Are Your Green Products Truly Green?

So, you’ve discovered the horrifying truth that toxic synthetic chemicals are ubiquitous and you eagerly pursue a green lifestyle. You throw out your household cleaning products and cosmetics and get ready to stock up on green alternatives.

Not so fast. Do these eco-friendly, toxin-free products actually live up to their claims?

As interest in green living has surged, companies have taken note. Many have debuted green alternatives to their popular products or promised to eliminate problematic ingredients forever. Unfortunately, there are no clear regulations for what constitutes “green.”

And in many cases, these new products are “greenwashed,” meaning they only pretend to be eco- and health-friendly for the sake of marketing. Others may swap out one problematic ingredient for another. Even companies that offer legitimate “green” products may inadvertently contain toxic ingredients or trace chemicals.

So, how can you tell which products will truly support your green lifestyle? And what can we do to get toxic synthetic chemicals off the market?

How to Tell Greenwashed Products from Truly Green Ones

Let’s be honest: most product manufacturers, especially the mega brands, don’t care about their products’ environmental and health effects. They want to make money. When they noticed that consumers were increasingly interested in eco-friendly alternatives, they targeted that niche with new “green” products.

Some were marketed as eco-friendly versions of existing products, usually by promising they’ve removed a problematic ingredient. However, the new formulas are often quite similar to the original and may even include toxic chemicals the main product does not. For example, Tide’s “Purclean” detergents received an F rating from the Environmental Working Group, while the basic detergent received a D. The difference? While Purclean does not use ethanolamine, known for its respiratory effects and impact on aquatic life, it substitutes sodium borate, a major endocrine toxin.

Other ostensibly “natural” products were released as entirely new brands or sub-brands. For example, Aveeno, which makes “active naturals” cosmetics, emerged from a division of S.C. Johnson and Son and was then purchased by Johnson & Johnson. Despite claims of being “natural” and “sustainable,” Aveeno contains octinoxate, parabens, phthalates, and microbeads.

Greenwashing relies on great copywriting and packaging design to trick consumers into purchasing. Look for key phrases such as “plant-based,” “pure,” “botanical,” “herbal,” and “organic.” If the brand’s design contains leaves, flowers, Earth, and other “green” graphics, be skeptical and check the ingredients list. Remember, just because a product contains essential oils or plant extracts doesn’t mean it’s devoid of toxic synthetic chemicals!

The Struggle of Green Beauty Brands

All that said, there are absolutely some legitimate green companies. In particular, the beauty industry has seen an influx of new players that strive to provide eco-friendly options that have been otherwise lacking. These “green beauty” brands include RMS Beauty, founded by makeup artist Rose-Marie Swift after her blood tested high for heavy metals and other toxins, and John Masters, a USDA-certified-organic line of haircare and skincare products.

Unfortunately, even these well-meaning companies may find undesirable toxins in their products. The main culprit is PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), the so-called “forever chemical.” Because PFAS linger in our environment for decades, they can be difficult to avoid while ingredients are collected, processed, and packaged into the final product.

Green beauty manufacturers tend to be small-scale operations who source their ingredients from third-party vendors. That limits their control over those materials’ creation and processing. Even if they don’t intentionally add PFAS as many big beauty brands do, the chemicals may hitchhike into green formulas. PFAS is also used to line plastics, fiberglass, and other equipment, and it may be present in the products with which products manufacturers clean their facilities. In short, there are multiple routes for PFAS contamination — even if the beauty company does its best to keep toxins out of its products.

Testing by Mamavation found that 65% of green cosmetics contained organic fluorine, some with levels above 100 ppm. (In comparison, the United States’ safety threshold for fluorine compounds is just 1 ppm.) Organic fluorine is considered a marker for PFAS contamination. A study by the University of Notre Dame found fluorine in more than half of 231 cosmetics, both “green” and otherwise. Among the most common toxins were chemical precursors to perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCAs), which have been linked to negative reproductive effects among both humans and wildlife.

You may wonder why green beauty brands don’t test all their products before going to market. The reason is that many manufacturers rely on marker testing, i.e. testing ingredients for chemical markers rather than doing a complete chemical workup of the final product. In sum, even well-meaning brands may be unaware of their products’ toxin levels.

When “Organic” Doesn’t Mean “Green”

In one small victory for the green-living community, the USDA does provide a certification process for organic products. The distinctive seal is a mark of authenticity in a sea of greenwashed foods, cosmetics, and cleaners. To be certified organic means that the product or its ingredients were grown without pesticides, GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, or irradiation.

However, organic farming has significant challenges. First, many farmers face barriers to organic methods, which tend to be much more land-intensive and expensive. In many cases, the soil requires extensive amendments to support the crops without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Even if they implement organic practices, farmers must overcome both logistical and bureaucratic hurdles to pass certification. Some feel that the process is too lenient and use stricter organic methods without ever getting certified!

In other words, don’t take the USDA Organic seal at face value, as some certified farmers do the bare minimum and some organic farmers simply don’t pursue certification.

Even if farmers’ methods are organic, the soil itself may be contaminated. PFAS, the forever chemicals, can linger in the ground for many years. Obviously, what’s in the soil will end up (at least in part) in the produce.

Many organic farms have only converted from conventional methods over the past few years. This means that PFAS remains at detectable levels in the soil. In one high-profile case, Maine’s Songbird Farm was shocked to discover high concentrations of PFAS on their land. The culprit? Likely the sewage sludge that was used to fertilize the soil before Songbird Farm began growing there.

Indeed, PFAS contamination is so pervasive that many organic farmers struggle to find clean soil in which to plant their crops. And of course, livestock raised in organic conditions must also drink clean water and graze uncontaminated grass — both of which are harder to come by these days.

Finally, just because the product itself is organic doesn’t mean its packaging doesn’t contain toxins. Organic fruits and vegetables are often sold wholesale, then wrapped up, rolled across equipment sprayed with cleaners, and so on. Some organic vendors sell their ingredients to food manufacturers, who then package their products in PFAS-lined plastic. With inconsistent regulation for processed foods, there’s virtually no guarantee that “certified organic” foods

There’s also the fact that every product must be packed and shipped miles away, potentially with refrigeration. This means the item’s carbon footprint may outweigh the pollution spared by growing it organically. Moreover, organic farming tends to use a lot of land and rely on cow manure as fertilizer, further increasing the carbon footprint. So while something may be “organic,” it may not be entirely eco-friendly.

Wrapping Up

So, what can we do to truly adopt a green lifestyle? At a certain point, PFAS and other toxins are unavoidable. The burden of cleaning up our planet should not fall upon a few green brands or organic farmers. They already face enormous challenges. Rather, we need systemic change to reduce or eliminate toxic synthetic chemicals as much as possible. The fewer that exist throughout our processing facilities and packaging plants, the cleaner all our products will be.

We also must become more conscientious consumers. Instead of relying on fancy green labels and “all-natural” claims, do your research before purchasing a product. Call out greenwashing when you see it. Once we create more demand for legitimately green products, we drive the innovation toward a more sustainable future.

This article was inspired by an interview with Leah Segedie, founder of Mamavation and the leader of multiple PFAS investigations into food and cosmetics products.

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