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What is 'clean beauty'? TODAY Style investigates

by Emily Sher /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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We've all seen "grass-fed" this and "organic" that when we go food shopping at the supermarket. But is it important to care about the ingredients in your beauty and cosmetic products?

If this sounds complicated, you're not alone. While there's still debate on this topic, we've tried to answer some common questions below.

1. It's not like you're digesting these products as you do with food. Why do the ingredients in cosmetic products matter?

That's true, but what you put on your skin also gets into your system through a process called "dermal absorption," according to dermatologist Dr. Cybele Fishman.

"Your skin is your largest organ," she said. "You have to care about what you put on it."

2. OK, that makes sense. But doesn't the government regulate this?

Well, sort of.

"We can only take action within our legal authority, our limited information and our limited resources," Lauren Sucher, a press officer for the FDA, told TODAY in a statement.

She further explained that the FDA does not have the authority to approve products before they hit store shelves, nor can they recall a problem product. "We can ask a company to recall a problem product, and we’ll work with them to make sure the recall is effective," she wrote.

On behalf of the federal agency, Sucher also said that "in general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation."

This doesn't mean our products are dangerous, but it does put a lot of responsibility on the consumer to understand what they are purchasing.

As a start, a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress in 2017 hopes to strengthen the FDA's authority and update the regulations so that the agency would have to evaluate a minimum of five ingredients per year.

Natural makeup and skin care
Jake Heller / TODAY

3. Woah. Are there actually ingredients which I should be concerned about?

That's the big question. One major debate is about ingredients like phthalates and parabens, which are considered "endocrine disruptors." These chemicals may alter hormones, according to a recent report from a leading scientific organization.

“Emerging evidence ties endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure to two of the biggest public health threats facing society — diabetes and obesity," the Endocrine Society wrote in a press release. "Mounting evidence also indicates EDC exposure is connected to infertility, hormone-related cancers, neurological issues and other disorders."

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who co-sponsored the congressional bill, posted the following on her site about propylparabens: "According to scientific studies, chemicals that mimic estrogen can disrupt the endocrine system and have been linked to a wide range of health effects, including reproductive system disorders."

In their statement to TODAY, the FDA wrote: "At this time, the FDA doesn’t have any information showing that cosmetics containing phthalates and parabens are harmful to consumers when the products are used as intended. We’ll continue to evaluate new data on these and other ingredients as it becomes available."

But Dr. Heather Patisaul of the Endocrine Society said there is "abundant evidence" that even low doses are cause for "significant concern," especially if the exposure is long term.

TODAY reached out to representatives from the Personal Care Products Council, which comprises most of the major cosmetic brands in the U.S., for a response.

“Personal care products remain one of the safest product categories regulated by FDA," they wrote in a statement. "The industry takes its responsibility for product safety very seriously. Consumers can continue to use the personal care products they have trusted and relied on for more than 100 years.”

Natural makeup and skin care
Jake Heller / TODAY

4. Should I just buy all-natural everything to be safe?

Not exactly — and that's where it gets tricky.

Be aware that many brands use this movement as a marketing strategy with unofficial words like "natural" or "botanical" that are not regulated by the FTC.

And this isn't as simple as chemical products being bad for you and natural ingredients being better for you. When you think about it, poison ivy is all natural and yet very harmful to humans. In the same regard, some man-made chemicals may be completely harmless.

That's why it's important to turn the bottle around and read the ingredients label itself.

5. I'm not a scientist! Where do I even begin?

"You don't need to be perfect when it comes to skin care or anything else in your life," Fishman said. She suggests doing some research to find where you stand and then avoiding any chemicals that give you pause.

For the most part, she said, people do too much to their skin anyway. In other words, it's best to keep your beauty routine simple.

And be aware of "fragrance" when it's listed as an ingredient. It's considered a trade secret so manufacturers do not legally need to disclose of what it is comprised. So if you're at all concerned about chemical exposure, it's important to be aware.

6. OK, but what do some of these official-looking labels on the bottle mean?

We've created a nifty chart that explains what some of the symbols on your product mean. Download it here and take it with you!

TODAY

Be sure to double check the legitimacy of all organizations before you trust their approval!

This story was originally published on Jan. 19, 2016 on TODAY.com.

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