If you have an opinion on natural beauty it probably falls within one of two camps. On the one hand you’re a natural beauty nut. Maybe you have a totally greened out home and drive a hybrid (or ride a bike?) You’re always on the hunt for the next oil trend or DIY peel recipe and your kitchen doubles as your cosmetics cabinet.
On the other hand, you aren’t really sold. Maybe you’ve dabbled before and were disappointed. It smells weird, it seems ineffective, and anyone who’s tried a shampoo bar likely never ventured into the natural aisle again.
I have been in both camps. At one time I was a natural fibre wearing, henna using, no nail polish, shea butter obsessed natural beauty enthusiast. After one too many disappointing shampoo bar experiences I started to move away from natural beauty. I delved deep into the world of actives, acids, essences and sheet masks. I discovered incomparable holy grail products that I wouldn’t trade for all the shea butter in the world.
Then, never able to shake my concern over ingredients and labelling while also seeing the undeniable and science backed effectiveness of natural products, I drifted back into the natural fray. This time around I’m committed to a more balanced approach based on mindful beauty rituals, a lot of really excellent natural products and a few conventional holy grail products that I can’t live without.
This post is everything I’ve learned about natural beauty. Why skeptics should try it. Why natural nuts should be wary. And most importantly, how our choices as consumers can improve the cosmetics industry and increase the availability of natural, safe and science backed products from accountable and ethical manufacturers.
What Does Natural Even Mean?
It’s true: “Natural” has become a catch all phrase. An annoying buzzword without a clear meaning that’s thrown around haphazardly by green bloggers and cosmetics companies alike. There are complicated dimensions to defining natural. For example, we think of lavender essential oil as natural and many people assume it’s safe. Lavender has been linked to photosensitivity, skin irritation, and toxicity to human skin cells in vitro. Linalool is a naturally derived scent compound found in lavender and other essential oils. It’s a chemical derivative that doesn’t occur in nature in isolation. Is lavender safe because it’s natural? Is linalool unsafe because it’s chemically derived?
With that caveat aside, as far as this post is concerned natural means what most people expect is to mean: A naturally occurring or naturally derived ingredient or product.
Why Go Natural?
Everything you put on your body is also absorbed into your blood stream. If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients of a typical body care product you probably assumed that everything was safe because there are regulations in place to protect consumers, right? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
Chemical regulation is a difficult and lengthy process, even when there’s a known risk.
“There is not a requirement that existing chemicals demonstrate safety. The procedural hurdles once we judge there to be a risk are very high, so taking action once you know that there is a risk is incredibly difficult…as a matter of fact the one time we tried it, we actually lost in court.” – Jim Jones of the Environmental Protection Agency quoted in The Human Experiment
Take almost any conventional cosmetic product and run the ingredients through the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database and you’ll develop a healthy skepticism. For example, BHT is a synthetic preservative used in a variety of skin care products including make up and body washes, like the Dove body wash shown below. According to the EWG studies have found BHT to be an immune system toxin, a carcinogen, and an endocrine disruptor. Its use in cosmetics is regulated in the EU and in California with warning labels, but it is unrestricted elsewhere.
Cosmetics companies often use ingredients that are questionable but pass because they’re under recommended concentrations. This is so ubiquitous it’s become the norm. But that isn’t normal and we as consumers shouldn’t let cosmetics companies normalize low level toxicity. It isn’t enough that chemical concentrations in cosmetics are below recommended levels. The lack of data on risks is not evidence of safety. We known the EPA has very little power to regulate even after risk has been established. Furthermore, risks often only materialize after long term use and by that point it could be too late. As just one tragic example illustrates, earlier this year a California woman was awarded 70 million dollars in a suit against Johnson & Johnson because their baby powder caused her ovarian cancer. Baby powder that is also, ostensibly, used on infants. And yet, you’ll still find it for sale to this very day.
Besides the regulatory issues, more and more studies show that chemicals in household products and cosmetics find their way into our food, water and air.
I love a product I can feel good about using. I love knowing that the products I’m using are good for me and safe for the environment. I can’t slather my body in endocrine disruptors and petroleum by-products when I know there are effective and beautiful alternatives out there.
Effectiveness of Conventional Products
Aside from toxicity, few people are aware that many conventional beauty products are little more than moisturizer with filler in nice packaging. There are a select number of active ingredients that are proven to be effective in specific concentrations and in formulations that are shelf stable. These include AHAs, BHAs, niacidamide, ceramides, peptides, vitamin C and retinoids. As you can imagine, not every drug store wrinkle cream meets these specs and even a lot of luxury brands miss the mark. If the product doesn’t indicate a percentage and that information isn’t available anywhere, chances are there’s so little of it that it does nothing.
The bigger problem (besides wasted money) is that many of these products are not only not that effective, but they actually cause more damage in the long term. This can be because of fillers or because of the actual moisturizers used. Fillers include synthetic fragrances, preservatives, emulsifiers, lathering agents, and other ingredients meant primarily to change how we perceive a product (smell, appearance, feel etc.) SLS (sodium laureate sulfate) a well known lathering agent and detergent is found in almost all shampoos and body washes. Environment Canada has classified it as expected to cause organ toxicity, and it’s been shown to be a skin, eye and lung irritant. Fragrance can often be the most toxic ingredient in a formulation as one fragrance can be made up of dozens of chemicals.
“Examples include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, which concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk.” Scent of Danger: Are There Toxic Ingredients in Perfumes and Colognes? Scientific American
As far as moisture is concerned, conventional beauty products often rely on refined mineral oil or other petrolatum derived moisturizing agents. There aren’t innately harmful but the World Health Organization won’t call mineral oil harmless either.
Other moisturizing agents are known to cause long term damage. A good example is silicone. Silicone is used widely in shampoos and conditioners to moisturize and seal the hair cuticle, but over time it can dry hair out.
“Silicone will weigh the hair down making it limp, lifeless, and with time, very dull. It prevents moisture from penetrating the hair shaft and becomes like a magnet for dirt and other ingredients. So in essence, we get a good shine for a couple of days, but over time it will attract more buildup on the hair. With time it will dry the hair out because it won’t allow in the conditioner and it ends up sitting on the surface. Due to lack of moisture, the hair will become very brittle and could lead to frizz and breakage.” —Shai Amiel, Celebrity Hairstylist & Owner, CAPELLA Salon via thecoveteur.com
Natural Alternatives Are Effective, Safe, and Environmentally Friendly
Natural oils have been used for millennia. We know virtually everything there is to know about them. We know they’re safe and science is proving them effective too. As science advances we’re also starting to learn how to formulate non-toxic cosmetics using natural derivatives.
There are tons of natural moisturizers with a wide variety of scientifically backed benefits that you can feel good about using. Don’t use petroleum derivatives like baby oil and vaseline when you can opt for shea butter, lanolin, sweet almond oil, and coconut oil. If you have acne you could try tea tree oil, evening primrose oil and neem. If you want thicker lashes and brows, castor oil is known to work.
I also know from personal experience that you are more likely to get tangible benefits from adding mindfully administered beauty treatments and rituals like ice baths and lymphatic massage to your routine than by slathering a new moisturizer over your face. It’s only in recent years that mass consumerism has turned beauty into an industry devoted to buying rather than doing. In our mother’s and grandmother’s time beauty wasn’t about products but about self care. Somewhere along the way we forgot that and started to rely on slathering product on ourselves rather than doing the actual work and art of beauty. A small number of judiciously and lovingly applied products along with a solid self care routine will do much more than all the La Mer in the world.
When Natural Isn’t Better
There are a lot of good reasons to use natural products whenever possible, but the truth is that natural isn’t always better. Natural beauty shouldn’t be treated like an intractable ideology. Natural isn’t always better, and it’s okay to admit that. No amount of lemon juice is going to give you the effect of a 20% glycolic acid solution. A mayonnaise hair mask is not appealing. Bar shampoo just doesn’t work. And who can forget the infamous case of chemical burn by DIY parsley peel once mentioned on a skin care forum.
The goal isn’t to use all natural all the time, but to be informed and practice controlled exposure. I’m not in any rush to give up nail polish, perfume or liquid shampoo….but I am committed to finding the safest and most environmentally friendly options. There are still products I use with questionable ingredients, but I use them sparingly and infrequently.
Be wary of corporate greenwash. Corporations often take advantage of buzzwords to sell products without actually upholding any of the principles of the green movement. There is nothing more infuriating than seeing a chemical laden product advertised as containing “organic botanicals.” As far as cosmetic labelling goes, natural means next to nothing. Even the “organic” designation only applies to agricultural products used in cosmetic manufacturing (hint: botanicals might not also be agricultural products.) At the same time, there is no universal accrediting agency for the labelling of body care products so many companies opt to use private third party designations. So, don’t trust labels implicitly. Always read the fine print or consult reputable sources.
The more we support higher standards in natural beauty, the higher those standards will climb.
Featured image credit @_peaceofcolor