Advice from Green Beauty and Wellness Expert Rona Berg

Rona Berg is an internationally renowned green beauty and wellness expert, and best-selling author of Beauty: The New Basics and Fast Beauty: 1000 Quick Fixes. Berg is the former Beauty Editor and Deputy Lifestyle Editor of The New York Times Magazine, Editorial Director of ELLE, Contributing Editor to SELF, co-founder/editor-in-chief of Organic Beauty. Berg is passionate in her belief that “green is not a trend, it’s a lifestyle.” We sat down with this expert and asked her for advice on switching to natural cosmetics, choosing products for sensitive skin, toxic ingredients to avoid and more.

What is the difference between “organic” and “natural” cosmetics?

There is a lot of consumer confusion about what is and isn’t natural or organic. It’s important to know that there is no regulation behind the term “natural.” Most consumers assume that natural products contain a majority of ingredients derived from natural sources. But even products that are 99 percent synthetic can claim to be natural. That’s why consumers looking for an authentically natural product need to educate themselves on specific ingredients to avoid, or find responsible brands that do not “greenwash” their labels

Organic is a different story. There are specific USDA criteria, based on organic food and agriculture guidelines–i.e., ingredients grown without pesticides–that allow beauty products to use the term “organic.” To be “USDA organic,” or to claim “made with organic ingredients,” you are expected to comply. If a product contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients, the product cannot use the term “organic” anywhere on the main label—but many still do, though that is changing. There are also independent global seals and certifications (Natural Products Association, Ecocert, BDIH, Soil Association, and more) that enable the consumer to know that those products are natural or organic enough to qualify.

What are the benefits of switching to organic or natural cosmetics?

Not only are organic and natural beauty products stylish, sophisticated, and luxurious, they are healthy and they really work! The granola-crunchy days of green beauty are gone. When I interviewed the actress Olivia Wilde she said, “At first I wasn’t committed to natural and organic. I was committed to products that work. Now I realize that natural and organic really do work—so why would anyone sacrifice their health with what they’re putting on their body?”

Consumers are beginning to connect the dots and ask, “What is that washing down my drain, and how does that impact my health and the health of the environment?” When we apply moisturizer–if the molecule is small enough–it penetrates through the skin and directly into the bloodstream. In fact, penetrability has been a selling point in the industry for years, and as consumers eat healthier foods and embrace more sustainable lifestyles, it’s inevitable that they are drawn to natural and organic beauty, because they are thinking, big-picture, in terms of what is safest and healthiest to put in and on their bodies. Major mainstream retailers from Walmart to Target to Barneys are expanding their natural and organic beauty sections and if consumers weren’t seeing results, they wouldn’t be coming back for more!

Some critics of organic cosmetics argue that most organic products are not clinically tested, and therefore can cause irritation as much as non-organic products. How would someone with sensitive skin go about choosing organic products with this in mind?

The same way they would choose non-organics. There are certainly natural ingredients that are more sensitizing than others, just like there are irritating non-natural ingredients. If you have sensitive skin, you need to become familiar with certain essential oils and botanical extracts—i.e., tea tree oil, rosemary essential oil, citrus oils, eucalyptus—that are more apt to be irritating. In the non-natural realm, alpha-hydroxy acids, retinols, hydroquinone, synthetic fragrances, FD&C dyes—are also known to be irritating to those with sensitive skin. Always do a 24-hour patch test before you try a new product and familiarize yourself with these hot-button ingredients.

What are five common household items that also have beauty uses?

In my book, Fast Beauty: 1000 Quick Fixes, I devote an entire section to common household items that do double duty for beauty. Of course, DIY is not for everyone. But, in a pinch, you can create your own quick, easy, and inexpensive beauty treatments from simple household products. Your olive or sesame oil can double as a moisturizer for super-dry skin, and a tiny dab of olive oil will nourish hair at the dry ends. Olive oil is light and gentle enough even for the most sensitive skin. It is a staple in Mediterranean beauty and spa cultures. Because of its small molecular structure, sesame oil is one of the most deeply penetrating, and it’s rich in linoleic and fatty acids, which carry water-soluble nutrients through the skin.

Baking soda, a fine abrasive, can be used to brush your teeth, applied as a paste to dry a pimple overnight, or worked through damp hair to get rid of built-up of styling products. It can also be massaged into flaky elbows and knees and even used as a gentle exfoliant on the face.

I always say that a toothbrush, like a cat, has many lives. An old toothbrush can be recycled and used to comb through eyebrows and lashes, to apply hair color and touch-ups, with a bit of honey (another household favorite!) to exfoliate lips, elbows, and knees, and to clean and scrub beauty tools like pencil sharpeners, combs, and tweezers. A bag of frozen blueberries or peas is really handy to have in the freezer. It helps soothe skin irritated by waxing and calms red or inflamed skin. The malleable shape adjusts easily around any part of the body.

And never throw a tea bag away—after your cup of tea has steeped, pop the tea bag in the freezer for later use. Chilled green tea bags will take down puffiness under the eyes and soothe inflamed or bruised skin. A chamomile tea compress will reduce irritation if your skin is sensitive.

What are some toxic ingredients in cosmetics we should avoid?

It’s important for me to say that a few occasional ingredients are not necessarily going to cause you harm. But when you think about the cumulative effects of these ingredients entering your bloodstream along with all of the other pollutants, pesticides, synthetic preservatives, hormones and antibiotics, etc., in our food, our environment, and the air we breathe, over a lifetime, it is a wake-up call.

I would also like to say that not all synthetic ingredients are bad. It is not quite that black and white. But let’s replace the ones that are!

I am a strong believer in science, and so far there is enough recent evidence to support reformulating products to remove parabens (butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben), preservatives that, even in small amounts, can mimic estrogen in the body and have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Sulfates (sodium lauryl-, sodium laureth-, ammonium laureth-, and sodium myreth-sulfate) are harsh detergents found in cleansers, shampoos, and toothpaste. These can cause skin and eye irritation, and may contain 1.4-dioxane, considered a probable human carcinogen by the EPA, though you won’t find it on the ingredient label because it’s a byproduct of the manufacturing process. The tip-off: look for (and try to avoid) ingredients with “eth”—diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), phenoxyethanol, polyethylene glycol (PEG), and more. Look for nail polish without toluene (a.k.a. methylbenzene), which is stored in fat tissue and can irritate skin and damage lungs. Ingredients like diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium 15 can release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that triggers asthma and irritates skin.

With the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, Congress banned three phthalates—DEHP, DBP, and BBP—from baby bottles and children’s toys. But phthalates are still widely used in beauty and personal-care products to stabilize scent in perfume and skincare and make nail polish supple. Phthalates have been linked to hormonal imbalances that lead to infertility and cancer, but companies are not required to list them on the label. Many products with “fragrance” or “parfum” contain phthalates—but not all. Stay tuned for more news on phthalates.

Interview courtesy of BeautyPress, Images from Shutterstock and Beauty Press