Problem Skin: Is Green Beauty the Answer?

Problem Skin: Is Green Beauty the Answer?

I came across a recent Instagram post from a lovely, honest, straightforward beauty blogger, who made a controversial announcement that she was no longer going to be using just the so-called green beauty skin care and makeup products but a mix of conventional and natural products. This was based on the advice of a dermatologist whom she had consulted because while using exclusively natural brands, her skin suffered from ongoing sensitivity and acne breakouts (which she developed when she switched to natural products). The dermatologist's suggestions were to avoid certain potentially irritating ingredients, namely several essential oils. 

Some felt threatened or betrayed by this blogger's change of heart, but I found it thought-provoking. It made me realize that I would like to share a few beliefs I have developed about skin care ingredients and the state of affairs in the green beauty world, based on my 11 years of experience formulating for Earthwise Beauty and studying herbalism and aromatherapy (plus flower essences of late), but also based on my reading, testing various ingredients and their different ways of processing for the skin care manufacturers, interacting with ingredients manufacturers, and based on observing what other brands are doing. Until now, I have not made these beliefs public because I didn't want to seem that I am "fighting" competition in this "impolite" way. But perhaps it is the right time to talk about a few of these beliefs to help the innocent customers our there make the best choices for themselves for optimal beauty and health.

1. The natural beauty business is highly underregulated in the United States. While it allows small, unique brands to create their formulas and immediately start selling them to customers, it also means that many formulators, while talented, well-intentioned, and studious individuals, they are not required to pass any tests or show any degrees or certificates. Anyone can place an order for a fruit or other acid from a cosmetic supplier web site, follow the manufacturer's recommended use percentage or not, bottle the product and sell it. The same goes for preservatives: while there are many natural options, these are highly concentrated, natural (or nature identical) yet processed ingredients whose goal is to inhibit bacteria, mold, and fungi when they are used in tiny amounts, 1-4%. This is often strong stuff. Formulators are not required to post anywhere what percentage of this antimicrobial products they use in their formulas, and the finished formulas are not tested by any independent body such as a lab. 

2. I have come across facial care products that contain ingredients such as oregano essential oil. The blog review was favorable but mentioned some degree of tingling. Well, when you read books by medical aromatherapists or read the cautions on reputable essential oil supply sites, you would learn that oregano oil is so irritating that it is only recommended to use it on one's feet, nowhere else on the body. Responsible formulators will consult such sources when creating a formula for the face rather than just follow their creative idea. 

3. Authoritative books and web sites on topical use of essential oils or herbs also discuss which oils and herbs should be avoided during pregnancy, on babies and children, on the eye area, and which might cause photosensitivity. A responsible, experienced formulator will spend a lot of time learning these rules and will post relevant warnings on their labels and on their product pages. 

4. I keep coming across incomplete ingredients lists, or ingredients lists with strange errors making it impossible to figure out the actual ingredients used. It is so because unless informed customers demand it, there is no pressure on the small manufacturer to provide a complete ingredients list. Sometimes an ingredient is abbreviated ("hibiscus"-but is it a dry flower, alcohol tincture, a bleached extract from a cosmetics supplier with a preservative built in?), sometimes essential oils are not fully disclosed but listed as a proprietary essential oil blend. I also come across products that do not list any preservative even though they contain water and oil, which means without a preservative they would spoil very quickly. 

5. Some suppliers sell essential oils that are adulterated, either stretched with lab produced components, or "standarized," which also means lab-produced components have been added to them. Some companies also choose to use as "natural" fragrance "linalool," "chamazulene," "cineole," and similar chemical compounds, and claim these are natural ingredients (or "occurring naturally," which to me reads, occurring naturally elsewhere), such isolated parts of essential oils, even if they are derived from essential oils rather than easily manufactured and still bearing the same chemical name, they are much more likely to cause irritation or allergic reactions than the essential oils that smell similar. (They also do not have the aromatherapy benefits of the oils they resemble or may even be derived from.) 

6. Customers seem to seek a major transformation of their skin when investing in expensive beauty products. Many wise and responsible formulators learn the need to educate customers about the risks and limitations of all beauty products, but the truth is that many customers do not want to hear these messages. Rather than spend time laboriously, messily exfoliate with ground oats or say almond meal, customers opt for all-night, every-night exfoliation with enzymes, salicylic acid ingredients (such as willow bark), and high concentration naturally derived acids in the form of a lotion or serum. To me, over-exfoliating in this way interferes with the skin's natural cycle of renewal and replenishing, and using such products beyond a single treatment of up to 2-3 weeks, can not only cause irritation and make the skin more allergy prone, it will accelerate aging of the skin and may result in an aging, stripped-off skin appearance. 

7. As a frequent visitor of cosmetic ingredients supplier web sites, I am the first one to tell you that there seems to be a relaxed rule in place when it comes to INCI ingredients names. When I started my business, by law, a cosmetic manufacturer was obliged to list every ingredient in the INCI format. For example, chamomile essential oil would be listed as Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) oil. In recent years, the FDA seems to suggest listing the English name as the first priority: German chamomile oil, the Latin name being optional (if it fits). I agree with this idea because if space on the label is limited, it benefits the consumer more to have the English names there.

But there is a second trend with ingredients listings that is bothersome: the required INCI name on a cosmetic ingredient often sounds all natural (such as "cranberry extract"), but as we learn from the web site description on a diligent supplier's site is that in actuality there are two other ingredients in this product (usually one or two preservatives). I have now seen it often enough to conclude that something must have changed in the law (in all honesty I have not gotten to the bottom of it on the FDA web site) and the INCI names that get transferred onto product labels sometimes conceal some important truths.

8. There is also controversy as to what types of cold-press, carrier oils can be comedogenic (pore clogging, or causing breakouts). While there are comedogenic scales circulating online, based on my own experience and a discussion with a supplier who is also a chemist, there is no reliable comedogenicity scale. Experienced formulators learn to blend oils to balance some richer, potentially comedogenic tendencies with anti-acne additions to their formulas. In my own experience, based on helpful reports from customers in part, I find that freshness of cold-pressed oils is a huge factor, and their unrefined status. There are also individual tendencies: my pores get clogged from petroleum ingredients and from products with a relatively high percentage of waxes (other than unrefined beeswax). And I break out like crazy from bleached, heavily processed natural ingredients, with rash-like, sometimes itching blemishes. 

Now returning to the blogger's dilemma whether natural products could be responsible for increased sensitivity or clogged pores or breakouts, yes, it is certainly possible. However, for me, returning to main-stream cosmetic products would not be the answer. Most green beauty enthusiasts did not turn to natural skin care products just because they hoped for a more beautiful, more radiant skin. There are aspects of conventional products that for me are not acceptable no matter what the effectiveness might be. I choose green beauty products, as well as green cleaning products for my home, because of the green manufacturer's assurances about cruelty-free sourcing and manufacturing, no animal ingredients except for consciously gathered gifts from bees, biodegradable status, environmentally friendly repurposed packaging materials, no artificial fragrances or colorants, and in general, it is very important for me to support the growth of companies that are on a larger mission to protect the natural world and our natural resources, and to compensate their employees fairly. 

Once again, I want to assure you that I am not here to condemn anyone or any companies, just to offer some hopefully illuminating truths about the state of affairs in the Unites States cosmetic industry so you call can make the best selecting decisions for yourselves. I will welcome your comments below!