What Mess? The mess that confronts us when we attempt to buy so-called natural body care products from a natural foods store. How can the educated person decide what to buy when:
a. The ingredients on the bottom are not pronouncable, and
b. Each brand defines “natural” in its own way?
Use this article as a tool to help you define natural for yourself. Your definition might differ from mine in the end, but what's important is that you are knowledgeable about ingredients, and that you learn not to trust the establishment! (You don't have to sport a bandana and Birkenstocks to believe this.)
I’ll start by outlining several popular renditions of the word 'natural' and then explain why they don’t make the grade (in my humble opinion).
- coming from nature
- containing all vegetable-based ingredients
- containing some vegetable-based ingredients
- containing minute amounts of vegetable-based ingredients whose
purpose is solely to harness the shopping power of the average intelligent,
trusting consumer who feels that “natural” is somehow better, and is
soothed by the presence of words such as “aloe” and “lavender” at the
very bottom of the ingredients list after the word fragrance, which only
makes up .05% percent of the formula.
All of the above have one thing in common: They all purport to have ingredients derived from plant materials, and assume that this fact is equivalent to the concept of “natural”. But where does the concept of “natural” come from? People who are looking for natural products are suspicious of man-made products for many reasons. The reasons can be as amorphous as the concept that Nature knows best how to maintain a balance, and has created more wonders than man/womankind can ever dream of.
Another reason could be the perpetuation of the age-old folk wisdom that claims that certain plants have healing properties that are beneficial to us. Then there’s the information that screams at us from the media on a regular basis: “A chemical spill resulted in a whole generation of townspeople having deformed children!” “Don’t eat too much tuna or salmon, the mercury toxicity is at unprecedented levels!” This or that is NOW known to cause cancer, even though it was approved by the FDA years ago. (Can you say “guinea pig”)? Whatever the reason, when people are
searching for “natural” products, they are specifically searching for non-synthetic, non man-made products! So, let me explain why these common presentations of “natural” don’t match this concept.
Let’s begin by asking some crucial questions:
- If an ingredient is “plant-derived”, how was it derived?
- Does the extraction process result in an ingredient that is
chemically different that it's source?
- Does the extraction process destroy the purported healing
capabilities of the plant? (After all, the majority of us have acne when we’re
young, acne and dry skin at the same time when we’re middle-aged, and
wrinkles when we’re older, so we are in fact, looking for something to
To illustrate my first point about extraction methods of plant materials, I’ll tell you a little story. When I first started making my own body-care products, I read about shea butter, about how women in Africa had been using it for centuries, and swore by it as a moisturizer and hair treatment. So I decided to buy some in bulk to use in the manufacturing of my lotions. Not being internet savvy at the time, I called the corporate office of NOW foods after purchasing a small jar of their shea
butter from a store shelf. (It’s since then that I’ve begun chanting the mantra: "Don’t trust the establishment", and this certainly refers to health-food stores). The employee who answered the phone gave me a price for a 20-kilo bucket if I bought it from NOW, and then promptly gave me the name of the manufacturer who distributed it to them. (!?) So naturally, I called the manufacturer, who supplies to many, many companies who manufacture so-called “natural” products. I ordered my twenty-kilo bucket, and it arrived, white and waxy, with a slight chemical
odor. But not knowing better, I began making my lotions with it. Several months later, after continued research on the subject, I realized that what I had bought was not shea butter at all. It was a wax that had been chemically extracted from the karite nut, and then manually, and chemically refined. The product that I had bought was classified by the venerable FDA itself as a synthetic. Well whoopdie-do, didn’t I feel stupid! I gave myself two dunce awards: one for having bought something so new to me in such large quantities, and two for not having done
I spoke to the manufacturer (or processor, I should say) at great length, and this is what I was told: The wax is extracted using solvent-type chemicals. Solvents are something like paint-thinner, and are very toxic. How do we know they’re toxic? Because after refining, including bleaching the wax further, the solvents are vacuumed out! Down to a residual percentage, I was told. Hmmmm.
At this point, I need to stop and take a minute to reiterate the mantra: “Don’t trust the establishment!” Case in point: One of the tenets that you will hear over and over from the body-care industry, and especially the chemists who produce the products, is this: “Small amounts of toxins won’t hurt you”. CONSIDER THIS CONCEPT A TRAIN WRECK AND YOU; THE HELPLESS WRETCH TIED TO THE TRACKS. Let me take a moment to tear apart this odiously fragranced concept.
1. The human skin is an organ and absorbs up to 60% of everything that is applied to it. As an example: How many drugs now use the skin as the method of delivery into the human system? The nicotine patch has been around for years, and now we can see women cavorting on T.V. explaining how easy birth control can be with a hormone patch.
2. Many chemicals DEPOSIT, meaning, STAY in the body after the carrier, such as a lotion, or a cosmetic, has long been washed away. So every minute percentage of these chemicals that you absorb builds up over time to become a potentially fatal pile-up. For example, methylparaben and proplyaraben, explained on 365 brand bottles of lotion as “plant-derived”, and whose purpose is to maintain freshness, are routinely found deposited in cancerous tumors extracted from the deceased. What do innocent freshness maintainers have to do with cancer? That’s another long story, but you can read about it at this link: www.livingnature.com. Go to the news and talk section of the site. Then turn over every body care product and cosmetic that you have at home and look at the bottom of the list. Multiply those products times how many times you use them per day, times 365 times your age, and then try to figure out if your organs have paraben deposits in them.
The wholly unfunny thing about all of this is that if you walk into any grocery store, there are food products lining the shelves, advertising “no preservatives”. It screams out at us that there must be something wrong with preservatives, yet they are in all of our body care and cosmetic products with the exception of very, very, very few brands.
How is this possible you say? Because the FDA does not regulate body care products in the same way that it does food products. The rational is that these products are being used on the OUTSIDE of the body (Can someone please forward this article to the FDA so that someone there can read the information about the percentage of product absorption through the skin, though I imagine that they already know about it since the FDA approved the patch delivery method for pharmaceuticals!)
But I digress. Back to the shea butter. So this company supplies this chemically treated wax in bulk to the natural products industry, and the manufacturers in turn make lotion with it, and label it “shea-butter lotion”, even though it simply is not. Not shea-butter lotion, and not natural. The manufacturers are either ignorant, or count on us being so.
Here is a list of ingredients that are often solvent-extracted and/or bleached:
- Apricot Kernel oil
- Jojoba oil
- Castor oil
- Almond oil
- Cocoa butter
- Mango butter
- Kokum butter
- And many others
To avoid these “residual” solvents and bleaches, Look for the words, “cold-processed", or "cold-pressed oils" on the labels.
Another extraction method that is used is heat. Heat is natural, right? But as we all know from the culinary field, the longer that you cook a vegetable, the less of the vitamins and minerals are present in it at time of consumption. Oftentimes, extremely high heat is used to extract fatty esters, for example, from plants. An example is stearic acid. Stearic acid is used to emulsify, or combine oil and water in a product to make it resemble a lotion instead of a bottle of Italian dressing. Palm stearic acid has nothing resembling palm oil in its chemical makeup, due to the fact that the heat destroyed all of those elements. The shea butter that I bought came in a bucket, and had a sink-hole in it from having been poured from a melted state. Good, cold-pressed shea butter should come wrapped in plastic in a chunk. That’s how a manufacturer can be more sure that it hasn’t been heated at all.
So, extraction methods can turn simple ingredient like jojoba oil into carriers for small percentages of toxic chemicals that build up over time.
One other very large problem with the word “natural” is that not all “natural” ingredients are good for the human body. Talc, for example, is simply not a healthy ingredient. Again, look at the industry for proof: Johnson and Johnson now offer a “talc-free” version of baby powder. Yet talc is a completely natural ingredient, mined from the ground. It is in Aveda’s eye-shadows.
Carmine, an extract of a beetle’s wings is called “natural” by some, because it comes from “nature”. Not only is it an inappropriate product for those who don’t want animal-based ingredients in their products, but it causes irritation to the skin of many women, and was linked to heart failure in an incident involving Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice. It is, despite all of the controversy and evidence, in Burt’s Bees, and Ecco Bella lipsticks, as well as many other “natural” brands of cosmetics.
Have I chipped away at any of your trust yet?
So... (drum roll)... Here is a new definition of “natural” as it relates to body care and cosmetic products.
100% of ingredients are:
- Not chemically refined or bleached
- Fragranced only with essential oils or Co2 extracts
- The products themselves are produced with the lowest possible heat if
any to preserve the botanical properties of each component
PHEW! There it is! The magical definition. Now, good luck finding
manufacturers who live by these golden rules. Here is some of what you’ll
come across as you begin your journey.
Let's say that you notice an editor's pick when browsing through Organic Style magazine. The editor recommends a Kathleen Lewis collection of Narcissus-scented products, including a candle, a soap, and a lotion. Narcissus certainly sounds natural. After all, it's a flower, right? And the products look handmade and trustworthy with their simple packaging, and home-made looking labels. The editor even calls the product "Kathleen Lewis all-natural Narcissus-scented lotion" ("All" means 100% right? Or has the Webster Dictionary redefined it to mean "partial" and I'm the ignorant one? The editor of Organic Style couldn't possibly
be confused about the words "all-natural", could she? Well, in fine print on the candle, is the evidence that Kathleen Lewis herself knows that the products are synthetically fragranced: "Ingredients: Beeswax, and Narcissus fragrance oil". The word fragrance oil means that the person who made the product bought a synthetic fragrance from a supplier who bought it from a lab. It has no connection at all with a flower of any kind. In fact, there is no "natural" fragrance distilled from the Narcissus flower. Some flowers' essential oils can be distilled from their leaves and buds in a steam-distillation process that nets minute drops of oil that give off the wondrous scent of the plant itself. These oils are called essential oils. If you see the words. "lavender fragrance", that's a synthetic, and if you see the words, "lavender essential oil", that means that the actual oil from the lavender buds has been distilled into a bottle for your smelling pleasure. The problem of course, is that essential oils are much more expensive than fragrance oils. Mais bien sur! But of course! Man-made materials are usually cheaper than natural ones. "Exotic" essential oils such as orange flower (neroli), jasmine, and sandalwood are very pricey. The wonderful thing is that one drop can scent an eight ounce bottle of oil, such as almond oil. Then the almond oil can be applied as a scented perfume oil. The essential oils are very powerful and concentrated.
"So, what's the big deal?", many women say. Here's the big deal... SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCES CAN KILL YOU! No kidding! Really! "And so can a car crash", I hear a lot, and here's another one: " I'm gonna die somehow, someway". Another person says "I can't spend my whole life worrying about things!" Well, I think to myself, "Why don't you spend time in a hospital room with a fifty-year old woman who is dying from breast cancer, won't see her daughter finish college, won't ever see her son score a goal again, and so on. It's not necessarily about when you die,
or if you die, but how, and the quality of your life up until that point. "Cancer comes from unidentified sources". WRONG! Cancer comes from the overload of chemicals that has invaded our lives in the last 50 years. At first, plastics seemed so wonderful until PVC plastic was found to cause birth defects. Then hundreds of thousands of teething toys were retracted because they were made of PVC plastic. But whaddaya know? The pthalates that are the health culprits embedded in the chemical makeup of these plastics are still in the perfumes and colognes that are
sprayed directly on the skin every day. Women have been tested and found to have much higher rates of this and other fragrance-related toxins than men, because they use many more scented products! Women are the childbearers! So the toxic teething toys were retracted to protect babies, but the same toxins were not mandated to be removed the products used by the women whose bodies create, nurse, and nurture babies. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, isn't it?
So what is a fragrance made of? Here's a few of the 300 or so chemicals that can make up a typical fragrance:
- benzyl acetate
- benzyl alcohol
- ethyl acetate
- methylene chloride
To read more about these chemicals and their detrimental effects upon our bodies, please visit this link:
Well, manufacturers and handcrafters like to say, "It's a small percentage of the formula." That tired, old argument again. Let me ask you a question. Why are public baby pools rigorously drained by pool maintenance staff on a sometimes daily basis? As soon as the day is done, and sometimes mid-day, the water is tested, and then changed and chlorinated. But, if we follow the logic of cosmetic chemists, based on the size of a baby pool, a little wee-wee from a baby can't be much more than .05% of the overall volume of liquid in there! So, would you swim in there? Well, consider your "all-natural" lilac shower gel with 05% lilac fragrance oil to be the equivalent. It's a drop of sludge. A drop of leftover petroleum products that the oil industry pawned off to the cosmetic industry; toxic alcohols, solvents, and infertility-inducing pthalates all rolled up in a prettily decorated bottle labeled, "natural". ( It would be interesting to entertain the notion that there is a conspiracy on the part of the pharmaceutical companies to deliberately interfere with human fertility in order to boost sales of fertility drugs.... but we'll save that for another occasion)
So let's scratch the .05% theory once and for all, okay? Remember: absorption, deposits, baby pool.
Now, to help you figure out which products are fragranced, and which are natural, here are some scents that cannot be distilled from flowers. One point to make, however, is that some brilliant aromatherapists have been able to approximate the scent of orchids, for example, by blending many essential oils (those are the truly natural ones) together. So always ask if you don't see the word, "fragrance" on the bottle.
Here's a brief list of some synthetic fragrances:
Banana Nut Bread
As well, some essential oils that can be synthetically duplicated, such as:
and more. Remember, just look for the word "fragrance" vs. "essential oil" to determine how a product is scented.
If you are still not convinced of the potentially fatal consequences of using synthetically fragranced products including perfumes, lotions, shower gels, shampoos, soaps, candles, etc, then here's the story of a soapmaker, a young woman, who ran a very successful business making handmade soaps for many large clients, including stores, hotels, and salons. They all requested the delectable and intoxicating fragrances that only nature can produce naturally, but at a low price, so she worked with fragrance oils for many years. She now cannot let anything synthetically fragranced touch her skin, or be close enough for inhalation, or her whole body will break out in a rash, her throat will constrict, and her eyes will tear uncontrollably. She is dying from toxic exposure. She cannot halt the process and is slowly deteriorating from a disease born specifically out of her professional and prolonged contact with fragrance oils. This is not unusual. There are many, many instances of soapmakers dying young of cancer due to the unscrupulous sale and promotion of fragrance oils by so-called "natural" products suppliers. Every time that I order my unbleached beeswax from a popular soapmaking supplies site, a small box of fragrance oil is in the box; a gift for my smelling pleasure. The bottles line my shelves, untouched. These suppliers are not required by law to publish the already-proven toxicity levels of fragrance oils on their sites. It reminds me of the blithe promotion of cigarettes by the tobacco industry when it was already aware of the studies linking the chemicals in the cigarettes to cancer. Of course there is now a Surgeon General's warning on the package of cigarettes. It all comes down to cost, but it begs the question, " What could possibly be more costly than a beautiful life, needlessly lost due to ignorance? " Don't kid yourself: Just because the concentrated contact of these women is much is higher than your contact with these chemicals doesn't mean that you are immune. The quantity of chemicals imbedded in a modern adult human body is astounding.
But the horse's hide is getting sore, so let's continue our journey. Perhaps you have become disheartened with the pages of the "Organic" magazines, and find it impossible to find any products without synthetic preservatives in your health food store. So you get on the computer and do a search for "natural skin care products". You find what looks like a promising site that advertises "all-natural" products made with only botanical oils, no fragrances or synthetic preservatives. You click on the ingredients list for a lavender face cream: Lavender hydrosol, Apricot kernel oil, jojoba oil, vegetable emulsifying wax, vitamin E, Rosemary Extract, GSE. GSE is short for Grapefruit Seed Extract, and there is some controversy about whether it preserves well, but the ingredient that needs to be brought forward and discussed is vegetable emulsifying wax. There is no such thing, anywhere. Anyone who claims that the product called emulsifying wax, is "vegetable" is either lying or being lied to.
These are the ingredients in emulsifying wax NF: Polysorbate 60, oleth-10, PEG-75 lanolin, PEG-150 Stearate and Steareth 20. Doesn't sound like a vegetable to me. I like my veggies green and crunchy with easy to read names like broccoli, or avocado. Call me a dunce, but one word ingredients that I can actually recognize make me feel so comforted.
So, as we all know, an emulsifier is designed to combine oil and water to create a creamy lotion. Some natural alternatives to emulsifying wax are:
- beeswax (unbleached) and sodium borate (borax, a natural mineral salt )
- xantham gum (from corn)
- Irish Moss ( a sea plant)
- Acacia Gum (from the Acacia Tree)
I promise you that if you keep looking, you will find some companies that have a very stringent definition of "natural", and offer pure products for customers that are tired of being confused by complicated chemical names and explanations that smell suspicious. So continue on your journey, and please invite others to join you. We can succumb to hopelessness, or we can caringly spread our knowledge and concern to others. What is amazing about living in the "modern world" is that in many third-world countries, growing organic foods is the default method, due to the high price of pesticides and chemical feeds and fertilizers. Skin care is often as simple as handmade soap, and olive oil as a moisturizer. We, in the first world, have the capability and the knowledge to begin to create stringent laws that will reign in the runaway cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry that is knowingly placing toxins in the hands of the human family. It is criminal that this still goes on. Please, if any of this article touches you, use this following bibliography to do further research, and spread the word.
article: "Parabens" from Living Nature
article: "Body Burden" from guardian.co.uk
article: "Does it matter if your shampoo, cosmetics are organic?" Miami Herald/ Entertainment 3650381
article: "Beauty Secrets" from Natural Beauty Solutions
article: "Everyday Products and the Toxins Contained in Them" from Alternative Answers / Yahoo Groups