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There is a sector of the women’s health, beauty, and cosmetics industries that are super-vigilant and concerned about the safety of ingredients. Natural and organic product companies and retailers are now generating billions each year off of fearmongering and perpetuating myths like the following:
- You shouldn’t put any ingredients on your skin that you can’t pronounce (despite chemicals like pentyl acetate naturally occurring in an organic piece of fruit, like a banana),
- You should research the safety of ingredients on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database or the Good Guide before purchasing (despite the fact that even safe, natural ingredients like vitamin C can be toxic in concentrations as high as the synthetic ingredients are used in some of the quoted studies),
- You shouldn’t use anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as an ingredient (despite the fact that some of the best ingredients for the skin, like retinoids, peptides, amino acids, and niacinamide, are isolates of extracts your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize at all)!
It also gets ugly from a political perspective. There are databases that register email addresses for their newsletter. But they simultaneously signs registrants up to look like they are supporting very liberal political policies in California. They are cited by politicians as “political supporters” for their causes, when in fact these are just consumers who are concerned about the health and safety of their beauty products!
In the meantime, there is selective funding of studies that research the toxicity of artificial ingredients, like sunscreen ingredients or parabens (which are naturally found in blueberries), while letting studies trying to research the potential toxicity or allergenic potential of natural ingredients to not be funded at all.
Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing natural or synthetic skin care products:
Natural Product Ingredients Do Not Have to be Purified
In answering the question as to whether or not there is any difference between natural and artificial ingredients in skin care, there is only one correct answer: Artificial ingredients are simpler in composition and potentially safer, because only safety-tested components are utilized. On the other hand, natural extracts can contain many particulate toxins inherent to their sources. Natural coconut, for instance, depends on a chemical found in the bark of a Malaysian tree. Extracting this chemical involves the removing of the bark, which also kills the tree. So although this “natural” coconut is exactly the same as that in an organic chemist’s laboratory, it is also much more expensive and hazardous for the environment.
The toxins in natural products can be dangerous for the consumer. Plants make many toxic substances. Some of these toxic substances are created by plants to combat other plant species. One class of these, called the triketones, have been used as pesticides (Toxins, 2010). Notably, when plants are treated with these pesticides, they can cause the tissues of the plants to turn white from the bleaching of chlorophylls (Toxins, 2010). Do you really want to put these toxins on your skin?!
Another example are the allergens that can be found in numerous natural products. For instance, the all-natural ingredient chamomile, which is known to be soothing for the skin, also contains ragweed. Repeated exposure to chamomile has been known to induce a highly irritating rash resulting from a ragweed allergy, according to the nutritional guide The Prescription for Nutritional Healing.
Many other “natural” ingredients, such as the arnica montana used to treat bruises, are also able to induce detrimental effects after repeated exposure. In fact, according to Dr. Leslie Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology, “Prolonged treatment of damaged skin [with arnica] often causes edematous dermatitis with the formation of pustules; long-term use can also give rise to eczema.” Synthetic ingredients are less biologically complex and have less allergenic potential in general.
Natural Extracts are Less Regulated than Synthetic Ingredients
In addition to purity concerns, natural extracts are less regulated than synthetic ingredients. Whereas the FDA states synthetic ingredients are only permitted in skin care products up to certain concentrations to minimize potential irritation, inflammation, and allergenic reaction in the skin, natural extracts are generally permitted in products up to whatever concentration the company feels comfortable with — which is not only bad practice, but also potentially dangerous for the consumer.
Concentrated Ingredients are Better than Whole Plant Extracts
Aspirin was created when the active portion of the Salix alba white willow bark, acetylsalicylic acid, was extracted from the whole witch hazel plant. In studies, aspirin
My second problem with the “natural not chemical” movement is simply that consumers are often ignoring the numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center studies backing certain chemical ingredients in favor of clever marketing giving the impression that natural is always better. And that is a problem, because there is no research to date demonstrating that all-natural skin care products are always better, while there is substantial research indicating that certain chemical ingredients – retinol, niacinamide,vitamins C & E, and chemical sunscreens, to name a few – have proven long-term benefits for the skin.
Food that is Good for You is Not Always Good for Your Skin
Acidic or neutral pH products are best for your skin. This is because your skin has a natural barrier that is significantly disrupted by agents with a pH higher than 7.0 (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2006). Your skin becomes more exfoliated with products that are highly acidic, with a pH of less than 5.5. (Hence why glycolic acid peels are so popular!) And your skin’s healthy physiology, containing microflora and healthy bacteria, is maintained at a neutral pH (Acta Dermato-venereologica, 1990).
However, the exact opposite — an alkaline/basic, or high-pH — diet is best for your health. This is because the hydrochloric acid in your stomach has a pH of approximately 2.0, neutralizing and ultimately breaking down high pH food residues much better than acidic food residues. It doesn’t hurt that the vast majority of healthy fruits and vegetables are either alkaline (like leafy greens) or leave an alkaline ash in your system (like lemon and other citrus fruits).