Natural skin care products have become skin care’s poster child. Increasingly, we’re more interested in natural skin care products. This reflects our growing concerns about chemicals in the environment, the food we eat and the skin care products we use. Many of us also have concerns about sustainability and animal cruelty.
I used the Cosmetic Chemicals Interactive of the Australian Academy of Science and found that I’m exposed to almost 300 chemicals a day through shampooing my hair, using skin care products, and applying makeup and lippy. So should I exclusively use natural skin care products?
The regulations that apply to the making of cosmetics varies greatly across countries. The European Union has banned or restricted the use of more than 1300 chemicals in cosmetics, while the US has acted on just 11. Even if an individual chemical is assessed as safe, what we still don’t know is what is the combined or cumulative effect of using all these chemicals.
Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Emma Watson all push green beauty. There are indeed thousands of wonderful botanical or plant-derived ingredients that are not only safe, but have medicinal value too. We even have 5000 years of history to tell us this.
But the issue of natural versus chemical is much more complicated than it first appears, and one that requires you to delve a little deeper. The ingredients used in skin care products can be naturally occurring or synthetically made, but the effect they have depends on the chemical compounds they contain.
It is not as simple as saying natural ingredients are all good and synthetic ingredients are all bad. Apple and apricot seeds contain amygdalin, a compound that is converted to cyanide in the body. Comfrey contains liver-damaging alkaloids. Lily-of-the-Valley can cause heart and nervous system damage. And Yellow Jasmine can impair breathing and heart function.
Making sense of natural skin care
Natural skin care has been commandeered as a positioning strategy by many established and new skin care brands because it is a high growth segment. The skin care industry has been growing year on year at a nice clip, but natural skin care has been growing in the double digits. That alone is enough to attract more brands and more brand extensions.
The marketing of natural skin care products is about making us feel better about ourselves and better about our choices. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that something is better because it is natural, especially when there is a much higher risk of adulteration, contamination and blatant incorrect labelling of these natural products.
So how do we make sense of natural skin care products? This is a challenging one, so I look at a few different aspects of natural and uncover that the term natural doesn’t have much credibility or validity.
Defining what natural means
In using the term natural, brands are implying their natural skin care products are better. But it isn’t always clear in what ways they’re better.
What does natural really mean in the context of skin care products? There’s no established legal definition of the term natural as it applies to the cosmetics category.
Does it refer to all the ingredients being natural? Does it refer to ensuring no cruelty to animals? Does it refer to being more environmentally sustainable?
The dictionary tells us that natural refers to something “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind”.
So let me talk about each of these.
The term natural is easily manipulated by natural skin care brands. Sulfates are very much on the outer as an ingredient in cosmetic products. Some natural skin care brands use Sodium Coco Sulfate as a more naturally sounding substitute. But Sodium Coco Sulfate comprises mainly Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.
If a brand’s credibility wasn’t called into question by this alone, there’s also the issue of Sodium Coco Sulfate typically being derived from the palm fruit, which is linked rainforest deforestation. So even when you’re paying more to do good, you may not be doing good at all.
Hydroquinone is another much maligned ingredient in skin care. Many in the natural skin care industry talk about the toxicity of this while promoting the use of natural alternatives such as Arbutin, Bearberry or Uva Ursi that convert to Hydroquinone in the skin.
Many green beauty bloggers will tell you about the perils of using any sunscreens with nanoparticles while promoting the benefits of colloidal silver.
Citrus essential oils are included in many skin care products because they’re natural and impart a lovely scent, yet they’re also sensitising and pro-oxidant when applied to the skin exposed to UV light. Read more about this in Essential Oils in Skin Care.
Just because you’re buying a skin care product that is labelled natural does not mean that all the ingredients are natural. Natural skin care products may also contain ingredients created in a lab.
Additionally, consider that even natural ingredients, such as plant extracts, need to be grown, harvested and preserved in some way. So at what point have they become so transformed that they’re not natural? Fresh, whole blueberries just don’t get added to that soufflé face mask, despite what the picture on the label leads you to believe!
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has issued warnings around claims that cosmetic products are natural. Consumer laws in Australia, and other countries, do not allow companies to mislead or deceive, however natural has no established definition in cosmetics.
Some brands make the claim that their skin care products are chemical free. As the ACCC pointed out: “We struggle to understand how this claim can possibly be accurate as all products contain chemicals whether naturally occurring or not”.
Ingredients in skin care often serve multiple purposes. One example is Pentylene Glycol. It is a synthetically manufactured ingredient that works as an emulsifier and as an antimicrobial. A brand can use this ingredient to preserve its skin care products but claim they are preservative free.
For safety reasons, skin care products need to be preserved. And this is no different for natural skin care products. Many of the preservatives used in natural skin care products have been made or altered in a lab, so not entirely natural … or not in any way that anyone without a chemistry degree would understand.
Essential oils are often used alone or in combination with other preservatives in natural skin care products. Oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme oils are among those often seen on ingredient lists.
There are two problems with using essential oils as preservatives. One, they need to be used in high amounts, between 10-30%, which can lead to skin irritation, skin sensitivity and potentially photo-reactions, an allergic reaction that looks like a severe burn. Two, they may not preserve effectively.
You can find out more about the use of essential oils in skin care and why they may not be as skin loving as you first thought. Visit our page on Essential Oils in Skin Care.
Grape Seed Extract, or Citrus Seed Extract, is another preservative that’s often used in natural skin care products. This antimicrobial is usually highly processed and chemically modified. It’s considered a controversial preservative. Additionally, there have been studies showing it to be contaminated with antibacterials Benzethonium Chloride and Benzalkonium Chloride. The Material Safety Data Sheet for Grape Seed Extract does not declare these compounds, which are damaging to eyes.
EURO-NApre is a natural preservative using Zanthoxylum Piperitum Fruit Extract, Pulsatilla Koreana Extract and Usnea Barbata Extract. This is the most commonly used natural preservative in Korean and Chinese skin care products. However it’s under a cloud after a Chinese chemist did some analysis and found it contained prohibited contaminants, silver and cyanide. His work needs to be verified by further testing, but there are serious concerns that need to be addressed by the manufacturer and the skin care brands using this preservative.
Most brands these days loudly promote that their natural skin products are cruelty free. I’ve no quibble with that. But that’s not the entire story. The ingredients they use may have been tested on animals or derived from animals.
Some countries require animal testing before the products can be sold there. Cosmetics imported into China are required to be tested on animals. Previously, it’s been revealed that companies claiming to be cruelty free were paying government officials to test their products so they could sell into the Chinese market.
Many ingredients used in skin care are derived from animals, but this isn’t always immediately obvious. Many of us would know that Beeswax, Honey, Lactic Acid, Lanolin, Musk, Propolis, Royal Jelly and Snail Mucin come from animals, and that sometimes this involves the exploitation of animals. Few of us know, however, that some of the most popular skin care ingredients we use may also come from animal sources, such as Glycerin, Hyaluronic Acid, Retinol and Squalane.
This raises another reason why natural skin care products are not always naturally better. A number of animal-derived ingredients have synthetic alternatives that can be created from plants. This is a benefit as it prevents animal cruelty. Squalane can be made from the bio-fermentation of sugarcane or extracted from olives, saving more than 6 million deep sea sharks a year.
Very few companies truly make any real contribution to sustainability. Again we see this as another conflicted positioning statement among many brands without any depth.
From an environmental perspective, many ingredients used in skin care are not sustainable and would be better created synthetically. Some of these ingredients are derived from traditional food crops that require large tracts of land for cultivation and get sprayed with glycoposphate.
One leading natural skin care company that owns many brands in this space states: “We want our business to inspire the advancement of plant and mineral based science without causing unnecessary harm to the planet”. And who wouldn’t applaud that!
Many brands, though, continue to use ingredients that are unsustainable and packaging that is wasteful and non-degradable. It’s estimated that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish! Marine animals cannot distinguish this plastic from food and end up starving to death, choking to death or being injured because of it.
This situation is so dire that an area of the North Pacific Ocean has been named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic ends up here, along with other trash, because it doesn’t biodegrade and simply keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces to become micro-plastic.
The diet of marine life in this area is now mainly plastic. Turtles have been found to have their stomachs full of plastic and micro-plastic.
Plastics absorb chemicals such as PCBs from the sea water and release chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) as they degrade. This has an impact on people, not just marine life.
What lies behind the natural image
So, then, is natural anything more than marketing?
There are many companies that have been created out of a vision to be natural. But only a few that make this central their purpose, their decisions and their actions.
In many cases, what passes for natural skin care products is more about image than substance. This makes it very difficult for any of us to assess whether a brand is genuinely trying to be the change or just sell the change story.
Don’t get me wrong, I support the use of botanicals and plant-based ingredients in skin care products. And the fewer the chemical nasties in the products we put on our skin, the better. This is the reason I started Skin Clinica. In selecting products to include in our shop, I have intentionally sought out brands that are conscious and ethical.
Visit our page on Skin Care Ingredients to find out what Ingredients Your Skin Can Do Without. But I don’t believe that natural skin care products are naturally a superior choice all of the time.
We shouldn’t be misled into believing that, by buying natural skin care products, we’re always making better decisions for our health and for the planet.
Look into the credentials of the company behind the brand and the claims. And know what you’re really buying.
Yours in better skin