the truth about "natural" and "organic" skin care products
Interviewer: You founded Paula’s Choice in 1995, in part, because you were frustrated with misinformation spread by the cosmetics industry. Do you think that there’s been any improvement in the industry overall, or has it gotten worse?
Paula Begoun, a.k.a. The Cosmetics Cop: Are you kidding? It’s worse. Now the same bullshit just follows website after website after blog. The information has gotten crazier. Now it’s: “parabens are bad, mineral oil is bad, and if you drink water your dry skin is going to go away.” The myths are endless. And then there’s “natural skin care.” You can’t make an SPF 30, which is the new standard — particularly a water-resistant one — with just natural ingredients.
Over the course of the last few years, the sale of cosmetic products with “natural” and “organic” labels, has shot through the roof. A number of cosmetics brands are using fear tactics to market their products, calling “chemicals” bad, and selling their products as free of all of these purportedly “bad chemicals”. But questions remain: Is “natural” really better for you? Is there any truth to these claims or are they simply intelligent marketing tactics that exploit the growing fear of “chemicals” that consumers are developing? And what do natural and organic claims even mean in the beauty industry - if anything at all?
As a science geek, I want to start off by setting the record straight on “chemical free”. There is no such thing. Water is a chemical, gold is a chemical, and every cell in your body is made up of chemicals. I question the legitimacy of any brand that markets itself as chemical free. Such marketing tactics can reflect one of two things:
The brand doesn’t know basic science.
They’re only interested in turning a profit and will use deceptive marketing to do so.
In neither case, would I want to turn the care of my skin, my largest bodily organ, and the first thing that people see and use to develop an impression of me, to such a brand - not by a long shot. However, pervasive myths in the cosmetics industry don’t end here. A lot of people might not buy into chemical-free, but might still believe passionately, that natural ingredients are somehow better for them than synthetic ones. This belief however, is also problematic in itself, and for several reasons.
Firstly, when it comes to cosmetics, the terms “natural” and “organic” have no legal definition. The terms simply aren’t regulated by any agency or governing body, which means that they have no real meaning and anyone can pick them and slap them on to their products - to fool consumers and make their products sell. At the end of the day, most consumers do not and cannot read ingredients lists and derive meaningful information out of them, and therefore, rely on marketing messages to tell them what a product is all about. In Pakistan specifically, I’ve seen brands go to the extent of omitting ingredients from ingredients lists just to give the impression that a product is all natural. Most people might not notice, but to the discerning eye the discrepancy is clear: if an ingredients list contains oil and water and doesn’t mention things like preservatives and emulsifiers, it simply doesn’t make sense. You can’t make a lotion without emulsifiers, and you can make a lotion with a decent shelf-life without preservatives. Period.
Secondly, and perhaps, more importantly, being natural or organic doesn’t necessarily make a chemical better or safer. In a lot of instances, synthetic chemicals are identical to those found in nature - chemists have just found cheaper, and cleaner ways of manufacturing them in the lab. This also means that the distinction between natural and synthetic isn’t as black and white as most people assume it is. What’s more? A number of natural chemicals are actively harmful - this is true for your internal health and for the health of your skin. Botulinum toxin, commonly known as “botox”, is the deadliest poison on the planet - and it’s 100% natural. Produced by an anaerobic bacterium, it has the capacity to kill at a dose of a mere nanogram, per kilogram per body weight. That means that if you weigh 70 kg, 0.00000007 g is enough to kill you.
Several more examples exist as well. Apple seeds contain cyanide and, citing something closer to the world of skin care, lemon juice has a pH of less than 2 and contains limonene, which means that lemons seriously irritate your skin and have the capacity to cause chemical burns if you go out in the sun with after having rubbed lemon juice on your face - and trust me, experiencing such burns is anything but pleasant. What’s more, the concentration of vitamin C in lemon juice, the ingredient that it’s commonly used to take advantage of, is a mere 0.04%, while vitamin C serums in skin care, typically have concentrations of the ingredient in excess of 5% and even go as high as 25% or 30%. Baking soda is another example of an ingredient commonly touted as miraculous in DIY and natural skin care circles, but at a pH of around 9, it also has the potential to seriously disrupt your skin.
This brings me to another set of ingredients commonplace in the world of natural and organic skin care: essential oils. These are volatile plant essences and are complex mixtures that often contain up to 60 different substances. While some of these substances might actually be beneficial, essential oils tend to be packed with irritating fragrant compounds such as limonene, citronellol, eugenol, and linalool, which means that the negatives far outweigh the positives. Fragrance, no matter its source, natural or synthetic, especially in leave-on products, is bad for your skin. Period. Which is why, absolutely none of our leave-on products are formulated with fragrant ingredients, regardless of origin. What’s more? Essential oils, in terms of inherent toxicity, are no different from other herbal preparations when it comes to contamination, adverse reactions, overdose, and the possibility of carcinogenesis.
Thirdly, a lot of the fear-mongering has been done against chemicals that aren’t actually bad. Take sulfates as an example. A number of people I’ve met believe that sulfates are carcinogenic - which is absurd. Some, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, have the potential to be overly drying, and irritating for skin, however, that certainly doesn’t mean that they’re all created equal and some are much gentler than others.
Another example worthy of note is that of parabens. Parabens have become a source of concern in recent times. This is because there is some research that suggests that parabens can disrupt the working of some biological systems. However, these studies used parabens in concentrations of up to 100%, and in some instances, actually fed them to animals instead of applying them on the skin. Parties that have slapped on allegations against parabens, have failed to account for the actual concentration of parabens used to preserve cosmetic products, which are typically less than 1%. In toxicology, it is widely recognised that the dose makes the poison. Even water, in significantly large quantities, disrupts brain functioning and causes death.
According to the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety: “Parabens make up an important part of the preservatives which could be used in cosmetics. In addition to propylparaben and butylparaben, other parabens, like ethylparaben and ethylparaben, are safe, as repeatedly confirmed by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). They are also some of the most efficient preservatives.” And fun fact: did you know that parabens are naturally found in blueberries? This, by traditional definitions, makes them natural. If at this point you want to question your entire existence, because it’s been a lie, I hear you.
This is not to say that harmful ingredients don’t exist at all and can’t be found in cosmetic products. In 2010, large amounts of formaldehyde-releasing chemicals were found in the hair straightening treatment from Brazilian Blowout, while in 2012, the FDA discovered lead in around 400 types of lipsticks. In Pakistan, where I’m from, whitening creams are probably the most popular beauty product there is, and they are chock full of steroids and mercury. Despite the incidence of such products and cases however, fear-mongering when it comes to “chemicals” has gotten out of control, propelled in part by brands that are trying to use this fear to their advantage.
It is important to remember that most ingredients, when applied on the skin, don’t make it into your bloodstream, contrary to what popular media would have you believe. Our skin is, at the end of the day, our shield against the outside world, and a pretty good one at that. All said and done, the moral of the story is simple: don’t buy into fear-mongering and believe everything you hear. Make an effort to dig deeper and rely only on trustworthy sources for your information. And when in doubt, you can always get in touch with us!
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