There is a huge market currently for all natural/organic skincare. It is an industry that has taken the beauty world by storm and according recent market analysis, the organic personal care market was worth USD$8.43 Billion dollars at the end of 2013, it is expected to rise to be worth USD$15.98 billion globally by the year 2020. There is no doubt that the rise in the organic/natural skincare industry has been huge. How many of us now have a natural or organic type product in our skincare line up now? I would say many of us, myself included.
However in saying this, have you ever noticed how many products are being marketed or claim to be natural and organic, but find out it really isn't when looking at the ingredients? This is dubbed as 'greenwashing' and it is basically when a brand claims or appears to be formulated with natural and organic ingredients, when the reality is most of the ingredient list is the exact opposite. Consumers think that products with these sorts of claims are generally better for them, but is it really? Will their skin be as amazing and glowing like the model in the campaign photos? This week's super long blog entry (sorry, I keep doing this) I guess will explore some of these questions! Be warned, this is long!
What Does Natural and Organic Mean in the Cosmetics Industry
According to the Council of European Guidelines, the definition of a 'natural cosmetic' is: a product consisting of natural substances of botanical, mineral or animal origin, exclusively obtained through physical, microbiological or enzymatic methods, with certain exceptions for fragrances and preservatives. The term organic defined by the US National Organic Program is that the food or other agricultural product (in this case the ingredient) has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.
In doing some research for this topic, I found it extremely difficult to find definitions for natural and organic in relation to the cosmetic industry specifically. I continually read things like that there is no real definition (in relation to the US Food and Drugs Administration) or that it is a bit of a grey area. It came as no real surprise to me that there is very little regulation on how cosmetic companies use the terms natural and organic in their marketing and labelling. I can totally relate to this as how many of you have picked up a product that claims to be "natural" to find a huge ingredient listing of all sorts of chemicals and it containing a 'natural' extract right at the bottom? I know I have plenty of times and it really does annoy me as the use of these terms are not very well governed in many parts of the world which can lead to a misconception to the average consumer. For a general consumer who doesn't read their product labels, they are lead to believe that what they are purchasing is in fact natural when, really perhaps 10% of that product is from natural sources and the rest are nasty synthetics which they had wanted to avoid. It is extremely misleading for the consumer and is something that governments and industries are slowly working towards to set a standard.
Organic and Natural Certifications:
When specifically looking at skincare, it is important to note that any organic certifications from any body is related to a food or plant in its whole form only and not the essential oil, extract etc. Once the food/plant has been broken down and created in to a skincare product you cannot actually call it organic as it has undergone changes from its original form from chemical process or extracting processes. For example, you will rarely see the word 'green tea' on a label, instead you may see instead, the scientific name and what it is: camellia sinesis extract.
There are some certification that companies can apply for to have their products certified organic. For example in the United States, the governing body for Organic goods (the USDA) accredits the following:
- 100% Organic: Product must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.
- Organic: Product must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form, also on the National List. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.
- Made with more than 70% organic ingredients: Products contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and product label can list up to three of the organic ingredients or “food” groups on the principal display panel. For example, body lotion made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients (excluding water and salt) and only organic herbs may be labeled either “body lotion made with organic lavender, rosemary, and chamomile,” or “body lotion made with organic herbs.” Products may not display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.
- Made with less than 70% organic ingredients: Products cannot use the term “organic” anywhere on the principal display panel. However, they may identify the specific ingredients that are USDA-certified as being organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel. Products may not display the USDA Organic Seal and may not display a certifying agent’s name and address. Water and salt are also excluded here.
Eco-Cert, another certification body based in France, was one of the first certification bodies to impose a criteria for natural and organic cosmetics. To get a certification from this body, the product must comply with the following:
In the UK, the Soil Association is the main organic governing body. To meet their certification standards the product must:
To get COSMOS organic certification, 95% of a product’s farmed ingredients and 20% of the entire product, must be organic. The remaining ingredients must meet strict criteria to ensure that they are not damaging to our health or the environment. Products must also meet environmental standards for packaging and manufacturing, and use approved 'green chemistry' processes to modify ingredients.
If a product uses between 70-95% organic agro-ingredients we will certify it, but not allow it to claim to be organic. In this case, it can state that it is made with ‘xx% organic ingredients’. However, we will not certify any product with less than 70% organic ingredients at all.
As you can see, to get these certifications, the general rules are quite stringent and leave very little room for movement which is great. To get these certifications, the guidelines are well laid out and you will be guaranteed that what you are buying is formulated with all natural ingredients bar a few. The certification bodies listed above are few of the many certifications that exist, most countries do have their own equivalent standards. However, bear in mind some companies have set up their 'own' organic certification standards so they can advertise that their particular product is organic but may have not undergone some of the stringent guidelines like the ones above.
However, many companies also choose not to have their products certified as the process to have it certified is an expensive and lengthy one. Some smaller companies may also not have the revenue or resources to certify their products. Also keep in mind also many companies source their ingredients from many suppliers and to have the certification their suppliers must already be accredited or certified or become accredited and certified which can be expensive for their trusted farmers. This statement from the Tata Harper website puts things in to perspective quite well:
When it comes to the term natural however, there is no real definition within these governing bodies and this claim has not been properly certified, accredited or really monitored globally. This has therefore lead to many misleading claims with regards to many products claiming to be natural. A survey conducted in 2007, showed that 78% of consumers believed that the term 'natural' used by companies were regulated in personal care products such as cosmetics and skincare and 65% of consumers thought for an item to be labelled as natural, at least 95% of the ingredients were natural. I found these statistics to be quite scary and whilst they do not represent the whole population, there are people out there who probably are being mislead in their personal care shopping. This is not entirely their fault as many companies do very well in their PR and marketing. In the US, the FDA to date has not enforced any actions on any cosmetics company for the misleading use of the terms 'organic', 'green' or 'natural'. However, in Australia the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 2009 took action against the brand Natural Instinct for incorrect labelling - they conveniently left out the ingredients such as Sodium Laurel Sulphate and Cocamide DEA and Cetrimonium Chloride and later on used incorrect names for some of their chemical ingredients. The ACCC has taken similar action against companies such as Sukin for similar misleading claims, however the brands still retain their 'natural' marketing claims.
So How Will I Know is Something REALLY is Natural Then?
When there is no certification on a product which claims to be organic/natural and you really are looking for a 100% or mainly natural/and or organic product, the best thing to do is to simply look at the ingredient listing and understand your ingredients. An example is of a brand where their tagline is "Active Naturals" and their branding looks very eco friendly and 'natural' it is generally perceived as brand that will use mainly 'active natural' ingredients, yes? However, on closer inspection when you look at their ingredient listing for a foaming cleanser, you will probably think twice:
Water, Glycerin, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Polysorbate 20, PEG-16 Soy Sterol, PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, PEG-16 Macadamia Glycerides, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Protein, Phenoxyethanol, Propylparaben, Methylparaben, Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Butylene Glycol, Xanthan Gum, Disodium EDTA, Citric Acid, Fragrance
I stress, it is so important to read ingredient labels!!! That there is plain green washing in my opinion as the only natural ingredient that I can see there is Soybean Protein. Everything else on the list are mainly chemicals and lots of parabens which goes against the philosophy of real organic and natural brands. This goes across many of their products on the website and I have to admit, their marketing is impressive - the choice of photos, colours and quotes give the brand that holistic natural vibe (to find what company I am speaking about, simply click on the active link earlier). This particular company's marketing strategies are very misleading and active naturals, I think not!
Studies for Natural vs Synthetic Ingredients - What Do Scientists Say?
So what does science say in terms of what is better for our skin? Is natural better and are synthetics safe? Is it all media hype based on just one study? Unfortunately the arguments for both sides have been rather inconclusive and there has been no real study that hones in on this particular topic. Most arguments against natural ingredients are to do with human irritation (allergies) to the skin. Whilst arguments against some controversial synthetic ingredients have sound arguments both for and against, which is enough to confuse anyone.
In a study published in 2014, Italian scientists used a questionnaire for 2661 participants, asking them questions with regards to prevalence and types of topical botanical products used and the occurrence of adverse skin reactions. Of the patients, 54% had reported the use of topical botanical products, 11% (139 people) of these participants claimed that they have skin reactions. These participants were then asked to do an allergy patch test and 54% had a positive recation. Interestingly enough, 122 of these participants were tested with a topical botanical product, 16% showed positive reactions to the product. The study also found that the most common botanical allergies in this study were from the compositae (daisy family) extracts and tea treat oils. Scientists in this study concluded that it is possible to get an adverse reaction from natural products.
In another study conducted in 2004, 140 patients were patch tested to a study tray containing 47 botanical extracts. These 140 patients were divided into two groups, one group (21 participants) had a clinical diagnosis of contact allergies and the other group (119 participants) had no history of botanical extract use. Both groups were evaluated in a contact dermatitis clinic. Testing found that 47.6% of patients in the high risk group had at least one positive reaction to the patch testing and only 4 in the control group had a reaction. It was concluded that those with sensitive (high risk group) are more likely to react to botanical extracts. As you can see both studies show very small links to skin irritation and the use of botanical ingredients in topical ointments such as skincare, but what they do show is that people can get allergic reactions from botanical extracts. Whilst perhaps they are not toxic, natural ingredients do have the potential to be irritating to the skin, just like their synthetic counterparts.
In saying that, there are also PLENTY of studies out there that also show reactions, skin issues and general health issues (such as cancer) related to certain synthetic chemicals in our skincare. These include chemicals such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, which according to a scientific paper published in 2003, 1600 participants were patch tested over a course of 5 years to see how their skin reacted to SLS. Scientists found that 668 of the participants had an irritant reaction to the substance and that reactions were worse over winter in comparison to the summer months. In a toxicology review published in 2015, the paper deemed that SLS does have the potential to be irritating to the skin and the eyes if it is not formulated properly but the paper generally showed a favourable view on the use of SLS in household and cosmetic products saying there was no real conclusive evidence.
Parabens is another synthetic substance that many chemists and scientists argue about over the safety over. In 2004, a small scale study showed that high concentrations of parabens cause breast cancer as parabens have the ability mimic or alter the production of oestrogen (which is one of the main issues in the development breast cancer). In 2008, the same scientist recreated the same study but on a larger scale where scientists looked at the concentration of parabens in breast cancer tissue. In 99% of the tissue, parabens were found and in 60% of the tissue, all 5 parabens being tested were found in the tissue samples. In a report developed by the Scientific Committee of Consumer Products launched by the European Commission, their final conclusive say on the matter is that parabens are not dangerous and are safe to use up to the point of a concentration of 25%. Most cosmetic and skincare products contain less than 0.5% concentration in parabens. Many consider parabens an essential ingredient as its acts as a preservative and keeps bacteria from growing in personal care products. In this report, there are a plethora of different scientific studies that back up this claim. At this point in time, there have been some studies that have found some parabens have been a skin irritant which has lead to a few skincare manufacturers in Asia to omit this in developing new products. With all those details in mind, as a consumer it is hard to decide which way to go, as there are valid points for both arguments.
Is Natural/Organic Really Better for My Skin Then?
This is the big million dollar question and to be honest I think it all depends on the person, their own personal history and their own personal preferences. I think the answer to this question is a personal one and I do not think there is a definitive black and white yes/no answer for. As you can see in the very small selection of the studies above, there are a few studies which show the problems with both synthetics vs natural products and arguments are thrown all over the place for both cases. The bottom line is that there is no scientific definitive answer and one will most likely be a very, very long time coming.
It is also important to note that there are also no scientific definitive studies or substantial data to say people who use organic/natural products will have better skin than those who products with synthetics. Certified organic products do have the added benefit of being pretty much non-toxic so you don't have to spend the time to decipher labels to see if there are any parabens or sulfates but as to whether or not it has a difference to our skin? That is something that depends entirely on the person and their skin type and how their skin will react to the ingredients of the product.
For some people, purchasing only organic and natural products is a very personal journey or is just their own personal preference with skincare and cosmetics. I know a close friend who's mother developed cancer when she was quite young. Her stance on all natural and organic products is a deeply personal journey for her and it stems from her experiences with that. Another friend of mine chooses to go all natural and organic as purely an educated lifestyle choice, she read what some chemicals in our skincare can to the skin and has since flat out avoided uses conventional skincare and opts for more natural choices, organic being her preference. A popular blogger (one that I love to follow) detailorientatedbeauty takes a 90/10 approach, where her skincare is 90% natural/organic and the other 10% will not be all natural, but instead be free from certain synthetics. Her decision to go this particular path stemmed from falling quite ill to the point she landed herself in hospital and this was a turning point for her and her lifestyle.
Personally I am not one to actively look for something to be all natural and organic, for me it is all about the ingredients and what it will do for my skin. I do however HATE greenwashing, so if something claims to be natural and/or organic, I expect the label's ingredients to rightfully back up their marketing claims. My personal approach to skincare is to look closely at the ingredients and what will general sway me is positive reviews, product claims and the ingredients of a product. As a general rule, I do have ingredients in which I flat out avoid, these include mineral oil, bad alcohols (ie. alcohol denatured), sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate just to name a few. I generally avoid these as I find that my skin actually reacts badly to these sorts of ingredients, especially in high concentrations. I find that they also do get a bad wrap in the media for similar issues. I am also on the fence about parabens but try to take the approach to avoid it as much as possible due to studies showing that there is a risk and the final word being inconclusive. In saying that I do have 2-3 products in my stash that contain do contain parabens.
My opinion (and please note we all have differing opinions so please do not crucify me for saying this) is that all natural and organic does not necessarily mean better for your skin. The reason I say this is that there are some ingredients out there that are perhaps organic or natural that cause me to have all sorts of reactions on my skin. One of these ingredients is actually Lavender, anything with lavender extract or essential oil high on the list put topically on to my skin will cause me to break out in a crazy rash. I learnt this the hard way in purchasing the Miranda Kerr KORA Organics range (which is actually certified by the way). In the same week, I purchased a pure Lavender essential oil and put some on my wrists and that caused me to react in same way. Yes, the ingredients were organic and/or natural but it simply did not sit well with me. I have also reacted to some products that contain natural fruit enzymes (just far too harsh on my skin) and certain natural scents (in particular woody scents) make me feel quite ill. We have to remember that everyone is different and everyone will react to different things. It is the same as skincare, just because something works miracles for you, will not mean it will work for another person. Some of these organic/natural beauty junkies have the most amazing skin, as do those who use ones that have many synthetics.
Going forward from my KORA skincare experience, I turned to REN a few years ago, a skincare company which had a more realistic 'no nasties' approach to skincare for me (as I have sensitive skin) and I also looked into brands such as Beautycounter, which thoroughly go through all the ingredients that are in each of their products to make sure they meet their stringent ingredient standards. Ever since then I have been building up my skincare collection and ever so slowly building my knowledge of ingredients ever since. I am no expert, but I am willing to learn! I really don't think there is any harm in using natural and organic products, I have a few of these sorts of products in my collection which I love and they do absolute wonders for my skin (and the bonus is that they ARE all natural). Certain products, I would much rather buy that were natural/organic, these would be things such a face oils or second cleanse oil cleansers as I know there are no nasties and what I am getting is generally a high quality ingredient. At the same time I do and would mix these with products that do contain synthetic ingredients. I believe that some of these synthetic ingredients do have some amazing research and development behind them which are aimed to help the skin whether it be oily, dry or aged. Some synthetic ingredients are also amazing for those with super sensitive skin types or react to almost anything. I do at the end of the day look at ingredients and try to understand what I am using so that I can enjoy the best of both worlds.
What are your thoughts on natural and organic skincare? What approach do you take? And have you ever been 'green washed' before? Let me know and thank you for taking the time to rad my ever so lengthy post!