Essential oil safety is probably the most talked about subject in aromatherapy. And probably the most confusing too. Although essential oils have been used for hundreds of years, there’s not a lot of scientific evidence to refer to. Since essential oils cannot be trademarked, big companies don’t want to invest in it and small companies can’t afford it. Which leaves whatever information you can find online, in books, in classes or from suppliers. And it’s difficult to tell if the author is an expert or an amateur. Sometimes even the experts don’t agree, but it’s usually to do with the amount of caution they’re comfortable with. Now I’m certainly not claiming to be an expert, but here are some guidelines most experts will agree on:
It’s helpful to remember that essential oils are highly concentrated, and their properties need to be respected.
For more information see Robert Tisserand’s site (a highly respected expert) at https://tisserandinstitute.org/safety/safety-guidelines.
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That’s a tough question! My short answer would be, if you’ve bought your cosmetics in the European Union (EU), you can certainly consider them safe. If you’ve bought them here in Canada, you can consider them mostly safe. If you’ve bought them in the USA, I would personally throw them in the trash (or become an expert label reader)! In an earlier blog, I talked about what Health Canada does to control cosmetics and compared that to the EU and the US. Read it here.
Now grab a coffee and a chair because tough questions don’t scare me! My long answer would have to factor in when ingredients are banned or restricted, scientific research, opinions and bias (industry influence, media coverage), contaminants, the type of risks we are willing to accept, how you use the ingredient, the amount of it in a product, available alternatives and whether we’re talking about human safety or environmental safety (not an exhaustive list!).
I can see your eyes glazing over already but stick with me. You can either do the work yourself, and believe me, it’s not easy, or you can do a little bit of work to find someone you trust to guide you. Maybe, even me! Either way, the only way to discern what is safe is for you is to be aware of all the factors. At the end, I’ve attached my own list of ingredients of concern for your reference.
You see, here in Canada, ingredients are banned or restricted only when its proven that they ARE harmful. This poses quite the problem as most companies aren’t going to spend the money to test this. The groups that care about ingredient safety often don’t have the funding to sponsor the research. So, we have to wait until there’s a number of reported incidents or there’s a public outcry about an ingredient that triggers Health Canada to consider performing a risk assessment. See Health Canada’s Hotlist. By contrast, in the EU, an ingredient has to be proven safe before it’s accepted for use.
New ingredients are only screened by Health Canada and there are a LOT of new synthetic ingredients coming out all the time.
So, what does science have to say about all of this? Not that much unfortunately. As I mentioned earlier, research is costly and someone has to foot the bill. There are some studies that are done but not published because the results were not "desirable". And there are studies published but all factors weren't controlled which makes them less reliable. When you’re reading information, ask yourself if the author has provided scientific references, not just referred to a “study”. Next, is the author and study creditable? Where has it been published? And sometimes it takes a scientist to point out the weaknesses of another’s research.
When there’s a lack of science, all you have to go on is opinions and hearsay. I think personal experience counts for something but I take it with a grain of salt. Is the source biased? Industry, media and other groups certainly can be.
Let’s use talc as an example (Health Canada is currently performing a risk assessment on it and it may soon be added to the Hotlist). “My Grandma used talcum powder all the time, but she never had lung problems or ovarian cancer, so it must be safe”. Whoa there! That’s a pretty big assumption. How much did Grandma actually use and how often? Where did she use it? Was it 100% talc or was it mixed with something? Did she avoid inhaling it? Did she still have her ovaries? Was she lucky? What about other Grandmas? You get the picture.
Contaminants are a tricky one. They may not be added intentionally so you won’t find them on the ingredient list. However, they can exist in an ingredient because of how its processed.
It also comes down to what we’re willing to accept as safe. If it causes allergies, dermatitis or skin irritation, some might be willing to take that risk but not those with sensitive skin. What if it’s been linked to cancer or hormone disruption? There’s a chance its responsible but there isn't enough evidence yet. What if it causes reproductive toxicity in rats but we don’t know the effect on humans?
This ingredient that you may be using, is it in a rinse-off or leave-on product? Rinse-off products will pose less of a risk. Where is it on the list of ingredients? If it’s near the end of the list, there’s less of it present. How often do you use it? Something you use every day would be more risk than something you use occasionally.
What if there are currently no alternatives to that ingredient? Does the convenience it brings outweigh the possible harm it could cause?
And finally, what if it’s safe for humans but harmful for the environment?
Phew! Are you still there? Awesome. Okay so now what? With all that in mind, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions. Is there a trusted reference you can use? Well, sort of. Here are the three I rely on most, but even they have their problems. You can use Safe Cosmetics but they are very conservative and make unvalidated claims. For instance, in oxybenzone (used in sunscreens) they say it causes cancer and refer to California’s EPA which states that it’s a “possible carcinogen”. They also refer to a study on feeding the oxybenzone to mice and rats to infer that topical use can lead to cancer in humans. They also rate ingredients as toxic when there’s not enough information and when the risk doesn’t affect the consumer (i.e., inhalation in manufacturing). There’s Cosmetics Info which has a safety section and sometimes outlines the status of the ingredient in other countries. However, this website is sponsored by the Personal Care Products Council which represents cosmetic companies. So, it might be a bit biased. Looking at oxybenzone again, they include ‘myth busting’ where they allege that the studies were misleading, generalize their major concerns and refer to other supporting studies. However, I find them weak and could shoot a few holes in their arguments myself. They even mention their greatest concern about banning this ingredient: it may result in fewer people using sunscreen and the risk for skin cancer (heard of zinc oxide?). There’s also Cosmetic Ingredient Review which is so scientific it may be difficult for most people to navigate.
That’s a whole lot to consider for a single ingredient! Now, I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve taken what I’ve learned and put it into the attached reference for you. As more studies are done, some of these will drop off the list because they have been found to be safe or because they have been found to be unsafe and are prohibited or restricted by Health Canada. And there will always be new ones. But now you can decide what’s safe for you!
Health Canada regulates all cosmetics in Canada, as well as drugs, pesticides, natural health products, etc.) and each classification has their own list of requirements. First, let’s start by looking at how Health Canada defines a cosmetic:
"Any substance or mixture of substances manufactured, sold or represented for use in cleansing, improving or altering the complexion, skin, hair or teeth, and includes deodorants and perfumes." Cosmetics
Side note: A sunscreen is considered a natural health product and requires a product license. In order to obtain a product license, you must have a site license. In order to obtain a site license, you need to follow all the Good Manufacturing Practices. And sure, those practices sound like a good idea but it’s overkill for a small business like mine. However, I do follow as many as I can and keep working towards more! (This is why I will no longer be making my Sunny Day Lotion.).
Back to cosmetics….
All products meeting the cosmetic definition, no matter where they are from, MUST have a Cosmetic Notification Form (CNF) submitted to Health Canada. This form contains:
Submitting the form ensures that the ingredients used, and their proportions, are within acceptable guidelines. Health Canada reviews the CNF and follows up with any questions, but they never approve products. This process can take six months to a year!
Is it effective enough? Let’s look at what other countries are doing:
So, we fall somewhere in the middle which isn’t too bad, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m not one for mediocrity! Industry exerts a large amount of pressure and influences some decisions, not necessarily for our health or benefit. More on that another time…!
Additionally, cosmetics also have to follow the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. I’m saving that for another day too but you can learn more here: Labelling Act.
If you’re shopping in another country, you might want to pay attention to the ingredient lists. And what about right here at home? Handmade markets are always offering cosmetics for sale, but the makers may not be aware of the requirements. If you’re concerned, ask the vendor if they’ve filed anything with Health Canada.
For more information see International Cosmetic Lists.
Greenwashing is a term that describes when a brand makes false or exaggerated claims about how green, natural, organic or environmentally friendly their products are.
Because of a high demand for natural products, many companies use marketing and labelling to mislead customers. This can include the use of green colouring on labels, highlighting one natural ingredient, green-sounding product names and false or vague claims. Since there is no regulated definition of natural, products labelled natural may only contain one natural ingredient. And worse yet, often the other ingredients are harmful, from irritating to carcinogenic.
One walk down the shampoo aisle and you'll see plenty of examples. I was shopping for shampoo for my husband (I haven't fully converted him to natural yet!) and I searched for the next best thing. It must have taken me a half an hour or more to read all the labels and I practically shook my head the whole time. Initially I was drawn to the green labels with plants on them or the ones that sounded natural like "with argan oil" or "no dyes or parabens" or "natural extracts" or "eco-friendly" or "80% naturally derived" and yet they had other synthetic and harmful ingredients. Since then he picked up Tresemme's Clean & Natural Shampoo which sounds promising, yet it contains sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), propylene glycol and a formaldehyde releaser. Now I didn't look into all 37 ingredients but these ones were in the top 11 ingredients listed, which means that's mostly what this shampoo is made of. To be fair, at least 27 of the ingredients were safe and natural but most are present in small quantities. It also contains parfum/fragrance and CI 19140 and CI 42090 - all synthetic ingredients.
And what's a CI you ask? It's an international colour index that includes synthetic and natural colourants. Natural ones are found in the range CI 75000-76999 and inorganic ones (like minerals) are found in the range CI 77000-77999).
And don't get me started on food labels!! LOL
Maybe its time to switch our thinking from what's natural to what's safe. So, what can you do? Read labels, research ingredients and look for certifications such as Ecocert. It's not easy. You may have to research the source of the information as well. Do they have an agenda? Do other sources back up them up? Is there evidence and how reliable and current is it? It's a lot to learn but you can start here by downloading our list of Ingredients to Avoid:
You can also look up ingredients on sites like these, that were recommended to me:
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/cosmet-person/hot-list-critique/index-eng.php (Health Canada)
You can also use the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database with caution. Watch out for data gaps, old studies and ratings for ingredients that have no information available.
Want to know more about greenwashing?
Loves living a healthy lifestyle and sharing what she learns along the way.