|Home||About Us||About Homeopathy||Getting Treatment||How We Can Help You||What You Can Do||Research||Media Centre|
Cosmetics: does natural mean best?
Editor Sarah Buckingham describes a growing phenomenon in the beauty products market
What do manufacturers of cosmetics mean when they say their products are “natural”? And what do we think they mean by that word? Free from harmful chemicals perhaps. Containing something that naturally occurs in our environment. A substance that hasn’t been processed maybe? I was curious and, knowing H&H readers are interested not just in homeopathy but in a holistic way of life in general, thought you would like to know more too.
Cosmetics is big business. According to the European Commission, the industry in the EU alone is worth €35 billion. A sector of the industry that has been growing for some time is the natural and organic market. So it’s quite surprising to find that there is currently no government regulation of organic or natural beauty products. EU legislation that applies to the UK covers organic food and farming, but not cosmetics. It’s a similar story in the US, where the Food and Drugs Administration(FDA) does not regulate cosmetic products and ingredients (except for colour additives) until after they come to market. The US have developed “Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards” to certify natural and organic body care products but these are only applicable once products are on the market.
What this means is that there is a free for all in the industry, to take advantage of words like natural and organic for marketing purposes. These words understandably have a powerful pull for consumers. Big players in the industry have been wise to this opportunity for many years. L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, famously bought up The Body Shop four years ago. US company Clorox, best known in the States for making bleach, owns the popular Burt’s Bees brand. As well as taking ownership of these types of brands, corporations have developed their own brands of “natural” cosmetics and toiletries. Procter and Gamble, the second largest company in the industry after L’Oréal, owns the Herbal Essences brand for example. The alluring themes of purity and nature are employed to great effect by cosmetic multinationals in massive marketing campaigns. Companies are increasingly moving into the sector. According to suppliers of plant extracts to the industry, there is a growing demand for botanical ingredients like Aloe vera, green tea, chamomile and red clover.
Not quite back to nature
Here is a list of ingredients from the back of a bottle of bubble bath marketed as a “natural” product:
Aqua, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Chloride, Glycerin, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Parfum, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Disodium EDTA, DMDM Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Sodium Hydroxide, Citronellol, Hexyl Cinnamal, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Benzoate, Benzophenone 4, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Chamomilla Recutitia Extract, Ethoxydiglycol, Mimosa Tenuiflora Bark Extract, Sorbitol, Sorbic Acid, Butylparaben, Etyhlparaben, Isobutylparaben, Methylparaben, Phenoxyethanol, Propylparaben, Hexylene Glycol, Cl 15985, Cl 18965.
This list of ingredients isn’t necessarily bad and this article isn’t about portraying manufacturers as evil touters of nasty, toxic products. Many ingredients with scarysounding, impossible to pronounce names are simply a combination of chemicals found naturally occurring on the planet; “chemicals” shouldn’t be seen as synonymous with “bad”. Cocamidopropyl betaine is derived from coconut oil for example. The issue is the use of the word natural, next to a long list of synthesised ingredients. You have to query the accuracy of the marketing message here. The botanical extracts may not even be particularly close to the attributes of the original plants. Extraction methods vary greatly – not all extracts have the same levels of purity. The cheaper extracts may only contain a small amount of the original substance.
It’s hard to know just from looking at this ingredients list about the purity of the plant extracts. This brings us back to the regulation issue. The companies that produce botanical and other extracts for cosmetic manufacturers have to be proactive in setting their own quality standards, because none are in place. This costs them money, a cost which must then be passed on to the manufacturer. In an unregulated market the manufacturer has no standards to measure products against and in the majority of cases, will plump for the cheapest option.Global sales of “natural” cosmetics passed €5 billion in 2007. But how do we know what’s what if there are no regulations?
Steps towards regulation
In the UK, the Soil Association is working hard to develop Europewide regulations for organic health and beauty products, together with organisations like Ecocert, the main organic certifying body in France. Currently the Soil Association approves the use of their organiccertified mark on beauty products under the same legislation that they apply to standards in organic farming and food, but there are no specific regulations yet for the body care market.
The Soil Association’s standards
For a product to be labelled organic, it must adhere to the following criteria:
- 95% organic ingredients
- no genetically modified (GM) ingredients
- where synthetic ingredients must be used because there is currently no organic alternative, they must be selected from a restricted list which have been shown not to be harmful to human health
- manufacture and use must have a minimal environmental impact
Finding the Soil Association mark on a beauty product shows that the above criteria have been met.
What does organic mean?
- In the context of foods and farming, it means a system of production where:
- the use of pesticides is restricted
- artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited
- animal cruelty is prohibited and free range farming is encouraged
- growing GM crops or using
- them in animal feed is banned
- routine use of antibiotics, drugs and wormers in livestock is disallowed
‘Chemical nasties’ in cosmetics - are we overreacting?
What’s so bad about all the conventional products out there anyway? Let’s take a look at the kinds of ingredients found in cosmetics. This is not an exhaustive list, but some of the most widely used ingredients are listed here.
Used as a softener in products including perfume, nail polish, liquid soap, moisturiser, eye shadow and hair spray. Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid which are also used in a huge variety of plastic products, particularly PVC, to make them flexible. Phthalates are released into the environment fairly easily because they are not bonded to the plastic and we are probably all exposed to them at some point. Some argue that phthalates have been around and in use for over 50 years and the benefits of using them as plasticisers in a multitude of products far outweigh the harms. However, health concerns have been raised both in Europe and the US about high exposure to phthalates, for example through babies chewing plastic toys. In 2005 the European Parliament banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys and other childcare items. There is evidence that phthalates interfere with hormones associated with the development of the reproductive system. There are also concerns about the potential role of phthalates in the growing incidence of allergic diseases. At one point diethyl hexyl phthalate was listed by the World Health Organisation as a carcinogen but this listing was later revoked, after a study showed the effects were specific to rodents. Phthalates are being phased out of a lot of cosmetic products.
There are a variety of different parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben). They are preservatives and commonly added to cosmetics and foods. Some parabens like methylparaben are found naturally, in blueberries for example. Parabens act as antimicrobial agents. They are biodegradable and break down to form phydroxybenzoic acid, which occurs naturally in a number of fruits, vegetables and plants including carrots, olives, cucumbers, strawberries and ylang ylang. Parabens can cause irritation to the skin and eyes. There has been a scare surrounding their use after it was rumoured that using underarm deodorants was causing breast cancer. A study carried out at the University of Reading and published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found high concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. Parabens may mimic the hormone oestrogen, which has a role in the development of breast cancer. However, no causal link between parabens and breast cancer has been proven, and further research is required. It has been noted by scientists that the oestrogenic effect of parabens is insignificant compared to the levels of oestrogen that occur naturally in the body.
Sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a surfactant (short for surface active agent) which is used in products designed to remove oily stains or residues. It is a lathering agent and often features in bubble bath, as well as shaving foam, shampoo and toothpaste. Research shows that SLS in toothpaste may contribute to the formation of mouth ulcers and there is some evidence that prolonged exposure can cause skin irritation, particularly in people with sensitive skin. Sodium laureth sulphate (or sodium lauryl ether sulphate – SLES) is also a surfactant with a foaming action and has the ability to cause skin irritation and mouth ulcers like SLS. The concentrations of SLS and SLES used in cosmetics are considered safe by authorities, although some SLS/SLES products have been found to contain very low levels of the known carcinogen 1,4dioxane.
Sodium benzoate (E211)
A preservative which is used widely in foods, soft drinks and other products. Benzoic acid occurs naturally in foods like cranberries, prunes, cinnamon and apples and is a more effective preservative than sodium benzoate, but does not dissolve well in water. Research that investigated hyperactivity in children found that consumption of sodium benzoate, together with certain artificial colours, resulted in an increase in hyperactive behaviour. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) attributed this to the colours rather than E211 and called for manufacturers to voluntarily withdraw artificial colours (but not E211) from products in 2008. Research conducted at the University of Sheffield has suggested sodium benzoate in foodstuffs may have a role in damaging DNA, although the researchers have stressed that more research is required to find out if this is the case. Other studies have shown that when sodium benzoate is combined with another preservative, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), there is the potential for benzene, a carcinogen, to be created. This problem can easily be avoided if manufacturers use a different preservative in fruit juices and don’t add ascorbic acid to soft drinks, although large soft drinks firms have been very slow to act on this.
Making informed choices
In summary, there are legitimate concerns being raised with a number of ingredients used in the cosmetics industry. There are also unfortunate scare stories circulating which brand “chemicals” as bad and “natural products” as good.
The reality is somewhere in between. We’ve seen that choosing something that is marketed as “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting a different or better product to a regular brand. And in fact there are plenty of plants in their raw natural state that could cause an allergic reaction equal to that of a synthesised compound. The assumption that adding any botanical or mineral ingredient to a beauty product must make it effective is also misleading, but that is for another article. Buying certified organic can reassure you that certain standards apply in the making of the product. If in doubt read the label and check out the ingredients listed there.
Homeopathy and cosmetics
Cosmetics as antidotes to homeopathy
There are some ingredients in cosmetics which it is believed may act as antidotes to homeopathic treatment (see box below). If in doubt consult your homeopath.
Some homeopaths believe there other substances, like coffee and peppermint, that antidote homeopathic medicines. It would be difficult and impractical to eradicate from our daily lives the long list of potential antidotes that Samuel Hahnemann identified. But purely in terms of cosmetics, it is worth thinking about what products you use – take a look at what they contain. Could your skin regime be simpler? Food works best when it is simple and unprocessed and it is reassuring to run your finger down a list of ingredients and know what every single item is. It can’t hurt to think about our cosmetics in the same way.
The “natural” label
Homeopathy has traditionally been marketed as natural and does tend to fall into the “it’s natural so it must be good” category. Homeopathy sceptics routinely attack the therapy for actively marketing itself as such. The natural label can be misleading, particularly as a number of the ingredients used in homeopathy are chemically synthesised in laboratories like any other conventional product on the shelves. In truth the benefits of homeopathy are more about the idea of doing no harm than about the medicines themselves being “natural” and if you look at it that way, the principles of the therapy are very much in line with the organic way of thinking.
The power of choice
It is clear that companies use the natural label to great marketing effect. At the moment it’s difficult to see how regulation will curb this phenomenon. But in truth the power is with us, the consumers. If we want to change the way the cosmetics industry operates in this market we should make a point of buying only certified organic products, or products that can demonstrate that the ingredients haven’t been unnecessarily processed. The more informed we are about what goes into our everyday products, the more we can start to make conscious decisions based on the evidence and not the marketing spiel, the better our cosmetics industry should become at ensuring products do what they say on the tin. It’s in our hands.