How Herbs Can Help Your Looks

Modern cosmetics contain a laboratory's worth of synthetic chemicals, virtually all of which are deemed safe — or safe enough — by the government. Unfortunately, that's not much of a guarantee. Many people choose herbal self-care products over comparable conventional products because of concerns over safety.

Regulation of Cosmetics and Self-Care Products

The rules governing the marketing and sale of personal care products are enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Current regulations prohibit companies from selling “adulterated or misbranded” products — things that contain (or are packaged in containers that contain) poisonous or dangerous substances, are spoiled or contaminated, or have labels with false or misleading information. (A big exception to this rule is hair dyes, which are made with known carcinogens.)

They also require manufacturers to list a product's ingredients and any other information necessary for a consumer to make an informed purchase. If a product contains ingredients that are restricted (such as cancer-causing hair dyes or foaming bath agents, which are known irritants), its label must include the appropriate warning.

What the FDA doesn't control is a product's actual composition: what's in it, how (and if) it works, and if it's safe. Unlike drugs and medical devices, cosmetics fall outside the agency's premarket approval authority, meaning the FDA can step in and try to stop the sale of a product or take action against the company that's selling it only after it's been shown to be in violation of the law. Cosmetics firms, believe it or not, are on the honor system when it comes to manufacturing and selling products that are safe.

Why Herbs Are the Better Choice

Of course, herbs and herbal products fall under the same rules (or lack thereof) that the lab-created cosmetics do, and a skin cream made with jojoba (a natural moisturizer) isn't inherently safer than one made with triethylhexanoin (a synthetic). Unless you grow your own botanicals — and control the seeds you plant, the water you give them, and the dirt you plant them in — you can't be completely sure of what you're getting.

As is the case with conventional products, you also can't always trust the label: There's no official definition of “natural” when it comes to consumer goods, meaning a manufacturer can slap a green label onto a products that's entirely lab created. If you're buying packaged products, be sure to read the label carefully. (For more, see Chapter 17).

The Environmental Working Group reports that nearly 90 percent of the ingredients in personal care products have not been assessed for safety. Many products contain ingredients that are known toxins and are linked to serious health problems, including cancer and neurological damage. More than 400 products being sold today have been found to be unsafe even when used as directed.

Despite these issues, in most cases, you're still better off with herbs than synthetics. Because they're made with ingredients that are almost always gentler and less likely to cause a reaction than their synthetic counterparts, herbal cosmetics and personal care products generally are a better option.

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