whole foods cosmetics
Article by: Guest Author

This is a guest post by cosmetic formulator Valerie Patton.

To be totally honest, when a customer requests a product that has to live up to a natural retailer’s standards, a little part of me cringes. Don’t get me wrong – while I love the challenge of formulating a quality, natural product, it can be difficult to meet expectations. The reasons are varied but see this post on the challenges of formulating natural cosmetic products and this other on natural cosmetic standards.

Disallowed Ingredients

In my recent attempt to satisfy a customer’s request for a natural formulation, I decided to see what the personal care standards were for wholesome food markets. I found a list of unacceptable ingredients from the Whole Foods website. It’s a PDF file that contains a mile-long list of ingredients that cannot be used in their premium Whole Body products.

I had a brief moment of incredulity, as our chief formulator has created products that retail in this store, and they have definitely used some of these ingredients. I then realized (and read the fine print), that this list is for premium products. Meaning, the “Premium Body Care” designation on products is a Whole Foods standard for identifying more natural products that are free from harmful, synthetic, or petroleum-derived ingredients. Only products bearing this seal are free of items from the list, and other products without this seal may have some.

While I appreciate Whole Foods being the gatekeeper by creating a set of standards for consumers to shop by, I have a little difficulty understanding the basis for some of the items on the list.

Little scientific basis

It’s as if they took the list directly from the Environmental Working Group website, and used almost no scientific reasoning for their decisions. For example, parabens made the naughty list. While I disagree with its inclusion, as scientific evidence proves parabens are safe, I can sympathize with Whole Foods that their consumers probably don’t want them in their products. Scanning the top of the list, you’ll find AHAs, and further down, you’ll see glycolic acid. What about malic acid? You won’t find that on the list, but that’s an alpha-hydroxy acid, right? What about citric acid, as cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos joked with me on Twitter? I suppose I should also skip the fruit section of the store. And, I love squalane. What’s wrong with it? Not all of it comes from shark liver, you know.

Scaring consumers

By screening retail products for “unacceptable” items, they are implying that products without these items are inferior and less safe, and that products without these items are natural and better. While some ingredients on this list have scientific evidence for concern (PABA), several don’t have the evidence needed to discourage their use in personal care products. By adding them to this list, they’re creating a scare amongst consumers. Additionally, another point of this list was for Whole Foods to avoid synthetically created ingredients in their premium product. I don’t see Titanium Dioxide on the list. Don’t they know that TiO2 in skincare products is not really naturally occurring at all?

As a cosmetic formulator, you’re going to run into lists like these or regulations made by non-scientists and it will have a significant impact on your job.

Valerie Patton, owner of Simply Formulas (and shopper at Whole Foods). Simply Formulas is a Los Angeles-based R&D facility that provides custom formulations of personal care products.


  1. Pingback:Greenwashing – A Cosmetic Chemists Guide

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    I remember the first time I saw the list too. My reaction was much the same. I think it is a real shame that the people who buy the products think they are paying extra for something that is superior to mass market products when the opposite is in fact the case.

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    Yeah, I’ve worked with their Yellow/Orange/Green list parameters before, and, yes, it does bear the imprimatur of the ethos assigned to the EWG. Case in point: no ethoxylates, no way, no how, not even to attain “Yellow” status. Another anomoly: borax is not in the Green column, and it is virtually mined from the ground (sorta’). Just try and formulate a fabric softener for Whole Paycheck: there is only one quat allowed and its not even in the Green zone, only making it to Orange (soya-ethyldimonium methosulfate.) Good luck folks.

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      How can you create the best performing formulas with both hands tied behind your back?

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        Mark Fuller

        To be fair, it is actually much easier to create a Formula under the Natural Standards or even under WF standards today than it was even 3 years ago. The Ingredient Suppliers have really identified a need and stepped up in that regard. There is still a bit of EWG driven hysteria that one has to shake their head at, but there are numerous alternatives to almost any of these as well.

        I think the biggest problem is when you lose focus on the fact that you will see greater costs in ingredients, regulatory effort and manufacturing when you produce a Natural or Whole Foods product. This even further raises the danger of having an under-funded project. This can sink many a project and product line.

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    Good article, certainly does high light a great deal of the ludicrous in the natural products realm.
    1. Equine oil is unacceptable, however, it seems that Emu oil is.
    2. Fragrance, synthetic (botanical fragrance,parfum, etc.)=Unacceptable? The aromatherapy angle just got bombed.
    3. AHAs ( call it fruit acid, seems to be the trick)
    4. TetraC and AA2G get the boot, but Retinol and a long list, not. Basis? None.
    5. Artificial colors : Looks like WF doesn’t sell physical sunscreens then. TiO2 and ZnO would both fall into that category.

    But, NaOH is still allowed, just don’t have to list it. The escape clause on the labeling regulations.

    They have the â„¢ going for them as well. Totally Meaningless.

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      Mark Fuller

      I agree that they are confusing and lacking a consistent pattern. Recently I had heard that they were adding a Cosmetic Chemist to their company to work on the standards.

      On the other hand this list is a great improvement. In the far past WF’s documented the standards poorly. You could expect different answers depending who you asked at WF’s.

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        The pattern is the inconsistency. Worse than confusing, it emphasizes the stupidity. Depending on the CC, it may help or hinder. I’ve seen cosmetic manufacturer’s with supposed CC on board doing precisely the same thing in their own marketing.

        Free of: Artificial Fragrances, then pack the batch with essential oil blends which have far more chemicals and potential for irritation.

        Fragrance Free bases? Nice, add botanical extracts at what limited amount so you don’t smell them or see a color change?

        Dr. Olioso made some very interesting and valid points re: Natural formulating. Was attacked for the use of a botanical extract because of the presence of natural parabens.

        No end in sight.

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    Hi Valerie,

    Thank you for this post! We are working with WF now to see if we can get our products on their shelves and after reading the premium care no-no list it pretty much knocks any of our water-based products out because we use preservative systems that are on the bad list. Still trying to figure out what to submit but our best selling product includes a couple of their banned ingredients. Wondering what WILL get past if we don’t care to claim the “premium” status? Do they have a modified list?

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    Mark Fuller


    Great posting. I deal a great deal with Whole Foods and I share your experience. Since many of my clients are not shooting for inclusion on the WF shelves I am dealing more and more with these standards and the subsequent paperwork required to register a product at WF’s.

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