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.
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
- 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!