In marketing, the term “natural” is equated to being “better.” But that isn’t always the case, according to Dr. Linda M. Katz, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors stated that “Consumers should not necessarily assume that an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ ingredient or product would possess greater inherent safety than another chemically identical version of the same ingredient. In fact, ‘natural’ ingredients may be harder to preserve against… contamination and growth than synthetic versions.” And USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer added “…people should not interpret even the USDA Organic seal or any organic seal of approval on cosmetics as proof of health benefits or of efficacy. The National Organic Program is a marketing program, not a safety program. [Chocolate cake] may be [natural and/or organic] but that has no bearing on whether it is safe or nutritious to eat”
Where did this natural product trend come from? And what are the negative impacts of natural products? Let’s take a look.
Those With Allergies Are At Risk
For those who have allergies or who are more on the sensitive side, natural products can be a disaster. Many natural products are made with essential oils, fruits, and plants that can cause a reaction. Ingredients created in a lab can be more carefully formulated for sensitive skin. If you have a natural product you want to try, be sure you patch test for 24 hours before using on your entire face.
As I mentioned, natural products often contain essential oils which can be irritating for those with allergies. They are also photosensitizing, especially in 100% concentration, when placed onto the skin. Irritating essential oils include citrus oils, such as lemon extract (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2002) and lavender oil (Contact Dermatitis, 2006). Because they increase the absorption of other ingredients into the skin, be careful of what else you use with essential oils. Your regular skin care regime can become irritating when you introduce a high-powered absorption system if you are not careful.
Parabens Aren’t Bad!
There is a rumor in the realm of natural beauty that parabens are bad because they have been linked to cancer. This comes from a study in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, where researchers made the claim that parabens can bind to estrogen receptors in MCF-7 breast cancer cells. The study suggested that parabens, like those found in skincare, increased the growth of breast cancer cells and were actually found within the cells themselves. But the study came to its conclusions slathering participants in thousands of times the number of parabens a normal person would be exposed to by their everyday skincare routine. Another study subjected fish to ingesting between 100 mg/kg and 300 mg/kg doses of parabens, which resulted in an increase in estrogenic gene expression. The only catch is, that amounts to about 15,000 mg of parabens in the average American woman, which is far more than any cosmetic or combination of cosmetics regularly used could supply.
The FDA released its stance on paraben use in a statement in 2007. The statement described the primary types of parabens used in cosmetics (methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben) and decreed them safe. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review concluded that parabens were acceptable at levels up to 25 percent, and when the statement was published, the average cosmetic product contained 0.01 percent to 0.03 percent. They cited a study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology that concluded that, based on a person using a typical daily amount of cosmetics containing parabens, it was implausible that they could have the estrogenic effect associated with the breast cancer studies. An independent report concluded that parabens rarely cause allergic reactions as well. The study, published in 2000, concludes that it’s because of their efficacy in combating fungus and bacteria in products that parabens are still the number one preservative in use. Another study, specifically regarding propyl paraben, states that there is no risk of accumulation of the paraben through absorption in the gastrointestinal tract or the skin. It’s relatively non-toxic, although the study does point out that it can be slightly irritating to the skin.
The American Cancer Society has even put out a statement that the data about parabens’ harm to humans was limited, saying: “There are also many other compounds in the environment that mimic naturally produced estrogen.”
Because parabens are such an effective preservative, not using them can dramatically reduce the shelf life of a product. Any water-based product, including everything from shampoo to lotions, needs to contain a preservative to prevent the product from growing bacteria and fungus while it’s sitting in your bathroom. Just look at the Herbivore recall for example. Many natural products will only last 3 months until they start to break down. Many people don’t use their products before they start to expire and could end up rubbing bacteria on their face. Not great!
Why Are People So Afraid of Chemicals?
Over the last 10 years there has been a boom in conscious consumerism after a number of popular beauty ingredients garnered some negative press. For example, in 2010 a large amount of chemicals that turned into formaldehyde gas when heated were found in a popular hair straightening treatment from the brand Brazilian Blowout. Then in 2012, the FDA discovered that 400 types of lipsticks contained tiny amounts of lead. And in 2014, Johnson & Johnson removed a type of preservative from its baby shampoo that releases very small amounts of formaldehyde into the air. And these are just a few headlines. It’s no surprise that people want to be better informed about the products they are using on a daily basis, which is part of the reason so many have started to shun chemicals for something more natural instead.
Many natural beauty sites and brands love to tout the statistic that the European Union has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from being used in beauty products while the US has only banned about 30. Although I am sure they are well intentioned, many brands have used this stat as a fear mongering tactic to drive sales. And considering how well the natural beauty market is doing, it seems to be working.
Whether or not you want to use natural or botanically based skincare products is entirely up to you. But just because something is made in a lab, doesn’t mean that it is dirty or bad. And those with allergies or sensitive skin should be careful when using natural products as it can cause a negative reaction.