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Europe's Natural Beauty Products

Body+Soul, March 2007

In many ways, Europe epitomizes modern green living-small cars, bike-friendly streets, farmers' markets in every city. Now their shops are increasingly lining shelves with organic and plant-based beauty products, too. While we have our chemical-free sunscreens and organic body butters in the States, the green beauty phenomenon isn't as widespread. One reason? European companies can ensure the safety and authenticity of their products in ways their U.S. counterparts can't.

In 2003, the European Union approved an amendment to its Cosmetics Directive that bans or severely limits the use of more than 1,200 known (or likely) toxic chemicals in cosmetic products. Prohibited ingredients include dibutyl phthalate, a possible hormone disruptor found in nail polishes and perfumes, and acetamide, a potential carcinogen in hair products. In response, many manufacturers reformulated their products to comply. But here in the United States, neither of these ingredients is illegal to use. In fact, the FDA has banned only eight cosmetic ingredients. Since there's no incentive to produce or market the safe new European formulas in the States, few have made it across the Atlantic.

Part of the problem stems from the lack of separate governance of the cosmetics industry in the States-many of the rules for cosmetics were developed with food and drugs in mind. The same goes for organic beauty products. "The [U.S.] National Organic Program outlined in 1990 is basically for food," says Organic Trade Association spokesperson Barbara Haumann-not beauty products. The rules were partially extended to cosmetics in 2005, stating that if a personal-care product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, it can display the USDA Organic seal. However, a product with just one organic ingredient can also still say it is "Made With Organic Ingredients"-even if the rest consists of synthetic fillers, artificial dyes and fragrances, chemical preservatives, and petrochemicals.

Thankfully, our future looks brighter. In spring 2004 the Breast Cancer Fund, Friends of the Earth, and more than 50 personal-care companies signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a voluntary pledge to meet the standards set by the EU's Cosmetic Directive. (More than 450 companies have now signed; log on to safecosmetics.org to see the full list.) Meanwhile, a third-party certification group is drafting overall standards specifically for organic personal-care products, which they hope U.S. companies will adopt. If that happens, buying safer beauty products will no longer require a Ph.D. in chemistry. Until then, you can get a taste of healthy pampering, European-style, with these personal-care imports.

See Europe's Star Products.