Whole Foods Cosmetic Standards and the Cosmetic Chemist

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.

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