How natural are ‘natural’ beauty products?
If you use mainstream beauty products filled with chemical ingredients, the following statements will likely give you pause: 60 per cent of products applied topically are absorbed into the body; the average woman eats seven pounds of lipstick in her lifetime; we apply approximately 168 different chemicals to our bodies every day.
No doubt those numbers will have most people do a clean sweep of their beauty cabinet and replace everything with natural products. But experts caution that natural beauty products are not as natural — or beneficial — as some would have you believe.
Is “natural” safer?
For starters, natural beauty products aren’t very strictly regulated by Health Canada.
“There are no Canadian organic or natural standards for personal care products. In fact, cosmetics in general are not well regulated in North America,” says Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, medical director of the Bay Dermatology Centre.
Health Canada is attempting to change the regulations on natural health products, including remedies, cosmetics and over-the-counter medicines, but is being met with opposition from health product retailers and manufacturers, which has caused the government agency to refine some of the proposed regulations.
However, even if stricter policies are put in place, experts point out that the banned cosmetic ingredients list in North America is a far cry from Europe’s “hotlist” — 600 in Canada compared to 1,400 across the pond.
“The EU is the one to look to when it comes to regulations,” Skotnicki says. “A lot of the multinational cosmetic companies, like P&G and Unilever, will consign their practices to those standards for the products they sell in Europe.”
At the same time, however, doctors are eager to point out to consumers that “natural” doesn’t always mean better or safer.
“When I hear people say that natural products are better, I always point out that there are a number of things in nature that are very bad for us,” says Dr. Lisa Kellett, dermatologist and director of DLK on Avenue.
“You can have an adverse reaction from poison ivy; if you ingest too much of the foxglove plant, you’ll die; likewise, strychnine causes seizures. Just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean it’s good.”
How natural is “natural”?
Much has been made of the presence of chemicals like parabens, phthalates and sulfates in beauty products and their accusations of disrupting endocrine function, which can result in a host of health problems including reproductive issues, endometriosis and certain cancers.
But the fact is, because beauty products aren’t closely monitored or tested, there’s no guarantee that those ingredients won’t be included in a natural product.
“It really comes down to buyer beware when you’re talking about natural products,” Kellett says. “They’re not necessarily free of [chemical ingredients].”
By the same token, all chemicals are not bad. Dr. Nathan Rosen, dermatologist and co-director of Dermetics Cosmetic Dermatology, points out that most medicinal ingredients in beauty products come from nature. Plus, the body doesn’t always distinguish between natural and synthetic.
“It comes down to chemistry,” he says. “[Products use] synthetic versions of chemicals found in nature. The body sees things as chemistry — it doesn’t have the emotional component that people apply to the meaning of ‘natural.’ It’s irrelevant to the cells that are interacting with these ingredients that create reactions whether they’re natural or synthetic.”
There’s also a lot of fear-mongering attached to these ingredients. Parabens, which are used as a preservative in cosmetics and that have been widely vilified, also naturally occur in blueberries, strawberries, olives and carrots.
“Blueberries have parabens in them; plants use their own preservatives,” Skotnicki says. “You can label your product natural and still have all that stuff in them.”
We are not sponges
Then there’s the fact that we don’t absorb that much of the product, anyway — certainly not 60 per cent of it.
“Your skin isn’t supposed to be permeable, otherwise you’d get into a bathtub full of water and swell up like a sponge,” Kellette says. “There are different compounds on the skin that increase absorption [so you can hydrate], but ultimately, it’s fairly impermeable.”
Efficacy isn’t guaranteed by nature
What many people don’t realize is that even the natural ingredients need to undergo a chemical process in order to be efficacious.
“Vitamin C is very good for the skin, but it has to be a threshold concentration and at a certain pH level to actually be able to get in the skin and do its job,” Rosen says. “You might have a product that claims to have natural vitamin C, but you might as well be rubbing orange juice on your face, because it won’t do anything.”
That’s not to say that natural products won’t work in other ways, he says, but the perception that natural is better is simply erroneous.
“People blindly accept that a natural is better and will work for them, but they scrutinize something a doctor gives them because it’s synthetic. But that product has been tested for consistency and quality. The natural realm does not use those same standards before bringing a product to market.”
Sometimes, nature nurtures harmful reactions
Dermatologists don’t want to discourage consumers from using natural products, but they do want to dispel the myth that only chemicals can cause reactions.
“Consumers still demand fragrance in their products, so brands respond by using naturally-derived fragrances, and that’s what people often react to,” Skotnicki says.
“When you see the term ‘fragrance’ on an ingredient list, that could mean another 20 ingredients are included but not disclosed. And many people react to natural fragrances like lavender, rose, lemon and bergamot.”
What’s worse, some of those ingredients will come from botanicals we already know to be an irritant, like poison ivy.
“I’ve seen urushiol [the chemical in poison ivy] in some natural products, and patients will come in who have had horrendous reactions,” Rosen says.
He would never deter his patients from seeking out natural skincare products if that’s what they want, but he does encourage them to do their homework and seek out advice from a health practitioner before committing to a product.
“I don’t have a problem with a natural product that’s effective and does what it says it will do. But the problem is, many companies are taking advantage of the perception that natural is better,” he says. “People would benefit from talking to an expert they trust and find a product that’s safe, because the same criticisms apply to natural products and unnatural ones.”
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