Sunday, December 02, 2007

Li's Quick Eco Tips and Actions: Introduction and Benefits of All Natural Cosmetics (Environmental Information/Natural Cosmetics)

This post has been edited, and also appears on All Natural Beauty's website under the shortened title "Li's Quick Eco Tips: Benefits of All Natural Cosmetics"

One thing I've noticed in my thesis research (public perception of mammals and conservation) is that people in my local community seem to be aware that environmental issues exist and generally support them. But I think that many people are not aware of how much their actions have on the environment or may not know what they can do to be more eco-conscious or perhaps think it is too hard to live a more environmental-friendly lifestyle.

So I've decided to start writing more about simple and small eco-friendly changes that people can make in their lives. I live in a highly urbanized area (though I live in the suburbs, over a million people live in my county) and I am somewhat on a budget (grad student here!) so I really understand what it's like to try to be more eco-conscious, but because of many reasons (money, time, personal issues, daily living, etc) it can seem hard to do!

Everything we do has an impact. By living our lives in a certain way (such as refraining from using certain products) or by choosing environmental-friendly alternatives, we can make less of an impact, and live our lives in a more sustainable manner: not only for our own benefit, but also for the planet’s benefit.

Since I craft a lot of herbal and aromatherapy products (and my love of the Earth and conservation is tied directly to my passion for using herbs and herbal ingredients) I thought I'd start with the subject of using all natural cosmetics.

Why Use All Natural Cosmetics?

Some Skin Benefits and Advantages of All Natural Cosmetics (skin care and hair care):

The skin absorbs at least 60% of what you put on it. According to the Environmental Working Group, most of the ingredients used in cosmetics have not been evaluated by the FDA (the FDA only regulates some colors and really toxic ingredients like mercury in cosmetics). EWG’s cosmetic database is a great resource where you can look up cosmetic ingredients and a wide range of products to assess their safety. Though many synthetic ingredients used in small amounts are non-toxic, in large amounts many are known to be potentially irritating or toxic, and it is generally unknown what the long term effects of using small amounts of these ingredients every day for years can have on human health.

As a long time crafter I can tell you that most of the non-natural ingredients used in cosmetics (with the exception of synthetic lab derived actives) are either fillers, emulsifiers, texturizers (used to improve the texture of the product), fragrances, or synthetic preservatives: all designed to make the product look and smell good but do little for the skin. In my opinion, none of these ingredients, with the exception of the preservatives*, are necessary since they do little to improve the health of your skin (there are many natural ingredients that can be used as emulsifiers, fragrances, and texturizers, most of which also provide skin benefits). (*Note about preservatives: for your own safety, preservatives must be used in products that contain water such as creams and lotions. However, I personally choose not to use most synthetic preservatives because many of them are potentially toxic and irritating. There are only a couple synthetic preservatives that I would actually use on my skin, but I prefer using natural preservatives. Please see below for more information on synthetic versus natural preservatives.)

Many natural ingredients are healing for the skin, since they contain numerous vitamins and nutrients. They can improve the health of the skin (if the product is properly formulated) and actually nourish the skin (the skin can absorb the nutrients).

Natural cosmetics usually contain much higher amounts of actives than conventional products (no fillers!).

Many synthetic ingredients can cause skin allergies or skin conditions. Some of the symptoms I had when I became allergic to many conventional ingredients and products eight years ago include breathing problems (from synthetic perfumes), hives, acne, and headaches. But if you are allergic to a particular plant please do not use it on your skin, as allergies to plant and natural ingredients are also possible. Be sure to do skin allergy tests on the inner elbow with any new (natural or synthetic) ingredient or cosmetic you use.

If you use aromatherapy and herbal products, they may help heal skin conditions (such as rashes), and have some medicinal and psychological uses* (such as helping soothe depression and anxiety) and spiritual properties. Be sure to research ingredients well before use. (*Note: Please see the "A Few Things to Consider..." section for more information about plant medicinal uses.)

Some Ecological and Social Advantages of All Natural Cosmetics:

They are 100% biodegradable, so no toxins down your drain and into the watershed (many other species are sensitive to many synthetic chemicals, which in some severe cases--such as the usage of synthetic chemicals that mimic estrogen--can cause mutations in certain species).

Products and ingredients that are organic* support good farming practices, and are much more sustainable in the long run. Using organic, cultivated without chemicals (ingredients that are usually organic but not certified yet), or ethically wild-harvested goods also reduces the use of toxic pesticides. (*Note: Just because something is natural does not necessarily mean it's organic).

Using products made with ethically wild-harvested and fair trade ingredients* ensures that ingredients are produced in a sustainable manner, and that other cultures and the Earth are not exploited in the process. Some companies also work closely with the communities that produce the goods. When done in a non-exploitive manner it supports the local economy, often generates income for women and people in poverty, and in some cases may help conserve local natural resources. (*Note: Be sure to check the credentials of fair trade or ethically wild-harvested products to make sure they are truly fair trade or ethically wild-harvested).

Many truly natural cosmetics are made by small companies, stay-at-home moms, or are women-owned. By buying products from these companies you are supporting small businesses, families, and women in business.

Some natural companies donate part of their proceeds to environmental or social organizations.

A few businesses are owned by herbalists and aromatherapists, who not only have a deep respect of the Earth, but who are also active in educating the public on plant conservation issues (which is often a neglected conservation topic). Many people don't realize that some of the most active environmentalists and conservationists are those in non-traditional plant related fields like herbalism or aromatherapy.

Do not underestimate the power of 'buying green'! By buying green you are letting different industries (such as those in business and politics) know that you want and support eco-friendly alternatives. More and more companies and organizations are beginning to implement greener practices (while some businesses are doing this for environmental reasons, others are doing this because they know if they don't, in the future they will lose money because more and more people are interested in buying only eco-friendly products). The organic and natural industries are rapidly growing; many businesses are jumping onto the green bandwagon (be wary of 'green washing'). In my thesis research the majority of people in my community stated that if a politician or political party supported conservation policies, they would view that politician or political party more favorably (and presumably vote for them). Many politicians know this. Your views and what you do matter and can greatly influence people and events!

Many people (including me) view using natural plant ingredients as a spiritual journey tied closely to the Earth. In many cultures and religions around the world (past and present), the medicinal, cosmetic, food, and spiritual uses of plants are connected to each other. It wasn't that long ago that this was also true in many contemporary mainstream western societies as well.

A Few Things To Consider When Buying All Natural Cosmetics:

Though I advocate buying all natural cosmetics, it is always better to consume less or only buy what you need. Choose quality over quantity.

Everyone has a different definition of what 'natural' is. Be sure to research ingredients well before use (there are a lot of borderline natural/synthetic substances that some people consider natural and others consider semi-natural/naturally derived or synthetic). Just because a label says it's natural or organic doesn't mean it is. For organic cosmetics, only products with the USDA NOP organic seal are truly organic. For cosmetics, unlike food products*, the word ‘organic’ is currently not regulated by the USDA. The USDA only regulates cosmetics products that have undergone certification and carry the USDA seal, and does not regulate cosmetic products that have not undergone certification. Also, there is no regulation of the word natural. Cosmetic products that are not natural or organic can legally place those words on their product--even if their product only contains only 1 drop of natural or organic ingredients! (*Note: In food products, the word ‘organic’ is regulated by the USDA.)

In addition to cosmetic uses, herbs and herbal products (such as essential oils) also have many medicinal uses. Aromatherapy and herbalism are not regulated by the government. In the United States, aromatherapists and herbalists cannot legally practice medicine (under the law), however, they often act as consultants to many different industries. Be sure to research herbs, essential oils, hydrosols, and other plant ingredients well before use. If you are pregnant, an elder, using conventional medicine, or want to use herbs and essential oils on children, please do extra research (as many essential oils and herbs can not be used on these people, and some herbs and essential oils may interact with conventional medicine. Ask an aromatherapist or herbalist that focuses on these subjects and a conventional nurse or doctor before use. Some nurses are also aromatherapists or herbalists in the U.S. (On a related note: In France, most aromatherapists are medical doctors).

100% natural products have a much shorter shelf life than conventional products
(usually 3 months to a year depending on the product and what is used to preserve them. Powdered mineral makeup will last much longer, nearly indefinitely). Don't stock up on 100% natural products, and also be sure to use them quickly. If you tend to take a long time to use products up (longer than a few months), try buying a smaller size or a sample (many small vendors offer samples or smaller sizes since you often can't return products from small online vendors), or you may want to consider using a product with synthetic preservatives (natural products preserved with a synthetic preservative will have a life shelf of at least a year if not longer). Though I personally choose not to use synthetic preservatives in most of the products I buy (since I prefer using completely natural products and many synthetic preservatives are potentially irritating or toxic), I usually use products up within a couple months of purchase. I especially want to emphasize that while many natural preservatives have extremely effective anti-bacterial and/or antiseptic properties (and some are antiviral and antifungal as well), they don't preserve products for as long as synthetic preservatives do. Natural preservatives are generally non-toxic if used in the correct proportions and many also provide skin benefits, so it's a trade-off.

Preservatives (whether natural or synthetic) are extremely important ingredients to use in cosmetics. In general, waterless products (like balms and oil based serums) are much more stable and less prone to bacterial contamination than products that contain water. Most non-aqueous products may not need a preservative, but to be on the safe side, I highly recommend using one. For non-aqueous products, many companies usually use a blend of natural preservatives (such as essential oils) and/or antioxidants (like vitamin E). Products with water in them (such as creams, lotions, and ‘wet’ facial masks) are extremely perishable and prone to contamination. Preservatives are a must in water-based products. Make sure that water-based products have an adequate preservative system. For all natural creams or other water-based products in jars, use a clean spatula to spoon out your product (or at least make sure your fingers are very clean). 100% natural creams and lotions will only have a shelf life of a few months (in some cases, shelf life may be slightly longer depending on the preservatives used, and type of container). Many companies tend to use a blend of natural preservatives (like herbal extracts which contain alcohol, essential oils, or alcohol) and antioxidants (like vitamin E) to extend shelf life and protect against a wide range of bacteria. But not all natural preservatives have the same antiseptic ability, and different herbs will kill different bacteria (and some plant ingredients make very ineffective preservatives). Antioxidants only extend shelf life but do not kill or inhibit bacteria. If you choose to use 100% natural water-based products (preserved with natural preservatives), for your own safety, be sure to use it within a couple months of purchase.

It is not a good idea to store natural cosmetics in the bathroom (too humid, which will make them spoil faster).

Refrigeration of most natural products (when not in use) will extend shelf life. For some products the texture may change a bit in the fridge, however, this will not alter the effectiveness of the product.

All natural or nearly all natural products are more expensive* than drugstore brand cosmetics (but often cheaper than some department store brands, though there are a few overpriced natural brands in my opinion). However, since there are no fillers, you can often use less of a product to get great results. Also because they are 100% (or nearly all) natural, the products generally contain more actives in them than conventional products. (*Note: About the price of all natural and nearly all natural products. Natural ingredients usually cost a lot more than conventional cosmetic ingredients. And if the ingredients are rare or harder to obtain or if they are organic, they are even more expensive. For carrier oils, if they are unrefined, cold or expeller pressed (nutrient rich) oils they are usually more expensive than refined oils (that are stripped not only of odor but nutrients). It takes most conventional cosmetics only pennies to occasionally a couple bucks to produce their products, while it may take many dollars to produce a completely natural product (no cheap fillers and also the much higher cost of ingredients, and in some cases packaging—colored glass used in many essential oil products costs more than plastic). An example of the cost of a natural ingredient, rose essential oil: it takes thirty to sixty roses to make one drop of rose essential oil, hence the $1-2 per drop price tag (and why most rose scented products on the market are synthetic).)

If you are on a budget, just start out with a couple of basic products, or consider crafting your own cosmetics! Ingredients from herbal vendors are often cheaper and higher quality than ingredients found in stores (even with shipping). But if you can find things locally, I highly suggest buying them (saves on gas consumption). (But buying locally may be difficult in some areas, since it is easier to find many herbal ingredients in certain areas of the country than others.) Many recipes can be found on the internet, or you can get books at the library (if books aren’t available at your library, use the library’s interlibrary loan system), or a used bookstore. Amazon also sells many natural cosmetic, herbal, and aromatherapy books usually for up to 30% off. If you sign up for Border's reward card (in the stores), they send you coupons (through your email) nearly every week or so (from 10% to 30% off).

Last note: Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe, and just because something is synthetic does not mean it is bad. For example, certain essential oils used in high concentrations are toxic. In addition, I still currently use rubbing alcohol (91%) as one method to clean and sanitize my cosmetic glass bottles, which is a pretty safe substance as long as it's used in a well ventilated room (I also sterilize in the oven). Lastly, in some products, borderline synthetic/naturally derived ingredients, or synthetic ingredients may be preferable, such as using cetyl alcohol as an emulsifier in natural hair conditioners (since many other emulsifiers like many waxes won't rinse out of the hair easily), or using synthetic preservatives in an alcohol free, scent free cream or lotion (to my knowledge there is no completely natural way to preserve this).


Anonymous said...

Hi Li,

Thanks for another great article. I've pretty much gotten the synthetics out of my products but recently realized that emulsifying wax/vegetable emulsifying wax is synthetic. Not sure how I missed that one! It is in a couple of my creams that are great otherwise and I don't really want to chuck 'em, so I'm wondering if you have any additional thoughts on what effects this might have on skin.


Solarkat said...

Hi Susan

Thank you :) Well vegetable emulsifying wax is one of those ingredients that people either say is natural, semi-natural or naturally derived, or synthetic, it depends on how you define natural.

I have more information on it in this entry:

As to the effects, it depends on what's it made of, it it's petroleum based and made with SLS then it would be potentially irritating; if it's plant based and made with polysorbates it's not too bad but polysorbates can be drying. I think there are certainly worse ingredients you could use.