How natural is your beauty routine, really?
Jaime Davis, MD
Let’s start with a quick quiz. Are the following statements true or false?
1. The average woman applies over a hundred different chemicals every day through her skincare and cosmetics.
2. Products labeled “pure”, “natural”, “nature-inspired, “eco-safe”, “plant-derived” may contain an abundance of synthetic ingredients.
3. Products with only trace amounts of organic ingredients can claim to be “organic”.
These statements are, unfortunately, true and reflect a practice known as “green-washing” or misleading consumers into thinking a product is greener than it is.
Even though the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set forth guidelines to establish a definition of ‘organic’ in food (look for the USDA Organic seal), cosmetic ingredients are not similarly regulated. So any company can use misleading terms on its labels. Cosmetic companies aren’t even required to list all a product’s ingredients on its label. So if an “organic” product contains non-organic ingredients they don’t have to tell you.
Why do some cosmetics companies do it? Because the words “organic” and “natural” sell millions of dollars worth of products every year to people who are trying to make an honest effort to improve their health and be kinder to the environment. Are these companies really trying to make their products better or are they counting on consumers being misinformed and misled in order to make a profit? It’s your call.
But there are many skin care companies with a conscience. Companies such as Whole Foods Markets (wholefoodsmarket.com) have led the charge towards reducing the number of synthetic ingredients in personal care products by creating their Whole Body™ Premium Body Care Standards. Likewise, Terressentials ™ (terressentials.com) uses only ingredients that the USDA permits in certified organic food. Their products have the USDA Organic seal on them as do Origins Organics™ products (origins.com). You can even bring empty bottles, tubes, and jars of any cosmetic company’s products to Origins stores to be recycled. Aveda stores also have recycling bins for bottle caps of any brand (aveda.com).
Minneapolis based beauty pioneer and environmental activist, Horst Rechelbacher, recently launched his Intelligent Nutrients™ line of certified-organic products. These are “derived from ingredients so pure they carry the USDA or Soil Association seal of organic approval”. I checked them out. Are they completely free of chemicals, no, but are they about as close as you can get, yes. Companies like Dr. Bronner’s™, Burt’s Bees™, Sensibility Soaps™ (Nourish), Aubrey Organics™, Dr. Hauschka™ and California Baby™ also do a great job keeping their products free of unnecessary ingredients. But a true skeptic would ask if their lists are complete, since there is no accountability. And what about the packaging? Most of it is plastic, some of it is 100% recycled and some of it is biodegradable but not all companies consider this aspect of production. So look for eco-responsible packaging along with certified quality ingredients in substantial amounts.
Overwhelming? Well, certain consumer groups are helping keep track of it for you. The Organic Consumers Association (organicconsumers.org) recently cited “JASON Pure Natural & Organic”, “Giovanni Organic Cosmetics”, “Kiss My Face”, “Nature’s Gate Organics” for the use of misleading labeling. TerraChoice (terrachoice.com) tells you how to send postcards to companies that exaggerate sustainability so you can have a voice in keeping them honest (sinsofgreenwashing.org). Every year, the “Beauty With a Conscience Awards” given by Natural Solutions Magazine (naturalsolutionsmag.com) recognize the top 101 natural beauty products that live up to their claims. Not all the products they list are “chemical-free”, but they are making a real effort and I am all for that.
However, as a Board Certified Dermatologist I know that to get prescription quality results, we may not be able to completely avoid certain synthetic ingredients. As much as I’d prefer all-natural alternatives that perform equally well, they are just not out there yet. And though not everybody needs or wants prescription strength results, everyone can be educated to identify ingredients that might not be good for their health in one way or another. It must be kept in mind that different people have different concerns about skin care products, so the “best” choice for one person may be different that the “best” choice for the next.
1. Some have ‘sensitive skin’ and want to avoid things they might be allergic to. Every year dermatologists see thousands of severe allergic reactions to perfectly organic, non-carcinogenic, products such as tea tree oil and Balsam of Peru (a natural fragrance), which act similar to poison oak when in contact with the skin.
2. Others want to avoid exposure to potential carcinogens. A good first step is to check out “Skin Deep”, the Environmental Working Group’s extensive database, which provides safety ratings for more than 46,000 personal-care products (cosmeticsdatabase.com)
3. Others want both.
So, is natural always better? The answer is yes and no. To answer this question for yourself, here are some things you need to know in order to be a safe and educated consumer of today’s skin care products.
Where does a consumer begin to sort this all out? I think that first you have to identify your priorities. It may come down to purity versus performance for some product categories. So evaluate each product ingredient in four key areas. These are not listed in any order of priority because ranking the importance of each is up to you as an individual consumer.
Does it work? Certain ingredients are necessary for the product to function well, look and feel appealing. These ingredients may be synthetic chemicals like sodium laurel sulfate or cocamidopropyl betaine. These ingredients make them lather up and get you clean. Parabens keep mold from growing in your face cream. Once you know what certain chemicals do, you can decide how important that function is to you. But there are natural alternatives to many of these chemical components; you may just have to lower your expectations of the products performance and the results you’ll get.
The word “natural” is on labels everywhere. While the product you buy may not be 100% certified organic, try to choose ingredients as minimally processed as possible and look for higher concentrations of organically derived ingredients (some list percentages right on the label). Better yet, look for the USDA Organic seal or try making them yourself (recipes abound on the internet).
3. Environmental Impact
Body care products wash off you and go into our water and environment. Try to choose products that have low environmental impact during manufacturing and when released into the environment. However, this information may be hard to get on your own, so stick with companies that have made a pledge to safe manufacturing processes, pure ingredients and eco-friendly packaging.
Some of what goes on the body can end up in the body, particularly in babies. However, most of the chemical ingredients in personal care products are in low enough quantities to be generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is a designation given to foods, drugs, and other materials with a long-term history of not causing illness to humans, even though formal toxicity testing may not been conducted. So those with concerns about contaminants (pesticide residue), potential carcinogens (like the pH adjuster triethanolamine) or those prone to skin irritation or allergies (due preservatives such as parabens), may want to read labels especially carefully.
So what are the main chemical ingredients to avoid? Here are a few and a description of why people don’t like them in their skin care products:
Preservatives are necessary in skin care products to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Chemical preservatives include parabens, Imidazolindyl/diazolindyl Urea. Natural preservatives are essential oils, honey, salt, sugar, vinegar, grain alcohol.
Surfactants are used for cleansing and creating foam. They may be drying and irritating to the skin, especially in people with eczema. Ironically, some of the best-tolerated sensitive skin care products (Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser, for example) contain chemical surfactants. Commonly found surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfates, polypropylene glycol, and stearalkonium chloride. Gentler alternatives are castille soap, or soaps made from vegetable oils (but they may not leave you with that squeaky clean feeling).
Emulsifiers prevent the separation of oil and water in products like lotions. Synthetic emulsifiers include cocamidopropyl betaine (also a surfactant) and ethylene glycol distearate. A natural alternative is lecithin.
Fragrance, even certified organic essential oils, can cause allergic reactions, but for some, they are preferable to synthetic scents. Be wary of products that say “scent-free” or “un-scented” as they may contain a “masking fragrance” that covers an unpleasant natural scent. Yes, the product may be “scent-free” or “un-scented” but it is not “fragrance-free”. If you are not fragrance sensitive, you may enjoy the aromatherapy benefits of natural oils.
Oleochemicals & Petrochemicals are the starting point of many modern moisturizers. Even good, old-fashioned Vaseline, gets its start from fossil fuels. What could be more natural than that? Well, the manufacturing process can involve some potentially eco-hazardous solvents. Though I would be hard pressed to say that Vaseline is the carcinogenic scourge of modern cosmetics, at least there are alternatives. Cocoa butter, beeswax and shea butter are good choices.
All this being said, if you haven’t been able to give up junk food, smoking or texting while driving, it is unlikely that the contents of your face cream are your biggest health risk. But every little bit helps. So if you want to reduce your exposure to allergen, irritants and potential carcinogens, look for ingredient lists that are short and simple or products that are USDA certified Organic. Or make your own, but be ready to potentially compromise on performance for purity. After all you can’t have your lotion and eat it too.
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