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"Green" beauty products are in demand

Eco-friendly soap at Primrose Organics Salon and Boutique.

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Kai Ryssdal: I'm not really a manicure guy. I figure my nails look just fine the way they are. There are plenty of people though -- male and female -- who like a good buff and polish every now and then. Many of whom, it turns out, want their beauty salon products to be good for the environment, too.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Adriene Hill reports.


Adriene Hill: I don't have great nails -- I bite them. Once and a while, when they get really bad, I pay 12 bucks to get them painted -- and in the process, expose myself to some pretty serious chemicals that also smell awful. My olfactory displeasure isn't uncommon.

Melissa Tornay: I remember when I was younger and I would paint my nails in the living room, and my dad would get really mad, because it would smell the house up forever.

That's Melissa Tornay. She owns Primrose Organic Salon and Boutique, one of a growing number of eco-friendly salons. She invites me to take a whiff of the nail polish remover they use at the salon.

Hill:

Wow...

Tornay: And we can be doing a manicure in here, and you can walk by and not even notice someone's painting them.

I'm not lightheaded, and it actually smells pretty good. A far cry from the acetone-based remover I have under the sink, which is poisonous. The polish in this salon is also free from phthalates, chemicals which may be linked to reproductive problems, and formaldehyde, a chemical the EPA considers a probable human carcinogen. An eco-manicure here at Primrose costs $20.

Tornay: I think everyone's realized that you have to pay a little more, just like when you go to the grocery store, you can choose between a non-organic orange or an organic orange.

Tornay says business has been good since she opened a year and a half ago. The hardest part of her business isn't trying to figure out how to make natural products work for clients -- it's figuring out which products are actually natural.

Jane Houlihan: You really need to be skeptical of the claims.

Jane Houlihan is with the Environmental Working Group.

Houlihan: "Natural" or "green" or "environmentally friendly" can really mean anything, it can mean nothing at all.

Houlihan says there's a whole lot of green-washing in the beauty products industry, in part because there's not much regulation. The lack of industry standards for green beauty products has spurred Whole Foods grocery store to launch its own certification. The beauty company Sephora also has its own internal guidelines for what products it'll advertise as "natural," a standard that does allow for some synthetic ingredients. But generally, Houlihan says the green cosmetics industry is wide open.

Houlihan: Companies can use almost any ingredient they choose and make almost any marketing claim they choose. Things like "natural" or "hypoallergenic" -- there really aren't standards for those claims.

In spite of the lack of set standards for eco-friendly beauty products, the demand continues to grow. Toon Van Beeck is an analyst with IBIS World. He says the green beauty biz has expanded at a rate of more than 7 percent a year over the last seven years. That's better than the overall cosmetics industry.

Toon Van Beeck: Consumers are looking for these products such as natural cosmetics, which includes the like of green tea, algae, mushroom extracts and even chocolate.

But Van Beeck says sales are being driven more by marketing than actual product innovation. Although I have to tell you -- fingernail polish remover that smells good seems like a pretty good innovation to me. Now, I've just gotta stop biting my nails.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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