Why “natural” skincare is problematic, and what we can do about it

“Natural” products are the new trend in colleges all around the country. According to the International Journal of Consumer Studies, environmentally conscious college students believe “natural” products “[without] use of chemical ingredients [or] preservatives” to be more effective, sustainable, and healthy for our bodies. There are two problems with this statement.

First, “natural” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “better” or “safer.”  Second, “safety” needs to be distinguished from “sustainability.” Natural products can have adverse effects on our bodies, thereby making it unsafe. Sustainability refers to environmental viability, from when an ingredient is sourced to when it is disposed.

Here are 4 examples of this:

  1. Talcum powder, found on metamorphic rock, is a common mineral used in baby powder and cosmetic facial powders. In its natural form, talc often contains asbestos, a carcinogenic fibrous mineral. Therefore, only when talc has been purified and certified asbestos-free, can it be incorporated into consumer products.
  2. Preservatives, which are predominantly synthetic, are essential to ensuring the safety and cleanliness of our products. It helps to prevent and kill harmful microbes, like some bacteria and mold, that can grow in aqueous (water) environments. So, preservatives are absolutely necessary ingredients in many skincare and cosmetic products.
  3. Aloe vera, an extremely popular natural and sustainable additive to many cosmetic products, has potential anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties. Though aloe gel is generally considered safe, aloe latex, a yellow viscous fluid founder under the first layer of the leaf, is associated with serious digestive issues and liver failure. Thus, whole-leaf extracts should be used with caution.
  4. Palm oil is a naturally derived oil from the palm fruit; it is natural, effective, and perfectly safe. The problem is, current mass production of palm oil is connected to deforestation, climate change, and displacement of indigenous people and animals. These unsustainable practices negatively impact our ecosystems and the surrounding communities, and continued use of this product encourages this irresponsible industry.

Companies that boast the benefits and exclusivity of “natural” products are missing the point. “Natural” is not the one and only attribute of cosmetic products that should be considered and, as seen above, it oftentimes has dangerous and problematic consequences. “Clean beauty”, instead, is an emerging concept that is replacing “natural” with more holistic considerations for determining the effectiveness, safety, and sustainability of products.

San Francisco based retailer, Credo, is the leader of this “clean beauty” movement.

Credo avoids the pitfalls associated with the word “natural”. As a company that promotes health and environmental consciousness within the beauty community, Credo recognizes that “clean beauty isn’t about synthetic vs. natural, but instead about carefully evaluating ingredient sources for their potential impacts”. Ingredients are deemed “clean” or “dirty” after a well-rounded chemical safety and sustainability analysis. They created a council of skin experts to consult and oversee their “Credo Clean Standard”, a list of safe and sustainable ingredients, and regulation standards that brands must follow in order to maintain Credo’s support and endorsement. Amidst a quite poorly regulated industry, Credo is refreshingly transparent about the entire process of product development, from ethical ingredient sourcing to sustainable manufacturing and packaging.

Who are these “skin experts” you may be asking? The “Clean Beauty Council” includes a diverse group of individuals with their own unique expertise, from make-up artists and activists to product formulation and ingredient experts. Perhaps one of the most qualified experts in the council is Dr. Elsa Jungman. She earned her Ph.D. in skin pharmacology from the University of Paris-Sud, gaining expertise in the field of skin permeability and health. She then went to work with L’Oreal for several years as Head of Skin Delivery.

The skin is not only the largest organ in the body, but also the first line of defense from potentially harmful external factors. So then how do we take care of our skin? What should we know about it? Dr. Jungman introduced to me a new way of thinking about our skin: the biology, the chemistry, the environment, and how they are all intertwined. Here’s how:

  1. Biology: Just like the gut, the skin is an ecosystem in which a diverse collection of microorganisms contributes to a symbiotic relationship with its host. This is called the skin microbiome.
  2. Chemistry:  Sweat not only helps with cooling, but also releases electrolytes that help keep the skin slightly acidic, discouraging the accumulation of harmful microorganisms.
  3. Environment:  Climate change and pollution (especially in cities) have demanded more protective efforts from the skin. Due to increase in global temperatures and toxicants in the air, the skin is more likely to be congested and clogged, leading to disruption of its microbiome and barrier.

There is a lot to consider when choosing our cosmetic products — more than just its “natural” ingredients. We need to be informed about how our bodies operate, and how to take care of them. We need to be cognizant of how climate change will affect our bodies and how our everyday consumer choices contribute to both environmental degradation and environmental solutions. Credo has lead the “clean beauty” movement by creating a standard of safety and sustainability, encouraging brands and consumers to seriously consider the health and environmental consequences of some ingredients in our products. And so, as we become more aware of how the environment affects the natural balances of our skin, we are more equip with the knowledge to make informed choices about the cosmetic products we buy.

Serene Kuramarohit

Serene Kuramarohit is a senior majoring in Chemistry in the College of Chemistry. As Senior Advisor of Aurum, a cosmetic research and professional club on campus, she is passionate about beauty sustainability. In addition, from various research experiences, encompassing both chemical biology and organometallics, she is interested in the chemistry research that is taking place at UC Berkeley. She hopes to get people excited about the cool environmental research that is happening on campus, and the new technologies that are used to address climate change. Outside of school, one of her favorite pastimes is napping at the beach. Serene Kuramarohit covers technology and campus research.

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