Shedding light on the claims of natural, organic, and chemical free skin care.
Natural skin care is nearing a 2-billion-dollar industry. Yes – BILLION.
If you have done any skin care shopping in the last decade, you would be hard-pressed to have missed the (endless) products that seek to convince you of their preferability (and “safety”) with words and phrases like organic, natural, all-natural (because just plain natural isn’t good enough), green, eco-friendly, plant-based, plant-derived, derived from nature, and so on.
These terms sound fabulous on the surface, but the truth is that they hold no real weight. There is no governing of these claims, and often these terms are used to evoke positive feelings about a product that is subpar.
A formulator could put together an exfoliating face cream. Perhaps this formulator chooses sand as their physical exfoliant, pig lard as a conditioning base, and a touch of lavender to make it smell nice. Next, they put this product in a lovely biodegradable piece of packaging, cover the label and write the product description with words like “all-natural”, “derived from nature”, “free of chemicals”, etc. and then give the biodegradable packaging a nice mention somewhere on the label as well. They then charge you a premium for this product despite its extremely basic (and cheap) ingredients. The price has nothing to do with the contents, it is solely based on your perception of the value of products labeled as natural. The Natural Tax is very real. Along with paying an inflated price, that biodegradable packaging you are happy to have? It may very well be compromised by what is in the packaging – meaning it may very well degrade because of what has been put in it and there is no telling what is leaching out from your biodegradable container into your overpriced “natural” product. Sand and pig lard are a stretch, and you’ll likely not be seeing these on the shelves anywhere. My point is to highlight just how misleading labels can be.
There is no telling what is leaching out from your biodegradable container into your overpriced “natural” product
Another way shoppers pay more for less is in buying (literally) into the notion that because it came from a plant it is better than a synthetic counterpart. Not accurate. We have been told by marketers that “synthetic” always means bad. This is not based in factual science. The truth: Your body does not care how or where an ingredient is produced so long as the chemical structure is identical. That is a fact. Your skin (and body) will react identically to glycolic acid whether it came from a lab or from a sugarcane plant. You will pay more for the glycolic acid from sugarcane, especially when your product touts “all natural”, “plant-derived”, etc.
Your body does not care how or where an ingredient is produced so long as the chemical structure is identical.
Here is where things get funky. You know the whole “environmentally friendly” push. We want to do great things for the environment, stop killing the planet and all this, right? Did you know that we are often doing great harm, environmentally speaking, to produce and harvest plants for “all natural” skin care products? This is not the case for all plants – but there do exist endangered and exploited plants (including the Argan tree for its popular oil), endangered animals, and endangered people (used to harvest and often process the desirable plants). In the market’s push for feel-good “natural” products, the shopper is being sold a bunch of hype that not only leads to inflated pricing and subpar skin outcomes – but also stresses the environment all in the name of “natural”.
If the above is not enough to demonstrate the con that is the “natural” skin care industry, consider this:
Plenty of natural things can kill you – dead – 100%. Plenty of things created in a lab – cannot kill you. Further, there are plenty of natural things that will not kill you, but sure aren’t pleasant.
Cow dung is all-natural, but I cannot think of a single client who would purchase a cow poop mask if I sold one. Cyanide is natural. I do not advise consuming it.
Applesauce is natural, but smearing applesauce on your face is never going to provide enough malic acid (found in apples and great for skin) to benefit your complexion. It just is not in the right form, and you would need a whole lot of apples, time, and processing to get enough usable malic acid from apples as opposed to a lab. The end result? More cost to you and the environment – and no additional benefit to your skin.
Further, if you have bought in to marketing that “chemicals” are bad and that anything that isn’t organic or all-natural is free of chemicals, let me just clarify that nearly everything in our environment is a chemical or is comprised of chemical elements. Water is a chemical. Anything made of atoms is technically a chemical. What we should really be concerned with are dangerous chemicals, not chemicals. No skin care product exists that is “chemical free”. Period.
“But my face cream says it is free of harsh chemicals, that’s good right?”
My answer: What is a harsh chemical? Bleach? Absolutely, and it should not be in your face cream anyway. There is no need to pay extra for being told things aren’t in your skin care that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Now, a formulator may say “SLS free”. That is perfectly fine – some people don’t react well to SLS and look for products without it. Conversely, millions of people use SLS products daily with zero issues, so whether SLS is a “harsh” ingredient really comes down to the user. You should not be paying extra for SLS-free.
No skin care product exists that is “chemical free”. Period.
Once we have figured out the marketing system and come to understand that much of what is being promoted in the natural skin care arena is not much more than the creative (and often misleading) use of words to elevate the value of skin care products, what is it we should be looking for in skin care?
The following are my guidelines for what constitutes a great product:
Safe Ingredients – Whether it was grown in a field or produced in a laboratory, is it safe? If it is not safe, it doesn’t belong in the bottle, and this is the case whether it came from a lemon or a lab.
Planet Friendly – Are we causing irreparable damage to the earth and its inhabitants (both human and animal) with our products? Whether it is from unethical farming practices that exploit human workers, using plant species that are endangered (sandalwood and wild yam fall into this category), destroying plants that are most needed by animals as food, or using ingredients that do not dissolve in nature and pollute our waterways (like aluminum oxide crystals), our goal should be do no harm.
Effective – We want products that have a positive impact on the skin. Whether that is in balanced cleansing that does not impede the skin barrier or serums that work hard to improve the skin’s clarity, texture, and appearance – we want effective products.
That’s it. Effective, friendly to our world, and safe. None of the label claims we have discussed here ensure a single one of these. It is up to you to determine if such label claims are worth paying extra for.
How do products labels that state these trendy terms affect you? Do you automatically feel as if something marketed as natural is better? I would love to hear how these marketing terms impact your decision making!