The Lies my Makeup Told Me

An Introduction to “The Lies my Makeup Told Me”

There isn’t an official definition cosmetic companies follow to use the terms “natural” or “all-natural”. You know that “all natural” lipstick from your favorite brand in your makeup bag? Well, girlfriend, heavy metals and harsh chemicals can enter into cosmetics in trace without any sort of indication on the label, even in so-called natural products.

When a product is called “all-natural”, it means that all the ingredients inside come from natural sources. This means both “natural materials that have been processed only” and ingredients that are fully “naturally-derived”. If the product includes ingredients that are part-natural/part-synthetic derived, the product should NOT be called “all-natural”.

Some brands will skirt the issue by saying “made with natural ingredients”, or from our “all-natural line”. Here’s what they don’t tell you: the amount of the makeup you’re using that is not naturally-derived is NOT REQUIRED. Are you willing to trust these claims? Didn’t think so.

Never fear, Dr. Irene has the answers on how to protect yourself from the (literally) gross exaggerations of some unethical natural brands

Look for seals (logos) from third-party organizations like the NPA (Natural Products Association), who have developed a program for verifying that products meet a certain standard for natural.


The Lies my Makeup Told Me

 by Dr. Irene Reyzis




There are no federal regulations that define or oversee what it means for a product to be “natural”. To most people the term implies the ingredients come from natural sources and have been minimally processed post-harvest. It also implies a product is free from synthetic ingredients. To most people the term synthetic means ingredients that are not found in nature and/or that have been manufactured from industrial starting materials like petroleum.

Let’s explore this concept – what does it truly mean to be synthetic? The English dictionary (Merriam-Webster) defines synthetic as:

“made by combining different substances : not natural. Specifically (1) : of, relating to, or produced by chemical or biochemical synthesis; especially : produced artificially <synthetic drugs> <synthetic silk> (2) : of or relating to a synfuel”

So what does it mean to be synthetic in terms of cosmetic ingredients? Without getting into too much chemistry there are a couple ways to think about this question. The first way it can be defined is whether or not it took any kind of chemical reaction to make the ingredient or not. Was the ingredient generated by taking material A + material B to make material C in a chemical manufacturing plant? Or was it just a matter of taking a naturally-sourced material (like a plant seed or leaf), and processing it post-harvest to make something more pure like a seed oil or a leaf extract?

Looking more closely at the A + B = C way of making cosmetic ingredients, it is important to note that the starting materials A and B can come from either natural sources or “synthetic” sources like petroleum (crude oil) or silicone. When both A & B come from natural sources, C is usually considered to be natural as well. This is what it technically means to be “naturally-derived” (now you know!). These naturally-derived (but chemically-synthesized) ingredients a lot of times mimic compounds that exist in nature, even though there was a chemical reaction involved in their manufacture. The chemical reactions often resemble those that happen in nature too. This is sometimes referred to as “green chemistry”.

Example of chemical reaction to make a naturally-derived ingredient:

Vegetable Glycerin + Palm Fatty Acid => Glyceryl Palmitate (a naturally-derived ingredient)

When both A + B come from petroleum or other synthetic sources, the resulting chemicals may or may not resemble anything that exists in nature. That is also the case when A comes from natural sources but B does not.

The other thing to be concerned about when you start with synthetics is the chemical reactions are not always 100% complete, so you may end up with trace amounts of starting material contaminating your finished ingredient. When making ingredients like PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, for example, materials like ethylene oxide or dioxane may ultimately end up in the product which ends up on your skin. This is one way harsh chemicals can enter into cosmetics in trace amounts without any sort of indication on the label.

Example of fully synthetic reaction:

(Ethylene Oxide x 12) + Dimethicone = PEG-12 Dimethicone

Example of part-synthetic reaction:

(Ethylene Oxide x 20) + Stearic Acid (from Palm) = Steareth-20

So in summary, it is possible to categorize cosmetic ingredients by these two principles:

(1) origins of the starting materials: Natural (plant, animal, insect, mineral) vs. Non-natural (petroleum, silicones, coal tar).

(2) whether or not the starting materials were combined in a chemical reaction to make the ingredient

Illustrative table (two options):

Natural material that has been processed only, no chemical modification Chemically Synthesized, 100% natural starting materials Chemically Synthesized, 100% synthetic starting materials Chemically Synthesized, but both natural and synthetic starting materials

Examples: Sunflower

oil, Coconut oil,

essential oils, Beeswax,

Lanolin, Milk protein,

Green tea extract Glyceryl Stearate, Decyl Glucoside, Sorbitan Olivate, Cetyl Palmitate PEG-12 Dimethicone, Propylene Glycol, Carbomer PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Chemically Synthesized Processed only (includes plant extracts, refined oils, etc.)

Natural starting materials

(plants, animals, insects) Glyceryl Stearate, Sorbitan Olivate Sunflower oil, Jojoba oil, Beeswax, Silk Protein

Non-natural starting materials

(petroleum, siloxanes) PEG-12 Dimethicone Mineral oil, Petrolatum

Both natural and non-natural

starting materials PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil Does not exist

Natural and Organic Claims

So now that we fully understand the nature of what it means to be natural, let’s look at claims relating to natural ingredients in cosmetic products. Most of the time, when a product is called “all-natural”, it means that all the ingredients inside come from natural sources*. This means both “natural materials that have been processed only” and ingredients that are fully “naturally-derived”. If the product includes ingredients that are part-natural/part-synthetic derived, like PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, the product should technically not be called “all-natural”.

For products that aren’t truly all-natural, a lot of times you will see the claim “made with natural ingredients”. While it is probably true for most products that say it, the disclosure of just how much of

the formula is actually natural or naturally-derived is not required. It may be 1% or even less of the formula that is actually made of natural ingredients, but the claim is still perfectly legal. That is why it helps when looking at products to see if they share what percent of the formula is natural exactly.

Take-home point: there is no official definition or criteria with which cosmetic companies must comply in order to use the terms “natural” or “all-natural”. Companies are of course legally obligated not to make blatantly false claims on their labels, but since there is no binding definition, the fine lines are blurry, there are multiple shades of grey, and interpretation of the term throughout the cosmetic industry is inconsistent and loose. It often helps to look for seals (logos) from third-party organizations like the NPA (Natural Products Association), who have developed a program for verifying that products meet a certain standard for natural.

As a side note, products labeled “organic” must be certified to have met the government’s strict organic standards by an USDA-accredited, third-party certifier. The terms “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable. Organic tends to refer more to how natural products were cultivated in terms of agricultural, wild-harvesting and animal husbandry practices. There is a focus on avoiding use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as well as sustainability and techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control to maintain good soil condition.

Table: Summary of ingredients allowed and not allowed in natural products certified by the NPA


Synthetic fragrance – fragrances that use petroleum-

based solvents for extraction as well as purely

synthetic additives Fragrances made with compounds that exist in natural (like Limonene, Citronellol, Cinnamic acid). Any natural fragrance ingredients are allowed, as long as their production uses allowed process as stated in The Natural Standard.

Chemical preservatives such as

Methylisothiazolinone, DMDM Hydantoin/Diazolidinyl

Urea, Parabens Natural preservatives such as Lactoperoxidase, Gluconolactone, Benzoic Acid, Capryloyl Glycine, Glyceryl Caprylate

Chemical anti-oxidizing agents such as BHA and BHT Antioxidants like Vitamins E and C

Synthetic thickeners made from petrochemicals like

Carbomer, PVP/Acrylates (may contain residual PAHs

which are widespread pollutants) Natural thickeners like Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Cellulose

Synthetic emulsifiers – have a petroleum-derived

component, like Polysorbates, ingredients ending with

“-eth” (e.g. Laureth-4), and those with “PEG” in the

name (e.g. PEG-150 Distearate) Naturally-derived emulsifiers made through allowed processes like Glyceryl Stearate, Sorbitan Olivate, Cetearyl Glucoside, Cetyl Alcohol.


Most people understand a vegan product as one that does not include any animal-derived ingredients or by-products, and did not involved any animal testing in its production. The next question is usually “what are animal by-products?” Those would be ingredients that come from animals or materials sourced from animals like milk, eggs, tallow (beef fat), gelatin, collagen and keratin.

It is important to note that “vegan” is not a regulated term. Producers are allowed to put it on labels and packaging without having to prove to anyone how vegan the product is. There is no universal authority on the matter, so producers are allowed to go by their own definition of it. Consumers often have to

take the manufacturer’s word for it when products are labeled vegan. Unfortunately that may not be enough reassurance for some folks. For those who are truly concerned about using vegan and cruelty-free products, they can look for products with specific logos meant to verify the product is actually vegan and not tested on animals.

The thing about animal-derived ingredients is it’s not always clear what they are by names on the label. An example is lanolin. Lanolin is a waxy substance commonly used in lip balms and products for dry skin. Not everyone realizes this ingredient is derived from purification of oils found on sheep’s wool, and wool is also where most cosmetic keratin is sourced. The making of lanolin and keratin is not necessarily a harmful to sheep, but technically these materials are still animal by-products because of their sheepish origins.

The other aspect of veganism that not everyone thinks about is that some ingredients are derived from insects. This applies to products containing beeswax – they are technically not vegan in the eyes of a purist. Neither would be any colored cosmetic containing the red pigment carmine derived from a species of beetle found in South America. Additionally, there are plenty of hair products out there that feature silk proteins as ingredients, which some people know come from fibers produced by the silk worm.

A word about logos and certifications

A lot of organizations legally “own” logos that verify a product is natural, organic, cruelty-free, vegan, etc. They allow companies to use them on labels only if products are deemed to meet certain quality standards or criteria set up by the organization. Federal and independent, third-party organizations certifying a product is what it says it is according to their criteria offers customers reassurance that there is some degree of validity behind product claims.

The caveat is that many companies who have products that are truly natural, vegan, cruelty-free, etc will opt not use logos for various reasons. Usually because the work involved in getting one can be tedious and costly. In truth not all companies will go through the effort, even if they make products that happen to be the same quality as products that do use the logos. Outside of relying on logos, it also helps to do your own research on ingredients and directly contact cosmetic companies when you have any questions about their claims.

Contains XYZ beneficial ingredient

It is not uncommon for companies to put trace amounts of desirable ingredients in a product, AKA the cosmetic actives. Ingredients that are skin-beneficial like vitamins are often included at levels of less than a hundredth (0.01%) or even a thousandth (0.001%) of a percent. Realistically there is a very low likelihood that ingredients are doing anything helpful for the skin when present in such low amounts. However, it is still permissible for companies to describe this ingredient on the label and give consumers an impression that it is providing some kind of skin care benefit.

For all cosmetics and most types of OTC products, no proof of effectiveness is required ? to be able to market a product for a particular claim.


People with skin allergies may react to a variety of ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products. That’s one reason why the FDA provides no official definition for classifying these products as hypoallergenic. However there are a few ingredient categories where the members on average are more likely to trigger allergic skin reactions compared to most other ingredient types. These ingredient categories include fragrances (both synthetic and natural) and chemical preservatives.

Given the lack of legally-binding criteria for calling a product hypoallergenic, it is no surprise how often this term is used throughout the cosmetic industry. Any dermatologist would agree the claim is used describe a wide range of products with varying potential to actually trigger allergies. It may be used to describe products loaded with harsh irritating chemicals as much as it may be used to describe something that truly has a lower likelihood to cause skin reactions. The worrisome part is that this happens without any way for consumers to discern the difference between legitimate hypoallergenic claims and ones that are just thrown out there to make a product seem more desirable in the eyes of the consumer.

On the industry side there is a common practice of validating hypoallergenic claims that includes conducting clinical skin patch tests, but this is not a legal requirement. It is performed at the discretion of cosmetic companies for their own reassurance that they have scientific data backing up their claims in case of a lawsuit. Many of the large-size, mass-market companies will front this cost because they have a lot of money and a lot to lose if somebody were to press charges. On the flip side, there are many small and medium-sized companies that would rather save on the cost of conducting clinical tests and use the claim without any sort of substantiation.

Basically the claim is out there for cosmetic companies to use however they want, and each is allowed to have their own interpretation of what it actually means for a product to be hypoallergenic.

Given the lack of legally binding criteria and how the definition of hypoallergenic can be different from company to company, from product to product, there stands an important question – if there was a universal definition of hypoallergenic, what should it be? Well, there was a time when the FDA did try to establish one. They proposed it in 1974, and said using the claim should require scientific tests to show significantly lower rates of adverse reactions in human skin from use of the products with the claim versus products without it. However, two large-scale producers of hypoallergenic cosmetics challenged this rule in court with the charge that the FDA had no authority to issue it, and the regulation was ruled as invalid. (read more about this in Medscape article)

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