It is Fall and again we are seeing a lot of homemade soaps, bath fizzies, lotions, and sugar scrubs hitting craft fairs and farmer’s markets. Table displays of craft soaps are always fun to explore and is usually an area you can feel safe purchasing from. But now, with easy access to shared online recipes, craft cosmetics classes taught by persons with questionable credentials at best, and the ability to order contract manufactured bases it is truly the “Wild Wild West” for Craft Cosmetics.
Craft Cosmetics are those homemade lotions, scrubs, and essential oil laced products we see being sold under a usually “all natural” and sometimes “made local” poster everywhere from the farmer’s market to Holiday Craft fairs to the local gas station. With little regulation and oversight, customers interested in supporting Craft Cosmetics are truly in a “buyer beware” situation. How do you know if a product is safe and can be trusted?
Each year I write a social media “public service” post listing how best to go about purchasing safely at craft shows and each year this post grows longer. This year it’s morphed into a blog. Why? Because the natural beauty industry has become infinitely more complicated in recent years. New makers, new access to ingredients, a boom in online skincare pop-ups, Green Washing in labeling, Etsy shops and more have created a mish-mash of maker issues in the natural cosmetics industry.
The biggest concerns arise when purchasing products made with water.
Products that include water pose a particular problem as they require the use of a preservative and extremely clean manufacturing areas to be safely produced. Water based products include products such as lotion, liquid hand wash, shampoo, conditioner, body spray, and most facial skincare formulations. Any ingredient that contains even the smallest amount of water has to be preserved or the product will not last long, even if its refrigerated. While you’d think determining if an ingredient contains water would be pretty straightforward, it is not. Water can enter a formula from surprising places, for example fruit, honey and tree sap are all ingredients that contain water and require preservative in their formulation.
Making an all natural water based product is not as simple as it looks – all natural emulsifiers and preservatives pose a particular problem for even the most advanced all natural formulator. While strong chemical based, paraben or phenoxyethanol laced preservatives abound on the ingredient marketplace, effective and safe all natural preservatives are rare and often require they be used in combination with other all natural preservatives to ensure proper coverage against all types of fungus and bacteria.
An experienced formulator understands how to combine multiple preservatives and ingredients to ensure all types of contaminants are protected against. This is not a skill many Cosmetic Crafters possess – for example Brown Barn’s formulator holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biology with additional work in Chemistry and specialty professional certification in all natural cosmetics formulating.
Even with this professional background she spends many hours researching ingredients and testing formulations to ensure safety. Brown Barn stopped producing water based products in mid-2017 in part due to concerns over research showing any preservative or emulsifier (even all natural ones) can damage body systems. Our feeling is why risk our health on lotion when a fabulous body oil will work better and do so safely?
The purpose of this blog is not to scare you off from purchasing lotion or products at shows, it’s to keep you safe and to serve as a consumer guide for a positive experience. Brown Barn specializes in very high quality all natural products made with ingredients we source personally – we do not view Cosmetic Crafters or even most other handcrafted companies as our competitors. We support Cosmetic Crafters – but we also want to see anyone selling a cosmetic product doing so safely and honestly. And most of all we want our customers to be safe – always.
We understand you want to support local businesses and at Brown Barn we want to support young cosmetic companies – the sense of community, learning and healthy competition in our industry is what makes being in this industry fun. That said, your skin takes in up over 65% of what we put on it. Skin is our largest organ. Your health is not something that should be compromised in the name of supporting “made local”.
How do you determine when to buy and when to pass?
The safest Cosmetic Craft products to purchase are items made without water, such as bar soap and salve. I always look at the quality of the product. Is the bar soap hard? Has someone stuck their finger in the salve? Is the lid on tight?
Purchasing products containing water requires much more due diligence. I’ve had my own small batch, all natural skincare company for ten years now and I’ve been an herbalist much longer. For me, the most reliable way to make a good decision when purchasing from a Cosmetic Crafter is to look at what is on their product label. That listing contains (or should contain) everything you need to know to make a good decision about buying Craft Cosmetics. See below for more on reading a label.
Bar Soap vs. Cosmetics: Bar Soap is very straightforward so its pretty difficult to get into “hot water” when purchasing a prettily designed hard bar of soap. My one bit of advice is not to purchase a “soft” bar of soap. Soft bars usually mean the soap has to cure longer. Choose a nice hard bar that smells pretty. Bar Soap is not required to be labeled or to list ingredients. It’s the one and only exception to the rule. Most soap makers are very amiable people – if you ask if they use essential oil or fragrance you will usually get a truthful answer.
Liquid soap is another matter as it contains a large percentage of water (and if it says Aloe Water that is still the same as “water”). Liquid Soap should be treated with the same care as Lotion and the same guidelines for lotion apply.
Water vs. Oil: While all skincare products inherently can run into formulating issues, a product containing water is much more likely to contain problems than a product that is made entirely with oil. This is because water based products require preservatives – never buy a water based product that does not have a preservative.
Sometimes Cosmetic Crafters will try to convince you that their products are “all natural” because they do not contain preservative or because they opt to use ingredients such as vitamin E, honey, or essential oil as a preservative. This is common with Cosmetic Crafters using the Internet as a product formulating guide. These ingredients are not preservatives. They do not contain enough of a preservative to safely preserve a water based product.
A good formulator knows how to properly preserve a water based product. An excellent formulator knows how to do it naturally. All natural water based products require advanced formulating knowledge to preserve safely. Trained formulators know how to preserve in such a way that the all natural preservative does not interrupt the pH of the lotion – which can damage the skin mantle if not balanced.
Water based products also require the use of an emulsifier (to make the water and oil mix). Again, this is something that requires some good formulating skills in order to pull off in an all natural product. All of these ingredient components should be listed openly on the product label.
One more note on all natural emulsifiers and preservatives. If the label says “emulsifying wax” know that this is not an ingredient – this is a class of ingredients. An emulsifier can be made up of multiple components which can include chemicals. Question the label if it does not break down the emulsifier and preservative by every constituent to ensure you are truly getting and all natural product.
Take care when purchasing products made with water to ensure all of the ingredients are listed on the label and that the product is properly preserved so that it will remain safe once you get it home. A well preserved product will last from at least six months to two years after opening, depending on the preservative used and how long it sat on the Crafter’s shelves before the show. If you see a black film develop on the top of the lotion do not use it, this is mold. Discard the product.
Follow your gut: Buy from reputable companies and from people you trust. Follow your gut if you are not familiar with the seller. Research the companies you are talking to. Take your phone with you and see if they have a web-site or are selling on Etsy or have been written about in a local paper. Talk to the person manning the booth – ask if they made the product themselves from scratch. Ask where they made the product (hopefully they don’t say their kitchen – a home studio is best). Ask why they got into making their product and how they learned, most makers are more than happy to chat and you’ll have a hard time getting away from a passionate Crafter! If something feels off or they behave secretively, don’t buy.
ONLY buy products that are properly labeled. This is my number one, non-negotiable rule.
Scent Labeling: A reputable, FDA compliant company will list every ingredient except perhaps their fragrance or essential oil combination. Those are the only parts of a bath, body, skincare label that are legally allowed to be listed as a generic “Proprietary” ingredient. With good reason – copying of scents is rampant in our industry.
Ingredients are required to be listed in order of volume in the product from most to least. In a lotion you will see water (aqua) first or you may see a water infusion such as “Aloe Vera Water” or “Aloe Vera Juice”. This is very common – it’s all basically water. Water can be up to 90% of a lotion formula. Fragrance/Scent will be the least or one of the least ingredients and will show at the bottom of the ingredient list.
I personally only buy products scented with essential oil because fragrance/fragrance oil is not natural and in many cases contains preservatives I do not want to put on my body out of fear of being exposed to Cancer prompting ingredients. Note – if a company is claiming to be selling an all natural product and you see “fragrance” on the label do not buy it. Fragrance oil is not all natural. And I would let the maker know that’s why you are not buying it so they learn as well.
Only buy products that openly list all of their ingredients: If a skincare or bath/body product is not somehow completely labeled or does not have a handout with every ingredient listed or does not list the ingredients on their website I would not risk buying. There are just too many question marks that arise when a maker refuses to put their ingredients in writing – and it’s against FDA regulations not to properly label products for sale. You will want the ingredient list in the event you have a reaction to the product, and how do you determine if a product truly is all natural or made with harmful chemicals if the maker refuses to reveal their ingredient list?
As a supporter of the Clean Cosmetics Act I am passionate about properly labeled products, especially if they are being sold thru retail shops or representing themselves as professional companies. I take a slightly less rigid stance with Cosmetic Crafters who sell at shows and farmers markets but if I see it in a store – it must be properly labeled – its an FDA regulation and in my opinion, this is something that separates a professional from a hobbyist.
Ensure the ingredient list is properly written: We encourage our customers to utilize us as a reference when they are unsure about a product.
Please note: Provided below are examples of two labels I’ve received photos of from people questioning the label. They are not meant to be used as a reflection on the company or its product quality. The labels are used here only to provide real life examples of what to look for in a water based product label. Both are professional companies selling in retail stores and are required to be held to the same FDA regulatory standards as my company. For this reason, I feel comfortable including them as examples in this blog.
There is a little more to writing and reading a label than one would think. With everything on it including the required company name, weight, contact info, use statement, warnings, and ingredients, interpreting a cosmetic label can be downright challenging!
A proper label will include every single ingredient used to make the product. If a label ingredient section says something like “all natural lotion” instead of listing all of the ingredients in the lotion then do not buy it. It may be a perfectly fine product but how do you know? It could be anything – it could be loaded with chemicals or completely pure – you just don’t know. Without the ingredient list how do you know there is not something you are allergic to in the product and if you have a reaction how will you trace the cause?
If you encounter this situation at a show and it’s something you’d really like to purchase ask if they have a website that lists all the ingredients and then pull it up on your phone and view the ingredient list before investing. If they do not list their ingredients anywhere do this person a favor and nicely let them know they are not in compliance so they can fix the problem before they get in trouble elsewhere. Labeling requirements are very clearly listed on the FDA’s website. As a last resort at a show have the maker talk you thru their process and what they use for preservative and emulsifier and fragrance. Ask if there are any chemicals in the product.
If you encounter this situation in a retail store do all of us a favor and refuse to purchase. Retailers have a responsibility to the customers safety and should not be accepting improperly labeled products from suppliers. Small handcrafted cosmetics companies come and go quickly, do not rely on a website to be there when purchasing from a retailer, request a proper label or list be printed for you.
Technically, correctly labeled products will include every ingredient name in its common and technical form, written such as “Melaleuca Alternafolia (Tea Tree) Leaf Oil”. Ingredients will be listed in order from the largest amount present in the item to the least. This is why lotions and moisturizers all begin with water or Aloe extract/juice, etc. on their ingredient listings. On the purple label here you will notice the use of Aloe Leaf Juice and then see how they break that down into its individual components in parenthesis afterwards so you know every bit and piece that makes up the juice.
The purple label here is from a well known skincare line. I should note that even this label has an ingredient that is technically not written correctly – it starts with “Organic Herbal Infusion”. That item should say something like Coconut Oil (and) then list all of the herbs in the infusion. Without knowing what is in this infusion how will you know if it contains something you are allergic to?
Bottom line – Ingredient lists are very important to have access to in the event you have a reaction and to ensure product safety. If buying from a Cosmetic Crafter at a show or craft fair expect to have access to their ingredient list either on the label, on a handout, or on their website. If purchasing from a retail store require the ingredient list be on the product label. The one exception to a labeled ingredient list are products too small to hold the list, in that case check to ensure their website has the list available or look for a box or insert with the ingredients listed.
Decide how important a technically correct label is to you: In the case of a Cosmetic Crafter at a show you are faced with the decision of how diligent you want to be about how your label is written. You need to decide whether to move on if a product is not technically written or to shrug and say to yourself, “Hey, it’s a great little character sitting behind a table all day, they are super proud of their wares and worked hard on this, they told me some great stories, and they have all the ingredients listed in common form – it looks interesting and their sample is nice, I can live with just a list of what’s in it.” I would have to agree with that and purchase in this case. My one big rule is that ALL the ingredients have to be listed – “lotion” is not an ingredient unto itself. But water, beeswax, lavender essential oil, etc. are.
I recommend avoiding purchasing from a company that does not readily volunteer the list of its ingredients when asked. When you ask for their ingredient lists or question why they do not list their ingredients on their website they may tell you things like, “Oh that’s proprietary information – we’re afraid our super special formulas will be stolen if we tell you what’s in it.” Don’t buy it. That’s ridiculous. If formulating were that easy then great all natural lotions would be a dime a dozen – we all know how hard it is to find a really well made all natural lotion. It’s an art.
Read the Label! Read the label on all sides. Read the label. Read the label. READ. THE. LABEL! I cannot say that enough. It’s not enough to just glance at the label and say “oh, they list the ingredients, I’m good.” but not actually read the label.
There are companies out there with names like “Baloosla’s All Natural Organic Luxuries” who sell products that are not only not organic, they are full of harmful chemicals or use man-made chemical based fragrance.
If a company uses the word Natural/Naturale/Naturel in their name then EVERY single ingredient should be 100% natural – right down to the colorant and scent. Fragrance oil is NOT natural. If you see a chemical in an ingredient list and the label on the front uses the word natural in its name I encourage you to not buy. That company is not representing itself accurately – if they are not holding to the tenets of their own name how do we trust their formulations?
Now go have fun!
I feel like it’s Prom night and I’m lecturing my children before they leave! It is not my intention to frighten you away from purchasing from Cosmetic Crafters. As a whole, they provide a rich tapestry of fun, safe products to try and make a real difference in our industry – I started as a Cosmetic Crafter myself way back on 2006! It is my hope that by paying careful attention to the product label and using what you’ve learned here you can find some lovely, safe, and fun products to take home and try while supporting the handmade cosmetics industry in the process.