 1,4 dioxane. The attorney general’s office is demanding that the goods be pasted with a warning label, “May Cause Cancer.”
The Whole Foods debacle is particularly troubling to Teens Turning Green, a program of the nonprofit group Search for the Cause, which initially crusaded online for cancer awareness and education, but which now largely counts web-hits on its beauty-product line at Whole Foods. Teens sprang from Search for the Cause, the brainchild of nonprofit developer and former television producer Judi Shils, whose alliances include the Pesticide Education Group, the Marin Cancer Project, Teens for Safe Cosmetics and the Marin Diary Project. Teens catwalks seven beauty products at the food giant, and will soon launch an eighth, according to 17-year-old spokesperson Carly Wertheim.
Wertheim, a senior at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., says she got involved in Teens after being “horrified at what the campaign had to teach me. The fact that there was so little regulation by the FDA scared me.”
She says Astara Skin Care (of Tulluride, Colo.) changed its ingredients under pressure from Teens. Indeed, the Astara website notes that its Bentonite Clay facial mask “did not quite meet Whole Foods Market Premium Body Care standards, so Astara company owner and former supermodel Sunny Griffin reformulated the product to meet these strict standards.”
Dawn Clifford, director of education for Astara, says she believes no harmful chemicals were ever present in Astara’s products. It was “reformulated,” she says, because Whole Foods didn’t want to sell a product that had simply been re-labeled under a different name.
Wertheim says that Teens also campaigned against cosmetics manufacturer Benefit in April 2007, collecting signatures and asking the San Francisco corporation for a product makeover. Benefit’s website makes no claims on being organic, but does note that its “rose-tinted lip & cheek stain, Benetint, was originally concocted in 1977 for an exotic dancer who requested something to make her nipples pretty & pink.”)
Shils notes that Search for the Cause does not actually search for a cause for cancer, but wants to encourage others to do so.
The end draweth nigh
Bronner says his company Magic Soaps, manufactured by All-One-God-Faith, Inc., is doing fine, going it alone against the cosmetics giants. With a tone of regret, he notes that Magic Soaps used to donate more to The Boys and Girls Clubs, Cornucopia and other charities, but the lawsuit gives him the chance to “go head to head, to create change.”
Ecocert recently argued in California Superior Court that the intent of Bronner’s lawsuit was to drag the corporation through “the proverbial mud and to engage in widespread and negative publicity aimed at sullying” the company’s good name. Judge John E. Munter tossed out that line of reasoning, allowing Bronner’s case to proceed to the stage of “preemption,” in which Ecocert and other defendants are expected to argue that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over cosmetics, and that the public must wait until that agency defines what constitutes an organic formulary for personal-care products.
Bronner has reached a settlement with both Ikove and Juice Beauty, and seems reasonably satisfied with the terms set for Ikove. Under the agreement, Ikove will not include major petrochemical compounds in their personal-care products.
“Sometime next year we expect to see their label change,” Bronner says. “And when an organic material becomes introduced in the market place they will reformulate. They’re also going to drop their claim to being organic.”
The settlement with Juice Beauty is a little more troublesome to him. “It’s a standstill agreement,” Bronner explains. “They’ve agreed to take out petrochemicals and have agreed to abide by the court’s decision, whatever it is. The one thing they didn’t agree to is that Beauty Organics should be subject to regulation.”
Timmons argues that Bronner’s suit isn’t just about free speech. “It’s about him trying to keep us from defining what constitutes an organic standard.”
Bronner sagely observes that California constitutes 20 percent of the U.S. market for personal-care products, and believes his lawsuit—if he wins—will establish a trend for the country as a whole.
“No one’s going to come out with a California [product] line. They’re going to have to reformulate for the entire U.S.”
•Report to the FDA an adverse reaction to a cosmetic: call (301) 436-2405 or email CAERS@cfsan.fda.gov.
• News from the Coming Clean Campaign (from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps): www.drbronner.com/usda_organic_body_care.html
• Search the Skin Deep database (by the Environmental Working Group) for a cosmetic, brand or ingredient:
• Sign (if you represent a nonprofit) the Compact for Safe Cosmetics: www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?list=type&type=45
•To order a Scents of the Bible perfume
set (brimstone excluded): visit
Joel Preston Smith is a Portland-based writer.