You are concerned about what you eat. You want to know what food passes through your body. But do you know what enters your body when you apply your moisturiser? Have you ever thought about what harmful substances can end up in your bloodstream by penetrating your skin? Conventional cosmetics contain all kinds of cheap synthetic substances that may have a damaging impact on your health. Just like you are aware of what is in your food, you should know what you apply to your skin. And just like the healthiest food is natural, the most beneficial skincare contains nothing but natural substances. Natural cosmetics are nothing new, though. In fact, they have been around for centuries. And they are becoming increasingly popular again by reviving the old concept of the harmonisation of body, mind, and spirit. The purpose of organic skincare is to support natural skin functions and to provide gentle, natural care, thereby making an important contribution to keeping the skin healthy at any age.
THE BEAUTY OF NATURE: AN ANCIENT CONCEPT
Natural cosmetics are pots brimming with the treasures of nature. This concept is not new. For centuries, natural beauty recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were using olive oil, sweet almond oil, lanolin and honey to look after their skin and hair. To make their appearance more beautiful, they used kohl to enhance their eyes. The first eyeliner was born. The Greeks and Romans were taking advantage of the vast health benefits chamomile offers and also used to bleach their hair. The idea of natural and organic cosmetics is that nature offers everything we need to keep our skin healthy and glowing. Chemical substances do not enhance the level of care. In contrast, they can harm the skin and body. Numerous scientific studies have found that certain chemical substances such as paraffin and PEG can enter the blood stream via the skin and can even promote the formation of cancer. Natural ingredients, on the other hand, support the natural healing process of the skin. Their method is gentle because natural ingredients are not aggressive. Moreover, natural cosmetics contain premium ingredients and are superior to their conventional counterparts in many other ways.
A HOLISTIC VIEW: FIGHTING THE CAUSES, NOT THE SYMPTOMS
Natural cosmetics support what is called the holistic view of body and mind. Body, mind, and spirit are seen as linked together, influencing each other. If one part is out of balance, the overall health will suffer. This concept is nearly as old as nature itself and constitutes the foundation of both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. It is based on the assumption that the body has the power to heal itself. Based on this premise, natural cosmetics are aimed at supporting the natural healing process of the skin. Natural skincare supports the skin in its natural ability to regenerate itself and help bring it into balance. This way, organic cosmetics are used to stimulate and support the natural functions of the skin. Whereas conventional cosmetics often try to cover up damaged areas and focus more on the appearance of healthy skin, natural skincare helps the skin to heal itself. Because a healthy skin is naturally radiant. Organic skincare does not merely fight the symptoms but the causes of the problem. That is why it is so good for treating problematic skin. Skin irritations occur when something is not right, either inside the body (for example, due to a poor diet) or resulting from external influences, such as pollution or even chemical substances applied to the skin. Because natural cosmetics are so mild, allergic reactions and skin irritations almost never occur.
The most important distinguishing feature between natural and conventional cosmetics is the use of high-quality plant ingredients, preferably from organic farming or from biologically regulated wild harvesting. The quantitatively most important ingredients are oils, fats and waxes such as argan oil, olive oil, soybean oil, cocoa butter, shea butter and beeswax. Sugar plays an important role when it comes to detergent substances while ethanol obtained by ferment is used in deodorants, for instance. In addition, various essential oils, herbal extracts, floral waters and natural flavours give organic cosmetics a natural pure fragrance and are used as preservatives. As a source of raw materials for essential oils, numerous plants can be used. In fact, the choice is almost endless. Rose, jasmine, lemon balm, angelica, rosewood, frankincense, and cedar wood, for example, are popular choices. A positive side effect of natural preservation methods is the prevention of allergic reactions or skin irritation. The use of emulsifiers and preservatives is usually limited to natural or semi-natural substances. Even the fat of sheeps wool (lanolin) can be used for this purpose. Due to the lack of washing-active surfactants or their substitution through milder vegetable surfactants, natural detergents are more skin-friendly. For the production and further processing only physical processes including extraction with water, ethanol, glycerine or carbon dioxide are allowed. In addition, enzymatic and microbiological methods are acceptable only if naturally occurring enzymes or micro-organisms not obtained from genetic engineering are used.
Raw materials used to produce natural cosmetics do not always, but mostly stem from organic farming. Ingredients are mainly herbal, partly of mineral origin. Animal testing is not conducted. In short, organic cosmetics contain nothing that could damage humans, animals or the environment. Moreover, aspects of sustainability are of great importance, especially when it comes to manufacturing processes, ecological transportation routes, packaging, cultivation projects as well as fair production and trading. And although there is no uniform or international definition for natural cosmetics, certain ingredients such as polyethylene glycol (PEG), silicones, parabens, synthetic fragrances, paraffin and other petroleum products are not permitted in natural cosmetic products.
But of course, raw materials of natural origin come at a price. Conventional cosmetics can be manufactured easily and most ingredients can be obtained cheaply. But just as cheap as the ingredients are is the way in which these cosmetics work. If all you want to do is cover up damaged skin and make it appear healthy, then conventional cosmetics will do the job. However, in the long run, you are probably not doing the best for your skin and you will have to find new ways to cover up your damaged areas as your skin will try to fight off whatever you are slapping on it. A vicious circle that can only be broken by giving your skin the time it needs to heal itself and supporting it with mild substances. The hefty price tag on some natural cosmetics is easily justified given the benefits it has not only for your skin and body but also for the wider environment. Many organic skincare manufacturers often select their suppliers very carefully to ensure only ingredients of the highest quality are processed and abide by fair trading rules. Moreover, many natural ingredients can only be obtained by hand. That said, not all organic cosmetics on the market will break your bank account. There are also some less expensive alternatives which are just as good. If they are labelled as certified organic cosmetics, you can be sure that you are buying natural products.
CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES? NO, THANK YOU
Today, the range of natural cosmetic products is huge. The market is ever growing as more and more people start to realise the benefits of organically sourced products for their body. This has led many manufacturers of cosmetics to jump on the bandwagon. Many conventional cosmetics now contain ingredients that were traditionally associated with natural cosmetics such as honey and shea butter. And this is where consumers often get tricked: Because the lines between natural and conventional cosmetics become increasingly blurry, it is hard to tell which product, in fact, contains natural ingredients and which one has been created by clever marketing experts. Drugstores shelves are full of products whose packaging could not look more natural. But taking a closer look will reveal that instead of the juicy mangoes shown on the front, the actual product contains nothing more than artificial mango fragrance to simulate the smell of nature. More often than not, we get too carried away by fancy packaging and logos that we forget to take a closer look at the list of ingredients to see if what is on the cover really is inside as well.
Unfortunately, there is no uniform or international definition for natural and organic cosmetics. However, guidelines and recommendations have been published by some organisations that also provide appropriate certification for natural cosmetic products. Although, different in some aspects, these guidelines have in common the ban on certain ingredients and chemical additives used in conventional cosmetic products for the use in natural and organic cosmetics. The following ingredients, for example, are strictly not permitted as they have been proven to be harmful by scientific research. Nevertheless, most of them are very popular for use in conventional skin and haircare products due to their low price and versatility.
POLYETHYLENE GLYCOL (PEG)
PEG denotes a number of synthetic materials which are used as emulsifiers in various cosmetic products. Emulsifiers are auxiliaries that connect other substances such as water, oil or wax together. They are used to produce, for instance, creams, lotions, deodorants and toothpaste, but they can also be found in hair shampoos and gels. PEG is popular because it is not only inexpensive but also versatile. Since the substance is produced synthetically, it can be adapted to fit any purpose.
So what is the problem with PEG? Its main substance, ethylene oxide, has been found to be highly toxic, mutagenic, teratogenic and carcinogenic. Together with its excipients, it can damage the membrane function of the skin and make it more permeable to pollutants. Possible symptoms are skin irritation, allergies, eczema, headaches or nausea. In addition, PEG substances pose a huge burden on the environment. Synthetic chemicals such as ethoxylate and polyethylene glycol are produced in a way that makes them stable and long-lasting. Consequently, they are difficult to degrade in the environment of microorganisms and may take several decades to disappear completely. The same applies to your body. PEG substances can enter the blood stream and may remain and accumulate there for years.
If you want to find out whether a product contains PEG, pay attention to the prefix PEG on the list of ingredients. Even words ending in eth indicate ingredients that have been produced based on ethylene oxide.
Silicones are synthetic substances that are used in many ways. Like PEG, silicones are extremely versatile and are hence one of the most common ingredients of cosmetic products. In the field of skincare, they are especially popular as wrinkle filler. Silicones have an especially bad reputation when it comes to hair. Shiny hair is attractive. Thats why more than half of all conventional shampoos and over 90 per cent of all conventional conditioners contain silicone. As a protective film, it wraps itself around each individual hair, nestles protruding skin cells to their stem and reflects the light. However, silicone residues accumulate on the hair which can be very tricky to remove again.
On the skin, silicon forms a kind of water repellent coat that protects it against moisture loss. This makes it an ideal ingredient of hand creams and ointments for treating wounds. As opposed to vegetable oils, silicones provide no care ingredients of their own. Active substances must always be added to achieve more than just a superficial short-term effect. If a cream contains too much silicone, sweat starts to accumulate beneath the skin and the skin becomes brittle.
Even if the substance has a bad reputation health risks do not exist, as long as you are not allergic to it. Nevertheless, taking into account the amount of shampoo and conditioner that gets flushed down the drain every year, silicones are harmful to the environment. Just like PEG, they have a very long degradation period.
On the list of ingredients of cosmetic products, silicones are well hidden. The synthetic material can be found under many names. Water-insoluble silicones are, for example, dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclopentoxilase or dimethiconol. Water-soluble silicones include amodimethicone, polysiloxanes, PEG / PPG-14/4 dimethicone or aimethicone copolyol.
PARAFFIN & OTHER PETROLEUM PRODUCTS
Paraffin is a petroleum distillate which provides the necessary fat for cosmetic products. While dermatologists and chemists praise its good tolerability, critics warn that paraffin dries out the fat layer of the skin and clogs up pores, thus promoting wrinkles. In addition, paraffin deposits itself in internal organs, particularly in the kidney, liver and lymph nodes. It is not clear yet which effect this has on our health but it doesnt sound like something you would want inside your body. For the cosmetics industry, though, paraffin constitutes an inexpensive substitute for sustainable oils.
On the list of ingredients, you can recognise paraffin under the name mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffinum liquidum, paraffin oil, cera microcristallina, microcrystalline wax, ozocerite, ceresin and petrolatum. Another trick to spot paraffin is to observe your skin. If your face feels dry shortly after you applied moisturiser, most likely your moisturiser contains paraffin.
Paraben is a preservative that keeps cosmetic products free from fungi and bacteria. Since most cosmetic products contain water in which germs thrive, the addition of a preservative is necessary. Parabens have a structure which is very similar to the one of the sexual hormone oestrogen. Since parabens are absorbed the skin when applying moisturiser, it is feared that they may upset the hormonal balance. This can cause acne and other skin irritations commonly associated with hormonal imbalances.
To date, there is no sound scientific evidence that parabens can actually penetrate the skin barrier. However, long-term studies show that parabens deposit and accumulate in the body. But no conclusive research has been conducted yet about the consequences of this. Proponents often argue, though, that parabens are not very allergenic and almost every type of skin can tolerate them.
Unlike other chemical substances, parabens are easy to spot on the list of ingredients. The most popular ones are methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben.
Endocrine disrupters are synthetic substances which react similarly to endogenous hormones. While not acutely toxic, they are associated with infertility, obesity, adult-onset diabetes and various hormone-associated cancers such as breast, testicular and prostate cancer. In addition, they can interfere with important development processes that take place in certain time windows of growth. Endocrine disrupters, chemical UV filters and synthetic musk compounds can be detected in blood, urine and body tissue of most people. Particularly pregnant women should be careful since hormonal agents can harm the foetus.
Designations such as methyl paraben, propyl paraben, ethyl paraben, butyl paraben, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor indicate hormonal agents.
Many conventional skincare products and cosmetics contain phthalates as softeners. All phthalates are suspected to be hormonally active and to cause insulin resistance. Because they are also included in many other everyday products (including water bottles, for example), our bodies sometimes take in a whole cocktail of endocrine disrupters without our being aware of it. They can also be a constituent of denatured alcohol (Alcohol Denat.) which functions as an antifoaming agent, cosmetic astringent, solvent and viscosity decreasing agent.
Softeners can be recognised by the suffix -phthalate. The problem is that manufacturers are not required to list them in all cases. If they are a constituent of denatured alcohol, they are not recognisable from the list of ingredients at all.
Synthetic fragrances encompass all substances that smell by themselves, reinforce a perfume or cover a fragrance. About their effects on our organism, very little can be said. What is certain, though, is that fragrances are degraded in the human body very slowly and can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Some people also react allergic to them. In addition, synthetic fragrances degrade only slowly in the environment and accumulate more and more in the air. Synthetic fragrances are popular with manufacturers because they are very durable and relatively inexpensive.
By regulation, synthetic fragrances must be mentioned by name only when a certain concentration is exceeded. Otherwise, they are simply declared as perfume, fragrance, aroma or flavour. This makes them difficult to spot.
ORGANIC SYNTHETIC DYES
Organic and synthetic pigments and dyes are soluble dyes and insoluble pigments. Most synthetic dyes are now produced artificially from petroleum products. Azoic dye is considered allergenic and is suspected to be carcinogenic.
The following E-numbers will let you know whether synthetic dyes have been used: E102, E 110, E122, E123, E124 and E151.
WHAT COUNTS AS NATURAL COSMETICS?
Even though many cosmetic products today claim they are natural, you should not fall into their trap. Just because the packaging has an organic appeal to it, this does not always mean that the contents are in fact natural. And just because a product is expensive does not mean it has superior ingredients. In fact, most of the higher-end cosmetics are no better than their colleagues on the cheaper end. Not all brands that enjoy a natural image actually classify as natural cosmetics. You will be surprised to find out that of those claiming to be organic, not even 50 per cent would pass the certification test. Good marketing and the lack of a uniform and legally binding definition of natural cosmetics lets many manufacturers pass off their products as organic even though their ingredients are obtained from chemical processes.
A basic distinction of cosmetics can be made between conventional, semi-natural and natural cosmetics. The latter is further divided into three levels:
- Natural Cosmetics,
- Natural cosmetics with organic content at least 70 per cent of the ingredients stem from organic farming, and
- Bio-cosmetics or organic cosmetics at least 95 per cent of the ingredients stem from organic farming.
The main distinction between these categories is the type of ingredients processed.
Conventional cosmetics include substances that are strictly forbidden in natural cosmetics such as mineral and liquid paraffin, which are major components of conventional cosmetics and waste products of the oil production. These and other cheap raw materials, which are readily available and can be processed easily are the preferred choice for conventional cosmetics manufacturers. From the skin, these substances are difficult to remove, especially if they have been applied for a long time.
Semi-natural cosmetics sit between conventional and natural cosmetics. They encompass the large field of plants. This type of cosmetics does not use many synthetic raw materials and additives such as parabens or PEG which are the main ingredients of conventional cosmetics. But, even though real herbal, biological and fair trade raw materials are used, the basic formulation does not comply with the one of certified natural cosmetics. The proportion of ingredients that stem from organic farming is usually not mentioned on the packaging. In some cases, semi-natural merely refers to green brand positioning but the ingredients are still conventional.
Natural cosmetics, finally, nurture the human skin and body exclusively with natural ingredients. Ingredients must not harm the skin and body or damage the environment. Additionally, ingredients cannot be obtained from chemical processes but must be natural and nature-based. However, the terms natural cosmetics and organic are not defined by law. Hence, there is no legally binding definition of what constitutes natural cosmetics. Usually, certification organisations check products according to strict guidelines and hence guarantee an appropriate quality standard. A number of certification bodies also distinguish between the proportion of substances of natural origin and how many of the ingredients are obtained from organic farming.
HOW TO RECOGNISE NATURAL COSMETIC PRODUCTS
To date, there are no legally binding international standards for natural cosmetics. Assurance can be gained from different certifications, though. Several organisations test cosmetic products and award appropriate certifications based on their ingredients. If a product bears one of these certificates you can be sure that it contains natural ingredients.
Many countries have their own certification bodies that test products independently. On a more global level, five European certification bodies have come together to develop the Cosmetics Organic Standard (COSMOS-standard) to harmonise organic standards worldwide. The COSMOS-standard came into force in 2010 and covers the requirements for two certificates:
- COSMOS Organic for cosmetic products containing a minimum percentage of organic ingredients; and
- COSMOS Natural on products that comply with the standard in all other respects but do not meet the minimum organic proportion requirements.
In order for a manufacturer to obtain the COSMOS Organic certification, 95 per cent of the products agro-ingredients and 20 per cent of the whole product must be obtained from organic farming. The remaining ingredients must meet strict criteria to ensure that they are not harmful to health or the environment. Certified products must also meet environmental requirements for packaging and manufacturing, and use approved green chemistry processes when modifying ingredients. Green chemistry processes are usually physical or mechanical processes rather than chemical processes.
A cosmetic product which has a proportion of between 70 and 95 per cent of organic agro-ingredients will also receive COSMOS certification, but it will not be classified as organic. Rather, it will bear the COSMOS Natural certificate. This certification means that the product contains natural ingredients, but these may not be obtained from organic farming. Any product with less than 70 per cent organic ingredients will not receive COSMOS certification at all.
The COSMOS-standard specifically applies to cosmetic products that are marketed as organic or natural. Its guiding principles are to:
- promote the use of cosmetic products from organic agriculture, and to respect environmental biodiversity;
- use natural resources responsibly and sustainably, and to appreciate the environment;
- use processing and manufacturing which are clean and respectful of health and the environment; and to
- apply and develop the concept of green chemistry (chemical processes that do not generate hazardous substances).
The standard covers all aspects of sourcing, manufacture, marketing and control of natural and organic cosmetic products.
Apart from certifications, another effective way of checking cosmetics product is to do a check of ingredients. There are several websites out there which offer ingredients checks on popular cosmetic products. This allows you to easily and conveniently spot fraudsters.
SWITCHING FROM CONVENTIONAL TO NATURAL COSMETICS
So you have decided to ditch conventional cosmetics and go back to basics. Dont expect any miracles. The transition from conventional cosmetics to natural cosmetics does not happen overnight. It takes time to restore your skin and hair to its natural state during which you might observe a slight deterioration. What changes you will observe and how you can ensure a smooth transition:
How do I switch to natural cosmetics?
If you have decided to switch to natural cosmetics, dont start replacing all your cosmetics and toiletries overnight. The transition from conventional to natural cosmetics is a slow process. Your body needs time to regenerate itself after all those years of applying synthetic substances. But it pays to be patient. Your skin and hair will not only appear healthier, they will also be healthy which means that skin irritations will occur less frequently or not at all. However, if you are prone to acne or other skin problems, you might observe an even greater inflammation once you stop using conventional cosmetics. Often, people suffering from acne or eczema look for quick and easy fixes. But this is not the way of healing acne. Conventional skincare will often try to cover up damaged skin areas. Once you stop using them, your skin will automatically start its natural healing process and try to remove bacteria and chemical substances from its pores. This is the reason you might experience a deterioration of the disease in the beginning. However, once the skin is cleared (which usually takes a month), your acne might be gone completely or occur much less frequently.
When switching to natural cosmetics, you should transition on a piece by piece basis. For example, if you start with your hair, you should change all of your hair products shampoo, conditioner, hair mask and styling products at the same time. If you only replace, for instance, your shampoo, your hair will still absorb silicones from your conditioner. Once you have cleaned your hair, you can move on to the next body part. Even when it comes to makeup there are no limits: From lipstick to mascara you will find an organic alternative to your favourite makeup products. Or you can get active yourself and make your own toiletries, for example, a lip balm.
How does the body respond to the switch?
The skin needs about four weeks to renew itself completely. During this time, small pimples or redness may occur. This is completely natural as the skin needs to heal and rid itself of the toxic substances it absorbed from conventional skincare. After approximately one month, all hiccups should be gone. When you first use organic shower gels or creams on your body you might feel that they do not provide adequate moisture to your skin. However, this is not true. The reason for this feeling is that natural ingredients are absorbed very quickly by the skin and deposit less on the outer layer. So even though you may think that your skin is not getting enough moisture, the opposite is true.
Your hair may require a longer transitional period than your skin. Since natural haircare products do not contain silicones, your hair will feel very dry when you start washing it with natural shampoo. It often takes several months until the silicone film built up by conventional hair products completely disappears from your hair. It may also happen that your hair will become greasy quickly in the beginning and you might find that you have to wash it more frequently than before. But once the sebaceous glands have become accustomed to the mild ingredients, the re-greasing usually brings itself into balance again. And because natural cosmetics contain mild ingredients, it is not a problem to wash your hair every day. If you tend to have greasy hair, a switch to natural hair products may solve your problem as increased talc production can be a sign of clogged pores. In addition, your hair may also look dull after switching to organic products. A good way to maintain your hair during the transition period is to treat your hair with natural hair oils and it will soon become shiny again.
What do I have to consider?
Natural cosmetics contain vegetable oils which supply the skin with high-quality ingredients. The skin should be brought into balance and be supported in the execution of its natural processes such as regeneration. Natural cosmetics focus on the natural functions of the body and less on appearance because the point is that your skin will look healthy if it is healthy. Natural ingredients, though, are not as durable and stable as chemically obtained substances. Therefore, natural cosmetic products are usually not as long-lasting as conventional products, which means that you will have to replace them more often. Since ingredients are used in concentrated form, the products are very rich, though, and you will be able to find them in smaller sizes.
The transition from conventional to natural cosmetics is a long-term process which will benefit not only your skin and health but also the wider environment in the long run. Give your body enough time to regenerate and soon you will be able to see a positive difference in your appearance. Even if you find that your skin becomes irritated or your hair suddenly looks dull and dry, be patient and in time you will look and feel more healthy and beautiful than before.