My Natural Philosophy

History of Natural Cosmetics

Over the past ten years, the cosmetic industry as well as many other consumer product industries, have witnessed a “natural” revolution.  Brands such as Burt’s Bees have pioneered this natural revolution in personal care.  The problem with many early natural products was that consumers had to make several sacrifices by using healthier products.  First, naturals lacked efficacy because they lacked the chemicals that keep cosmetics from caking and expiring.  Second, they often contained odd textures and smells that made them unpleasant to use.  For example, organic soaps were colorless, waxy blocks that didn't lather was quite clear that these products were natural. 

Now, new technology has allowed for many brands to create products that are not only natural, but also feel similar to and work just as well as other non-natural products.  In fact, if it were not for the label, you would not be able to tell that many products were natural.  Tarte, along with other brands, has tried to convey this message with slogans like, “high performance naturals.”  Until a few years ago, brands like Burt's Bees were able to market their product on the basis of being natural.  However, now that many brands have entered the “naturals” arena, they must find other ways to differentiate themselves in the market.  For the most part, brands have been trying to do so through showcasing special ingredients.  The Josie Maran skin care line is focused around the use of argan oil, while Caudalie incorporates the anti-oxidant power of grapes into all of its products.  In general, the “consumer awareness” and “consumer health” movements have become more prevalent in our society.  Industry leaders like Johnson and Johnson have taken initiatives to reformulate its products in order to acknowledge this trend, and many other beauty brands are following its lead. 

What does natural really mean?

When choosing healthy cosmetics, it is more important to look for labels such as “paraben-free” than to look at labels like “organic.”  Keep in mind that "natural"/"organic" DOES NOT mean free of harmful ingredients, although it is characteristic of most natural brands.  According to the FDA, 98% of a product's ingredients must be naturally rather than synthetically derived in order for it to be labeled "natural"/"organic."  The remaining 2% can most definitely include synthetic dyes or preservatives.  In other words, do not simply rely on the brand’s claim to be “natural” for reassurance that a product healthier than another.  For example, there are some brands like The Body Shop, Lush, Qtica, and Fresh, which use “natural” or “organic” labels, but produce products containing parabens and other toxins.  Other companies like Mario Badescu and Bare Escentuals feature natural ingredients, but are not necessary free of toxins.  In fact, it is better to look at each product individually to check for harmful ingredients before purchasing it.  Often, a non-natural brand will carry a product with fewer toxins than a “natural” brand.  

"Natural"/"organic" are generally associated with being vegan/cruelty-free, eco-friendly (environmentally safe production processes, recyclable packaging, certified wood, etc.), and free of harmful ingredients.  While many natural brands do have all three of these qualities, these three concepts are not directly related.  Some products may be vegan/cruelty-free but necessarily organic. 

So, what do "natural" labels really tell us about how healthy a product is?  The answer is something different for each brand, so it is important to understand cosmetic ingredients for yourself so that you can make an informed decision whether or not you are comfortable putting a certain product on your body.  Loose regulations as to what you can label “natural” or “organic" have given these terms vague definitions.  As a result, companies are left to make their own interpretations of the term, "natural," meaning that all natural brands are different.  For example, some natural brands do not use risky ingredients like aluminum, but may use talc, while the opposite may be true for another natural brand.  Additionally, there have been no direct cause and effect relationships between most of these controversial ingredients and illnesses in humans, so different natural brands are likely to have different opinions on ingredients that they view as “safe.” In the end looking at natural brands is a good starting place when looking for healthy beauty products.  Just be sure to read labels carefully to make sure that misleading labels do not fool you. 

The Bottom Line

Choosing healthy products for yourself can be a difficult task because natural products is such a new concept, and research findings on harmful ingredients can be confusing.  The main problem is that the existing research on the topic is not sufficient enough to declare ingredients like parabens or aluminum “safe” or “dangerous.”  One study that was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found that 99% of breast tissue samples taken from women with the breast cancer contained parabens.  Although this evidence is indeed frightening, we can't conclude that parabens are responsible for breast cancer until we know what percent of non-cancerous breast tissue contains parabens.  We cannot prove that phthalates or tricolsans cause cancer.  However, some studies have shown correlations between very high levels of intake of these ingredients and adverse health outcomes.  Whether or not the quantity found in cosmetics is harmful is being questioned.  In addition, many of these questionable chemicals have shown to be toxic to animals but not humans.  The fact is that research on controversial ingredients has yielded mixed results in regards to their safety to consumers.  One-time use of products with phthalates will mostly likely not result in negative health outcomes, but only future research can tell what the effects of repeated use and build-ups in the body will be.   

The bottom line is that you should be careful and aware, but definitely not obsessive about using healthy products.  Although it is not certain how harmful many risky ingredients actually are, my recommendation is that it is better to be safe than sorrySince so many efficacious, toxin-free substitutes are available for most traditional products, why not use them?  Because of modern technology, you can use them without sacrificing that flawless look and more importantly, without breaking the bank.  Furthermore, you no longer have to go to specialty natural products shops to find great paraben-free products because they are becoming more and more available at local drugstores and grocery stores.

Being truly health conscious not only includes exercising religiously and eating well, but also includes being aware of chemicals to which you may be exposed.  For those of you who shop at Whole Foods, but not Whole Body, think again!  You are neglecting a large part of their health.  Using toxin-free products is equally as important as buying pesticide-free apples.  Your skin is like a sponge that absorbs whatever you put on it.  Like food, your chemicals from the creams or serums that you use can enter the bloodstream.  

Because ingredients such as phthalates have been linked to future reproductive disorders, it is especially important for younger women to be aware of the chemicals that they are putting on their bodies.  Younger women will also be exposed to these chemicals, which can build up in the body, for a longer period of time than older women, so they are putting themselves at a greater potential risk.  If you are pregnant or have a high genetic predisposition to certain cancers or conditions relating to the endocrine system, you should also take a closer look at natural products.  Along being toxin-free, you should go with products that are made with natural, rather than synthetic ingredients.  These conditions have been mentioned in research regarding potentially hazardous cosmetic ingredients.  Cancer and birth defects are serious disorders, and using naturals is a very safe precaution that you can take to avoid them. 

My Philosophy

How you decide to interpret the research and incorporate it into shopping for beauty products is really a personal choice.  My personal choice is to use products that are not necessarily natural, but contain as few potentially risky ingredients as possible.  I also try to find a balance between products that are the most efficacious and the healthiest.  As with healthy eating, it is important to eat fruits and vegetables, but occasionally, it is okay to cheat with some dessert.  With beauty, I try to stick to healthy skincare products if I can.  Of course, there are one or two “cheat” products that I use from time to time that contain parabens because I simply cannot give them up or find a good natural substitute.  I also tend to be less conscientious about finding safe cosmetics when it comes to products like eye liner or mascara because I am only applying it on a very small portion of the skin (meaning that very little is getting absorbed into the body).

Like me, I know that there are people, who don't necessarily have the self-control to eliminate sweets from their diet or the time to get eight hours of sleep every night.  Using cosmetics with safe ingredients requires less effort than these other healthy practices and is the easiest way that I can be healthy.   

Useful sites for more information on risky ingredients and natural products: