Wednesday, November 30, 2005

'Natural' and 'organic' ingredients in personal care products (Natural Skin and Hair Care Information)

Since highschool I've always used what I thought were natural personal care products. I'd get excited about buying a product that contained aloe or exotic herbals like ylang ylang and jasmine. But like most people, when I read the ingredient list of those products, my eyes just skimmed over all those other ingredients--you know, those almost unpronounceable, scientific looking words. I never gave much thought about them; I just thought they were just some important but benign ingredients. I mean after all, why would a cosmetic/personal care company use something that was dangerous? Sure I knew they were synthetic, but I didn't think that any of them could be harmful. That soon changed after I graduated from college.

After months of not finding a non-profit job, I finally began to work in retail store selling perfumes. At first I was enthusiastic--I often got free full sized products from the vendors. But soon I began to feel dismayed--this was about the time when my skin began to break out in rashes, even though I was using what I thought at the time were 'natural' products. That's when I began doing research on cosmetic ingredients. And what I found made me swear off synthetic ingredients for the rest of my life.

Here is an example of the ingredients in an aloe vera gel that claims to be 100% pure aloe.

Aloe Vera Gel: natural

Triethanolamine: aka TEA. This is NOT a good ingredient. Synthetic used to adjust the pH, to emulsify, and as a preservative. This ingredient is often contaminated with nitrosamines, which are known, toxic carcinogens.

Tocopheryl acetate: vitamin E. Good ingredient; may be natural or synthetic. Antioxidant, a preservative.

Carbomer940: Synthetic emulsifier and thickener. Has a very high pH, and also can cause eye irritation.

Tetrasodium Edta: Sequestering agent, synthetic. Eye and skin irritant.

DMDM Hydantoin: aka Dantoin 685. VERY bad. Preservative that contains 19% formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen, and is highly toxic. It was once banned by the FDA but is now allowed to be used in very, very small concentrations. (The FDA's regulations on cosmetics are VERY weak).

Diazolidinyl Urea: aka Germall II and Germall 115. Synthetic. Preservative. Also VERY bad. The American Academy of Dermatology has found it is one of the main causes of contact dermatitis. It also releases formaldehyde.

The word natural is a highly abused word in the cosmetic industry. There is no governmental regulation of the word, therefore, a company could make a product with only 1% natural ingredients and then still call it 'natural'.

The word 'organic' is a bit of a different, complex story. The USDA does AND doesn't regulate organic personal care products. The USDA regulates organic personal care products that have undergone National Organic Program (NOP) certification, but unlike organic FOOD products, the term organic is NOT regulated in personal care products outside of certification. The USDA claims they do not have the authority to regulate labeling on personal care products, since cosmetics falls under the FDA. The USDA ONLY regulates organic products that have undergone NOP certification and NOT any other products. The FDA has very weak regulation of cosmetics/personal care products. There is a lot of misbranding and mislabeling. Therefore, if you buy an organic personal care product, make sure it has the USDA's organic seal (which would mean the product is 95-100% natural); or that it says 'made with organic ingredients' in accordance with the USDA NOP (which would mean it is 70% organic). Or learn about ingredients, read ingredient lists, since a lot of companies are undergoing certification and currently don't have the USDA's seal on their product, and some (smaller) companies can not afford to undergo certification. There are still products labeling their products as organic or they use the word 'organic' in their name, but they still have high amounts of synthetics in their products.

A good resource on more information about organic labeling in personal care products is the Organic Consumer Association (a non-profit, grassroots, organic consumer watch dog group).

A wonderful book on natural and synthetic ingredients:
What's in your cosmetics by Aubrey Hampton (who is the owner of Aubrey Organics)

Actually any of Hampton's books are excellent.

Note: I'm not saying that all natural ingredients are benign and safe--no one in their right mind would use poison ivy in a skin care cream. But many natural ingredients have been used for dozens if not hundreds or thousands of years with no known (bad) side effects. They are often gentler to the skin than many synthetics. However, some people are sensitive to certain natural ingredients should take care in what they use on their skin; for example, some people are allergic to ragweed, so it would be prudent that those people avoid the related plant chamomile, an otherwise benign and extremely beneficial plant, as well.

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