Saturday, June 13, 2009

Are "natural" products better?

Gradually over the past decade, perhaps with our enlightenment about the harm we're doing to the planet, we've come to regard all the plants and their existence in our products with great reverence. We want to buy products that are "natural" and look with suspicion on hair care that is devoid of herbs, flowers, and obscure, lesser known oils.

What does "natural" mean, anyway?

I'm serious. That was not a rhetorical question. I want to know. If you had to define it, what would you say?

I've come up with some reasons why I suspect people think so-called natural products are better.

No Preservatives
I've addressed this before but it bears repeating. Preservatives are not universally bad and in fact, without them, you would have a head full of bacteria. Bacteria is natural, too. Does that make it good?

Natural products use preservatives, too, and sometimes, they are not straight from nature. Paula Begoun, author of Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me has this to say: "...natural or plant-based preservatives have extremely poor antimicrobial or antifungal properties. Complications for skin due to a product being contaminated are a serious consideration when it comes to how a product is preserved."

Concerned about parabens? Even the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database lists most of them as having a score below 5 (the group's highest score, which indicates the highest level of danger or toxicity, is 10). And the EWG, considered alarmist by some, overly cautious by others, could not possibly be accused of underestimating the danger of any ingredient. So, if methylparaben and sodium methylparaben achieve scores of 8, these may be cause for concern if you use a lot of products that contain this ingredient, but do you know how much of this stuff you'd have to use in order to be worried? Tons! There's no way you could use and/or absorb enough to adversely affect your health. Better you should worry about getting hit by a bus or slipping on a banana peel.

Mother Nature is Our Friend
Well, yes, often she is. Except when she isn't. Some examples:

- Hurricane Katrina
- Belladonna
- Smallpox
- Poison ivy

I hope you see where I'm going. Not everything that is of the earth is good for us. Lots of things are, though, and we would hope that those would be the things that end up in our products. Is this true? Sometimes.

In the Paula Begoun article I mentioned above, she lists some of the compounds found in nature that are good for our skin and/or hair -- and some of the ones that are not so good (such as lavender oil, lemon, rose, and sage). Tea tree oil is another one that's been getting some attention lately, and according to Dr. Benabio's Dermatology Blog, there's reason to be cautious with this substance. Although the article is about the efficacy of tea tree oil used to treat acne, he raises some excellent points about how harsh it can be for many people.

Natural or Organic Equates to Purity
No, it doesn't.

Did you know that a cosmetics company can claim anything is natural or organic? And that they can do so because there are no FDA guidelines or definitions for either word (in the cosmetic industry)? This means that if a product is 90 percent water, which is "natural," a company can claim that its product is natural. Even "organic."

Most of us cannot step out into the backyard, pick a plant, and apply it directly to our bodies and wait for beauty to happen. Herbs and plants and oils need to undergo various processes to either make the ingredient compatible with other ingredients or to extract what is actually useful from a plant. These processes almost always involve the use of chemicals. Are all chemicals bad? Hell no. In fact, many of the unpronounceable ingredients in hair care products are responsible for making our hair manageable, beautiful, and better conditioned. (Case in point: Cetyl alcohol, which is not a drying alcohol but an emulsifier and emollient -- a "fatty alcohol" -- yet companies such as Aubrey Organics list it as "coconut fatty acid base" because it sounds less "scientific" than what it really is. Without a lab, this ingredient would not exist. Is that natural? You tell me.)

Here, at last, is my point: If you are using "natural" hair care products because you think they are better for your hair, you are probably deluding yourself. There is no evidence to prove that they are any better for you, or work any better than synthetic or non-organic or unnatural products/ingredients. By all means use them if you like them (I use several myself), but do not be fooled by the hype.

I leave you with this from the Organic Consumers Association:

The industry’s hopes for eternal youth are validated by stunning 39 percent growth in the natural and organic cosmetic sector annually. In one survey conducted by Health, 83 percent of responding consumers indicated that they would rather use all natural body products, though more than half could not define “natural” or “organic.”

"Natural" products are likely doing more to ease your ecological conscience than they are doing for your hair.

I encourage your comments on this. Did I miss any of the reasons why you choose natural over synthetic? If so, tell me.

Addendum: I found this story at Cosmetics Design a day after writing this post. It talks about how companies are getting sued by making false claims about being natural and/or organic. What's even more interesting is that the Federal Trade Commission is putting together guidelines to help companies avoid deceptive claims, and even though there is already a set of guidelines out there, the article says most companies do not even know they exist. Little wonder the greenwashing business is thriving!


Jessica said...

I find that "natural" products work better for me, but this might only be because most of the product I use that are marketed as organic are more expensive and made by companies that probably use a better grade of ingredients than the usual drugstore products (Kinky Curly, Jessicurl, etc.)

By the way, is lavender oil really bad for your hair? I'll have to stop making my lavender spray if it is..

Sage Vivant said...

Yes, that's an interesting point about the ingredients being a higher grade/quality. I have no idea whether it's true, but it merits some investigation for sure.

As for the lavender oil, Paula Begoun lists it on the page I cite in the post, but there are also the following sources:

Sage Vivant said...

Note to Jessica: I don't know what effect lavender might have on hair, as sources seem to differ on this and none of them seem consistent. The sources I list in my previous comment address lavender as a *skin* irritant.

Alice said...

Interesting post.

"Natural or Organic Equates to Purity
No, it doesn't."
Virtually cookies for you! This NEEDS to get out more. I hate people screaming "but it's ORGANIC!!!!111" when the only thing "organic" in it is water.

Personally, I waffle between natural/organic and regular products. I haven't noticed any life altering differences from using all natural v. regular products though, so I'll probably continue waffling :)

Paula said...

Oh my God, I think I love you.

Thank you for this topic.

I would like to see cosmetics held to the same standard as food (better but still some flaws) with regards to natural and organic labeling.

Don't even get me started on the parabens scare. One flawed study and the world freaks out. Perhaps you (gy)should tell people not to eat blueberries and prunes since they have parabens too. ;)

Even most of the grapefuit seed extract sold as a natural preservative contains some amounts of a chemical preservative such as triclosan and methyl paraben. A German study showed that it was because straight GSE didn't work.

Plenty of people have chemical sensitivities or class sensitivities, and so some of them do better with a shorter, more natural ingredients list. But, some also have sensitivities to things like peppermint or cinnamon, or some of the essential oils that can be irritating.

Personally, I use what works for me. Some is natural and/or organic, some isn't.

I do wish that companies (large and small) had to comply with INCI labeling standards so that you see the scientific name instead of some flowery name made up to sound more organic.

The organics business is just a business like anything else. Some will happily use scare tactics to ensure that you buy organic.

While I do feel that a more organic/natural approach in general can be helpful, the organic pendulum seems to have swung a bit too far and needs to balance out a bit.

Wanda said...

I totally agree with natural not necessarily being better for you.

As you pointed out, many many natural things are indeed toxic including certain bacteria, venoms, plants and even the air some days.

I've been finding that the more natural products work better for me. I doubt it's about them being natural persay but more about the ingredients. I haven't figured out what is in them yet that makes my hair like them better than drugstore and salon products. I suspect some of it is the butters. Apparently I do better with the heavier products.

My mother was all about organic and natural. No pesticides, chemicals, or other "bad" things. Everyday she would be telling me about something else that causes cancer, asthma, heart disease or some other terrible ailment. At one point, even too many carrots were supposed to be carcinogenic for pete's sake.

At any rate, are they better for you - I can't say. I just know they have been working better on me.

Anne said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking, down-to-earth post. There's a lot of fuzzy "science" out there in the "all natural" world, and it's nice to see a reality check.

I do love some natural products, and I certainly HOPE their higher price is due to higher quality ingredients.... but I realize this might not be the case. "All natural" is, I fear, often used as yet another specious claim to make us shell out more money.

DEL said...

Oh jili you've done it again! Why oh Why do I cringe when I reach for some of my drugstore stuff?? I assume because it's labeled "natural" it's better too, but I think a lot of it is psychological. There are some natural products that contain certain ingredients that my hair loves but there are also some so called "junk" products that work really well for me too. I guess like some of the others, I just continue to use both but for me I don't really care about all that "green" stuff. I also think it's marketing hype and it's just crap! I want quality ingredients that WORK but not necessarily "organic" or "paraben free"

Morrighu Tel Uvrith said...

I've actually become frightened of many of the ingredients even in some of the so called "organic" lines. ALMOST ALL of them contain Tetrasodium EDTA which, by itself, isn't so bad except that it passes into the body from the skin where it gets stored in places like the brain.

Furthermor, many of the ingredients are the by-products of industrial manufacturing and end up being contaminated with various industrial wastes.

Elena said...

I have no problem using "regular" products. For me the appeal of "natural" lines is less about their being natural and more about their not having things I don't want to use. This is actually much more true for me in skin care than hair care, where there are plenty of regular stuff for the conditioner-washing-only lifestyle. but my skin has a horrible reaction to silicones--it makes me break out into cystic acne. it took me years of ruining my skin to realize this, and now i am very careful about everythign that touches my skin. and unfortunately, skin care products are even worse than hair care products about being cone-laden. so i use organic makeup not becuase it's organic per se, but rather because it's the only kind i could find that didn't have dimethicone!

i guess that's not a real reason to go for natural stuff, though, is it? if i had another alternative i might go with it instead.

nice post--i'm enjoying the debunking series. :)

Kcurly said...

Fantastic post.

CurlyKye said...

WOW!! I was just reflecting on my spending habits of "natural" products and became rather disgusted consider I do not spend that much on my health OR put that much in savings.

This is definitely thought provoking considering the fact that I myself and many others use store bought/mass produced conditioners to co-wash and conditioner our hair. Makes you think, how can I co-wash and condition with store bought/mass produced conditioners (sometimes even using them as a leave-in) BUT then moisturize and seal with "natural" products. WOW!

Katrina said...

LMAO - Jill, you're my idol. :D

Raina said...

I love Paula Begoun. She is my hero. I only solved a lot of my skin care problems after reading her book.

She recently had an article out on how citrus oils have actually been found (in one study) to cause a neurogenic repsonse that leads to more oil production (if I phrased that right). I can't tell you how many "natural lines" have lemon/orange oil in their products for oily skin.

That having been said, regular cosmetic companies are not much better at doing unbiased research and following up with a good formula.

Fantastic blog Jilli :)

Sarah said...

I don't mind products that aren't natural but most natural products agree with the CG method

Felicia said...

Interesting you mentioned Poison Ivy as one of the not-so-nice things about nature. It turns out I was trying to get to some wild plums high up in a tree in a forest and ended up getting Poison Oak all over my arms and legs a few days ago.
What upsets me is, when looking for information/advice about how to treat it online, how many people seem to recommend "natural" remedies over prescription ones. Some people even actively discourage the use of prescription medication to treat it.
As someone who has now suffered two very bad cases of Poison Oak on her body, I can tell you that the prescription medicine is critically important if you don't want to suffer horribly for many weeks. Prednisone tunes down the immune system so it doesn't work so hard attacking the skin cells which have been affected by the toxic urushiol oil from the plant - it is this immune response which is responsible for the terrible inflammation and itching. Another very important drug is hydroxyzine which is a powerful antihistamine - similar to but stronger than Benadryl (diphenhydramine). People who would claim that these medications are bad in some way are simply horribly misinformed and probably very full of it in thinking that they know so much better than medical science. Worse still, they are misleading people and their misinformation can lead to serious, unnecessary suffering by people who take their "advice".

Another thing that gets me is how many "natural" product lines seem to think that just throwing a bunch of essential oils into their products makes them natural. However, I consider most essential oils to be relatively high in terms of environmental impact. How many roses must be crushed to make one pure drop of rose oil? What about all the other oils? Some plants are more suited towards making essential oils - for example rosemary whose leaves contain a high amount. Extracting the oil from the plant does not involve having to kill large numbers of plants. People should understand that many plant oils are luxury items but not necessarily very green ones. Also, many oils are irritants to people who are sensitive such as myself, thereby making many of these natural lines of products more or less useless. Very few natural bodycare brands adhere to very high standards when it comes to being truly natural - I can think of Dr. Hauschka as a shining example however - most of the other good examples I know of are also German brands.

Jess said...

I am using an organic shampoo/conditioner currently, but because it's the only brand I could find that gave my fine hair volume and didn't have sulfates or silicones. That being said, I was raised by hippies so I tend to subconsciously gravitate towards things that are advertised as "natural" or "organic" because they feel safer to me, psychologically. (I do read labels though. It's pretty much some sort of compulsion.)

But if a non-organic product doesn't have any ingredients that I disagree with, then I'll happily use it too. I do worry about chemicals that we don't know the long term effects for, but of course, those chemicals have the potential to be found in any kind of haircare product.

This comment was a little all over the place. I guess that's what I get for trying to study for finals and read blogs at the same time.