A friend of mine is on a rampage to eliminate all (and I mean ALL) potential carcinogens from her life. Every few days or so, I’d hear one ingredient or another that may cause cancer. First, it was Zinc Oxide, a physical blocker commonly used in sunblocks. Then Titanium Oxide. Today, it was Talc. In her journey towards wellness, she has searched out brands (that I’ve never heard of!) in uncommon places that claim to use “natural” ingredients. I took a look at the ingredient list of her newly acquired loose powder… and found a telephone list of chemicals… including that pesky Zinc Oxide that started it all!
That got me thinking – what does “natural” or “organic” really mean when it comes to beauty products?
The truth about “natural” products…
How is it that makeup can be made from 100% natural ingredients?? I mean, I love green, better still, companies that have green practices. But, with the wide array of colors (exceeding that of the rainbow) out there in all sorts of textures and finishes, how could they be ALL natural?
That was when it occurred to me.
“Natural” includes minerals and chemicals! There are LOTS of natural minerals that are used in beauty products that are carcinogenic, and known irritants at least – e.g. zinc oxide, titanium oxide, silica (that thing that causes me to breakout), talc, etc. Similarly, there are TONNES of chemicals that are naturally-derived, that are extremely harmful!
There was a time when mineral makeup was the IN thing and touted to be better. What they forgot to mention are the things to watch out for in mineral makeup:
Sources: The American Academy of Dermatologists, Inc. Jan 1991; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), 1996; Atlanta, GA; US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service; Derm. Beruf Umwelt July/Aug 1998; Cosmetic Science, C. Prottey, 1978.
Does “natural” still conjure up images of lush, green fields and springtime blooms??
What about “organic”??
I’m starting to really hate the term “organic” applied on anything but food. First of all, there is no universal standard for assessing the label when it comes to beauty products. Regardless, there are various local certifications – ECOCERT (France), BDIH (Germany), Certech (Canada), USDA Organic (US), etc. All these mean, is the manufacturer has spent a tonne of money applying for these certifications, hence favoring large-scale producers over family-owned businesses. Fundamentally, it just means the source of the ingredients are grown without SYNTHETIC pesticides (they still use pesticides!). It completely overlooks the fact that the ingredients that go into your product are most likely extracted via chemical processes!
The biggest hoax of all, is that as much as 70% of your beauty product is most likely water. Clearly it doesn’t take much to qualify the product as 70% organic! Add to that, essential oils and plant fragrances, and voila!.. you have an “organic” product!
And that brings me to fragrances….
I recently heard somebody declare an entire range of products to be “fragrance-free”. That took me by surprise as the brand is famous for its glorious scents… and true enough, there it was printed on the ingredient list, “parfum”. Then came the qualification – their fragrances are all naturally-derived.
Are “natural” fragrances safe??
Fragrances, whatever their form, impart their scent via volatile compounds. When applied to skin, they react, causing irritation that may or may not be visible on the skin’s surface. I know for a fact that I’m sensitive to essential oils, often leaving itchy, flaky and reddened skin. Once upon a time, in order to balance my eczema-prone skin, I invested in Sisley’s Ecological Compound. Only to have my eczema flare up like never before.
I was very touched when, late last year, I wanted to try out some Sampar products, and the kind SA told me to wait because some of they products use essential oils… which was not great for my baby while i was pregnant!
Other common ingredients seen in natural-marketed brands include orange, lemon, lime, bergamot, menthol, lavender, and eucalyptus. Sadly, all of these are irritants, and potent triggers of skin-sensitizing and allergic reactions.
Finally, a word about preservatives…
There are brands out there that claim to be “preservative free”. That is complete hog-wash. US law now requires all cosmetic products containing water to be properly preserved or they are not safe to use. Considering how long it takes for a product to be manufactured, shipped, and then stored, before coming home with you, it is extremely unsafe for that product to contain no preservative!
Once, I picked up a bottle of water from my desk after a weekend away, totally forgetting that i had put some chrysanthemum & marigold in there. The entire thing had rotted & grown moldy in just 3 days… i spat it out and spent all day trying to get the disgusting feeling out of my mouth!
Many products claiming to be “preservative free” choose oil bases, whilst other use essential oils as natural preservatives. Oil-based products clog pores and are heavy. Essential oils, as we have discussed, can be really bad news.
So what now??!
With all these doom and gloom, should we then give up our pursuit for wellness? I think not! What I would suggest though, is to play an active part in choosing your products. Consider closely the claims a product make. Look at the ingredient list, research funky sounding items. If ingredient lists are not available, google is your best friend.
Not sure where to begin? Chances are, an established multi-national brand with known research labs has invested in making a good product. Lawsuits are extremely expensive, and can destroy whatever brand equity there is. Larger companies also fall under closer scrutiny than indie labels. Of course, that is not to say there aren’t great products by niche lifestyle brands (e.g. i totally heart Evolvh’s hair products…read here!), but make sure they actually add value to the product and not merely repackage.
Finally, don’t let all the scaremongering on the internet put you off! There are still good companies putting out excellent products that deserve your love!!
You might also be interested to read about my thoughts on whether beauty products are worth their price tags here.