Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Challenge of Natural Cosmetics

written by Ambrosia

Many years ago I was a young idealistic woman with a passion to change the world. I had discovered the joys of using herbs for cooking and medicine, and was slowly changing everything in my house to organic natural and back to Earth everything. And I decided that as a next step,  I would make my own skin cream. I took a recipe for rosewater and glycerin skin lotion from a lovely old Victorian book and made up a delicious, soft, wonderful smelling white cream in my kitchen!
It was such lovely stuff, and made my skin feel so soft and supple, that I decided to make up a whole batch and sell jar of it at the local market.
So I made up a larger batch, and filled it into delightful round jars with cute cork stoppers, and took it down to the local farmers market a few weeks later. As I stacked them carefully on my clother covered card table, I discovered to my horror that the contents of each jar had seperated into a murky whitish goo at the bottom, with a layer of fluid floating on top. And even worse, when I opened the jars, many of the corks were growing a horrible black hairy mold on their undersides!
Dejectedly I threw away the lot (keeping and recycling the glass jars of course) and went back to my collection of historical books and the newly emerging internet to do a bit more research into the subject. Many years later and wiser, I have given up making face creams and instead concentrate on natural perfumes. But I have learnt a hell of a lot about cosmetic ingredients and manufacturing difficulties in the process!
Natural Cosmetics is probably one of the biggest growth areas in the Natural Industry. Everybody and the kitchen sink seems to be trying to get in on the can buy "aromatherapy" shower gels in every supermarket, and there is an ever growing array of "organic" skin creams and potions lining up on the shelves of large department stores. And the Internet has also given birth to a whole new generation of Indie Businesses touting their own home grown "natural" concoctions.
It's a very confusing business. So I thought I'd pull it all apart and take a bit of a closer look at it all today....

To start off with, let's have a look at the conventional cosmetic market's newest "natural" offerings. Lately every time I go to the supermarket, it seems that another company has brought out a "natural"or "organic" addition to their range, custom designed to tempt the likes of me...or so it seems at first glance.

Take for instance, one of the those "aromatherapy" shower gels from aisle 7.... Like most of the products of this kind, it looks pretty at first glance. Packaged in a nice rounded , albeit plastic bottle, it's clear, green in colour and has nice freindly pics of real looking fruit and leaves on the front of it.It even smells sort of citrussy when you open the bottle...but let's have a look at the ingredients on the back: For starters I have problems reading them as they are a) tiny and b) printed green on shiny green...makes you wonder....

"water, sodium laureth sulphate, cocamidopropyl betaine, fragrance, sodium chloride, sodium benzoate, cocamide MEA, sodium salycitate, citric acid, terasodium EDTA, polyquaternium-7, poloxamer 124, cymbopogon citratus leaf oil, citrus tangerina (tangerine peel oil), CI47005, CI 42090, CI14700"
whew, what a collection! Reconize any of them? Unless you have half a chemistry degree or are a specilist in the area of cosmetic chemicals, the only ones that will seem familar to you are "water", and "tangerine peel oil"", and possibly the latin name of "cymbopogon citratus leaf ", also known as lemon grass.

Legally, ingredients have to be listed in order of how much of them is in the mix, so that means that there is more water than anything else...then a long list of unknown chemicals of various kinds and then right at the very bottom of the list, two actual natural essential oils. Which means that there can only be a minute amount of essential oil in this so-called "aromatherapy" shower gel.The ingredient I find most interesting is "fragrance", which is much higher up the list in contents percentage. What exactly is this fragance? Obviously not something that the manufacturer actually wants us to know about...
I'm not going to go into detail about whether or no the rest of the ingredients are safe or not, that's not the point. What makes me angry is that the advertising is misleading.

I mean, what in the world makes this an "aromatherapy"? The minute amounts of essential oil? (which aren't even what gives the gel it's "fragrance") or is it the pretty pictures of citrus fruit on the bottle?

A far more positive example is Weleda's "Skin Food".
this is a delightfully citrus scented cream that I discovered when I was living in Germany in my early 20's.
It comes in a metal tube, which is a) much better than plastic in my books and b) a hygenic way to package skin cream in that you aren't constantly dabbing your fingers covered in germs and grime in a pot.
It's got quite a heavy, somewhat greasy consistency, which is quite different' to the lighter skin creams people are used to today...but it sure works!
Let's have a look at the ingredients:
Water (Aqua), Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Lanolin, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Alcohol, Beeswax (Cera Flava), Glyceryl INCI: Linoleate, Hydrolyzed Beeswax, Fragrance (Parfum)*, Viola Tricolor Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Cholesterol, Limonene*, Linalool*, Geraniol*, Citral*, Coumarin (* from natural essential oils)
Now THAT listing is a lot clearer and more natural looking isn't it!
The only ingredient I'm unsure of is Glyceryl linoleate...and whether or not the limonene, geraniol etc are isolates or actual essential oils that are used in the "perfume" part. The website lists the actual essential oils used in the "perfume" as lavender and orange essential oil. This is where INCI nomenclature on ingredient labels can be confusing at times, because in Europe, you are by law required to list all these chemical components of essential oils, as the chemical perfume industry organisation IFRA has browbeaten the politicians into believeing they are possibly dangerous "sensitizers"....clear as mud? I'll go into all that more in another article, grin!
Weleda is an interesting company, in that they have been making "natural" products since long before it became fashionable to do so. This particular product has been made to the exact same formular since 1926!

These two are both large companies who can afford to spend lots of money on research, development and advertising.
What is particularly interesting to me are the growing number of Indie manufacturers out there, who work from their own small workshops like me!
The Internet has opened a big world to these,a dn more and commerce is growing fast here...people seem to like the idea of buying from small companies where they can speak directly to the person making the products, and it also allows incredibly knowledgeable people who aren't attached to large businesses with unlimited advertising dollars to share their creations with the wider world!

One of these is "Skye Botanicals" run by Monica Miller of Martha's Vineyard in the USA.
I'm including her "Eye Lift Serum" because it is a great example of a natural version of a more modern and sophisticated kind of skin care product.
It is packaged in a glass dropper bottle, which again keeps the contents clean and uncontaminated by messy fingers, and comes in a handmade paper box, which is one of those nice touches you only find in Indie products.
The serum itself is quite a sophisticated formular:
"organic martha's vineyard herbal extracts of roses (rosa rugosa), lemon balm (melissa officinalis) and red clover flowers (trifolium pratense), cat's claw (unicaria tomentosa), ditilled water (aqua), seaweed extract (algae), pure vegetable glycerine, organic aloe vera, neuropeptides(acetyl hexapeptide-8, hesperidin methyl chalcone, steareth-20 dipeptide-2, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7), vitamin C ester (ascorbic acid glucoside), hyaluronic acid, a bouquet of premium, steam distilled rose essential oils (rosa damascaena, rosa rugosa, rosa gallica officinalis), grapefruit seed extract (citrus paradisi)"

Monica has a background in herbalism, and it shows in her choice of ingredients. What is also interesting is that she uses both the INCI names and common names for the ingredients, and also explains what the more technical sounding ones actually are. It also has a used by date on the bottom of the box. And the ingredients are well chosen for what it is intended to do as well.

Which makes the whole package a great example of how to do it right!

Unluckily one of the biggest problems with natural skin care, both commercial and Indie, is that people often seem to add anything natural sounding willy nilly, regardless of whether it's actually going to do the right job or not!
With Indie products the standards also vary hugely. When you buy from a big company, you know that they have at least to some extent invensted in a bit of research into safe ingredients and standards to avoid being sued. Whereas Indie companies can be anything from serious experts who produce great skin serums useing safe, healing ingredients, to total amateurs who mix up stuff from their garden in a kitchen mixer with no idea about sterility or the need to use a decent preservative (see my own story at the beginning of the article, grin!).
There is also a growing industry aimed at the homecrafter. Larger companies that provide the base ingredients and ready made cosmetic bases to which essential oils and herbal extracts can be added. This is probably a good thing too, as it allows people with limited knowledge about the technicalities of making stable creams and such to still make their own cosmetics relatively safely.  Assuming of course that the bases that these semi-commercial bases are actually good quality to start with...But the big problems start when they go the next step and start selling these to the wider world. My personal pet hate is the many etsy shops that offer "Natural" body creams with "strawberry cupcake" scent....they are doing the right thing in as far as the bases they use for their creams are indeed natural (or at least mainly natural, depending on the ingredients used in the base they bought from the larger supplier). But the fragrances they are useing are not. And in still calling their creams "natural", they are useing false advertising in the same way as the "aromatherapy" shower gels from the big manufacturers! And of course you always have the question about what kind of manufacturing processes they they sterilize their jars before filling? How do they clean their work surfaces? Ect etc......
So what's the answer? 
Knowledge of course, it's the only one there ever is. If you want to find safe, healing cosmetics to use, you have to do your homework. Read labels, read books, and ask questions. When you are buying from an Indie company, ask them directly why they use certain ingredients! A good, concientious manufacturer will always be willing to share what they do and why they do it! And you can often tell from the websites themselves! The depth of information offered  on both the websites and the packaging itself is always a good indicator that the manufacturer actually knows what they are doing and is willing to share this with their customers!
The days when "Daddy (and the government) knows Best!" and the larger companies were to be trusted are long gone...if they ever existed...and I personally think it's wonderful that we can pick and choose from such a wide variety of companies and Indie manufacturers nowadays...but at the end of the day it also means that the responsibilty for both buying and making safe, natural cosmetics is on all of us!

And with that I'm going back to my workshop to whip up another batch of my own homegrown herbal "Healing Balm" for my family and day I may even decide to market this one, grin!

Ambrosia is a perfumer and writer from sunny Australia.
She has a bachelors degree in nursing, as well as certificates in Trad. Chinese Accupressure and has spent many years researching the traditional uses of herbs in cosmetics and perfumery all over the world. She also runs the Indie Scent company "Perfume by Nature" and writes for a number of publications, both on and offline.

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