By Anna Soref

A touch of color to the cheeks, a little lipstick, maybe some eye shadow and mascara -- makeup seems harmless enough. But check out the labels on department store cosmetics, and you'll see a list of tongue-twisting chemicals that could be hazardous to your health. But don't despair -- makeup doesn't have to become yet another item added to your "don't" list. Many natural cosmetics now rival department store offerings in quality -- and they're toxic-free.

Makeup's Ugly Side
As surprising as it may sound, the majority of cosmetic ingredients are not tested for safety, according to a study released by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. Because the government does not monitor cosmetic companies, questionable ingredients creep into most makeup products.

Although most cosmetics ingredients appear safe for use in the short term, long-term use could be deadly, says Kim Erickson, author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous (Contemporary Books, 2002). "Some cosmetic chemicals accumulate in the body's fatty tissues, where they can remain for years and damage your cells," she says. As an example, a study reported in the January 2004 edition of the Journal of Applied Toxicology found parabens, the most common cosmetic preservative, present in significant amounts in 18 out of 20 breast cancer tumors.

The number of chemicals in a simple lipstick is astounding. In addition to phthalates (which can cause kidney and liver damage and harm a developing fetus), lipstick may contain the possible human carcinogens butylated hydroxytoluene, polyethylene, dimethicone and a slew of artificial colors derived from coal tar. And if you wear lipstick every day, you'll ingest at least 4 pounds of it over your lifetime.

Pretty and Chemical-Free
OK, so you're ready to try natural makeup. Fortunately, you're no longer stuck with blue eye shadow and orange foundation. Natural products manufacturers are turning out new cosmetics to meet a savvy shopper's needs. "The offerings are a lot better, and there are a lot more shades for a lot more skin tones. You're seeing stuff you would see at the MAC or Estee Lauder counters," says Patrick McRae, marketing associate for Zia Natural Skincare.

Shoppers will see breakthrough technology in natural makeup that rivals the big brands. For example, the foundations from Borlind of Germany are made with tiny lecithin liposomes (pouches) that melt over time, so the foundation maintains a dewy look. "Some natural foundations tended to look gritty over time," says Linda Upton, Borlind's vice president of education and training. "This technology has changed that."

Some companies are also taking cues from brands such as L'Oreal and changing their color schemes with seasonal fashion changes. Borlind now offers more than 20 eye shadow shades and 16 lipstick tints. And to stay on the cutting edge, Borlind has its classic mainstay colors but also fashion hues that change with the times.

The Safe Side
Of course the best part about natural makeup is that it's safe. Most natural makeup bases use products such as jojoba oil and candelilla wax instead of petrochemicals such as mineral oil (a gasoline production by-product), says Upton. And colors are derived from naturally occurring earth pigments in lieu of artificial colors.

Some manufacturers are finding new ways to avoid using synthetic preservatives such as parabens. At Logona USA, the makeup packaging is designed so that fingers don't make contact with the product -- possibly introducing bacteria, says Michael Wrightson, president of Logona USA. And the products are preserved with essential oils, tocopherols -- even salt.

An added bonus with natural cosmetics is that many work double duty, McRae says. Companies are adding ingredients such as aloe, cucumber, green tea and ginkgo so the product "works as a makeup but also soothes and is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant," he says.

So the next time you need some new lip gloss or eye shadow, forget the department store and head to the natural products store -- you may be surprised with what you find and with how you look wearing makeup that's good for you.