Does It Really Matter If Beauty Products Are Natural? A Cosmetic Chemist Weighs In

It’s time to shed some science on the marketing mayhem and explain why natural and organic cosmetics are, in fact, important--just not in the way you may think.
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Publish date:
April 3, 2014
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science, natural, organic, natural products, organic skincare

In my time spent as a chemist one of the most frequent questions I get asked is: What’s the deal with natural cosmetics? Are they safer? Are they better? Are they worth the cost?

Consumers are becoming more and more informed with what we put in and on our bodies. As we read more claims about certain chemicals and ingredients touted to be harmful, many of us have become concerned and distrustful of ingredients we don't recognize.

Out of this awareness and fear, many cosmetics companies have decided to go “natural” in order to provide what many feel is a safer alternative.

First, let’s step back and talk about some of the major players in this field. There is a huge profit to be made in the natural cosmetics game; back in 2008, the global market for natural cosmetics was almost 7 billion dollars. Fast forward 6 years, and a recession, and this number has risen to anywhere between 9 and 25 billion! So based on the dollars alone, there are almost 25 billion reasons to get into the natural cosmetics biz.

But why the big range? This stems mostly from the fact that the definitions of “natural” and “organic” has become convoluted. So what the heck is the difference between natural, organic, naturally derived, naturally extracted, green-sourced, and sustainable? Well, it seems that no one actually knows. In fact, there are an estimated 380-plus organizations that each have their own organic standard worldwide. These are some of the larger ones:

EcoCert

USDA

BDIH

Natural Products Association

QAI

CCOF

Organics Consumer Organization

COSMOS

Because they charge companies thousands of dollars to certify their products, each is competing to set the standard. Unfortunately, that means that you, the consumer, need to study up on what you’re buying, and on who is regulating the “organic” or “natural” claim.

Let’s start with some definitions, based off the USDA Certified Organics List:

• 100% organic: Product must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal.

• Organic: Product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Products may display the USDA Organic Seal.

• Made with organic ingredients: Products contain at least 70% organic ingredients and product label can list up to three of the organic ingredients or “food” groups on the principal display panel. Products may not display the USDA Organic Seal.

• Less than 70% organic ingredients: Products cannot use the term “USDA organic” anywhere on the principal display panel.

• Natural: Includes any ingredient of plant origin, ingredient of mineral origin, ingredient of marine origin, ingredient of animal origin.

Now that you know what natural and organic mean in this context, what are you actually getting when you buy a “natural” product? It’s time to shed some science on this marketing mayhem.

The number-one question I am asked when people find out I'm a cosmetic chemist is, “Are natural cosmetics safer?” The truth: They are safe, but they are not safer.

The answer lies in the testing.

In my career I have tested more than 300 products, and this works out to something in the ballpark of more than 2,000 formulas. This sounds like a lot, but it's only a fraction of the testing done by cosmetic companies in any given year. When I worked for Johnson & Johnson, our lab, which was one of 25 global labs, would test about 10,000 formulas a year.

We test new formulas on ourselves, then on lab techs, marketing people, friends, and relatives. (My wife has tested tons of cosmetics; she's my favorite test subject.) Everyone has different skin types and each formula will affect everyone differently. My wife has dry, sensitive skin and eczema. She is a great subject for testing product irritation.

But this is just the beginning. The next set of screening occurs at an outside lab. We formally test skin irritation using the Repeat Insult Patch Test (known as RIPT), and we test eyes for irritation and redness. These are the gold standards for product safety. All products, regardless of ingredient origin, must pass these tests.

After a formula has been cleared, we move on to production. But before a single batch gets made, we test our materials for purity--all of them. Every lot for every batch, every time. We run a battery of tests to ensure our ingredients are pure and with minimal contamination (both biological and chemical).

And finally, we test for how easily our products avoid growing bugs: bacteria, yeast and mold. Tainted cosmetics have caused eye infections, ear infections, and even in some cases deadly E. coli or MRSA infections. Check out what PubMed has to say about it.

Behind this final test is the biggest point of contention for cosmetics, and one of the driving factors in labeling something traditional versus natural: preservatives. Are preservatives bad? Are they dangerous? Are they necessary? Are they in natural cosmetics?

Organic and natural foods are great. They are sourced sustainably and are pesticide- and preservative-free, so why shouldn’t your cosmetics be? This issue is complicated, and for the most part, it’s why we cannot adopt certain food rules governing organic foods to cosmetics. Our food is sold to a consumer who fully knows he or she must refrigerate and cook his or her products before they consume them.

Cosmetics are never thought of in this way. It would be easy to make a safe, preservative-free body wash if you knew the consumer was going to refrigerate and microwave it before it was applied to the body. But the reality is that this item will be left in a hot steamy shower with the cap open, the perfect environment for E. coli. So the role of preservatives is a key part in keeping people safe.

When natural cosmetic companies choose to leave preservative ingredients out, it can put their customers at risk. Some companies use unregistered preservatives to maintain a “preservative-free” claim. These chemicals are non-monographed by the FDA; these are not classified as preservatives, but their use is to kill bacteria, yeast and mold, and can be irritating to the skin if overused. These include:

• Caprylhydroxamic acid

• Sodium salicylate

• Caprylyl glycol

• Dehydroacetic acid

But as long as the product stays "clean" (meaning, free from micro-content), I guess the preservative-free claim is more an ethical issue than a safety one.

And then there’s the C-word: cancer. Concerns over potential cancer risks caused by traditional cosmetics have been touted by natural cosmetic companies for years, but these claims have all been unfounded and have been debunked in many government-run and independent scientific publications.

So is there any benefit to going natural? Yes, but not due to safety; the answer is because of sustainability.

In an interview, Gay Timmons, president of Oh, Oh Organic (an organic cosmetic company) and the person behind some of the first big legislation in the US for governing organic food production, says that the biggest--and most often overlooked--benefit of the natural cosmetic movement is sustainability and smart sourcing.

The environmental impact of the cosmetics industry is huge. The world now has more than 7 billion people, many of whom use some sort of cosmetic product daily, and the growth rate of the population is increasing fast. Estimates say that by the year 2100, the population could reach 16 billion! That adds up to LOT of cosmetic users--and a lot of ingredients are required to produce enough products for them to use.

A big part of the emerging natural and organic trend focuses on sustaining our supply of raw materials and reducing the environmental footprint. This cry for smart sourcing has not fallen on deaf ears: Recently, a number of countries (including the US) are starting to implement regulations so that cosmetic ingredients are sourced sustainably--natural or synthetic. And the big players in the cosmetic industry, like P&G, Unilever and L'Oreal, have all made pledges to focus and increase sustainability.

The bottom line is that cosmetics--whether they’re natural, organic or synthetic--are safe. If you enjoy natural products and feel they work for your skin, great! If you like that silky feel of a nice silicone primer, no need to worry. But if you take anything away from this article, I hope it is that “natural” is the start of something big: sustainability.