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What is natural or not in cosmetics?
There seems to be confusion between petrochemical synthesis products and toxicity, especially when it comes to cosmetics. Here are some keys to better understand.
In recent years, there has been an awareness of the composition and impact of what we consume every day, also around the cosmetics industry and the substances used.
Chemical or natural?
Often, this tension arises from a dichotomy between "chemical products" and "natural products," with the latter being presented as better.
However, there is a nuance to be observed because saying "chemical" does not necessarily mean harmful, toxic, or controversial!
"Chemical Products" What exactly is a chemical product in cosmetics?
It is a generic term that does not mean much from a scientific point of view. This expression is often used by the general public to designate a synthetic product or, in a broader sense, something that has undergone a transformation by humans. However, chemical reactions also occur in contact with various natural products that are not processed. For example, by mixing lemon and chalk (which is limestone), you can get CO2!
What is a synthetic product? Chemical synthesis involves creating molecules by assembling already existing products, usually derived from petrochemicals. The creation processes can vary from heating to extracting molecules to alter their biological characteristics, assembling them differently.
However, we have synthetic compounds that do not use petrochemicals, such as silicones, which are created quite differently.
Why use synthetic substances in cosmetics?
Use of synthetic substances to diversify the sensory experience
Synthetic substances are used to obtain a variety of textures, fragrances, colors, and detergents (cleaning action) in cosmetic products. It is also necessary to preserve the products. Indeed, until now, chemists do not have natural preservatives as effective as synthetic preservatives. A natural preservative can prevent the proliferation of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts for only 1 to 2 months at most, especially if the cosmetic product is solid. It is much more complicated for creams and liquids.
Use of synthetic substances in an economic and ecological approach
There is also an economic and ecological imperative because cultivating natural actives is expensive and can lead to waste, such as cultivating entire fields of avocados to extract oil. It will consume a lot of water, while an avocado-based active will consume less energy and be easily reproducible. It is also for this reason that chemists strive to isolate molecules responsible for benefits and reproduce them to achieve maximum efficiency. For example, the flavonoids found in the Ginkgo Biloba tree drain and activate microcirculation, and that's what we consumers find in eye creams! And that, without cultivating entire forests.
Synthetic compounds that cannot be replaced by natural compounds
By unanimity, young people answered "no": certain products cannot be reproduced by natural active ingredients. I quote, for example, emulsification - that's why natural shampoo does not foam. Similarly, the touch brought by silicone does not exist naturally. Otherwise, that's why organic labels Ecocert and Cosmebio currently tolerate 5 synthetic preservatives. A large part of synthetic ingredients are derived from natural ones that have been used. Therefore, you can find equivalent products, but they will necessarily be less potent than the concentrated version and more expensive.
Is it not possible to go 100% natural on a large scale?
Admitting that 100% natural includes natural and naturally derived ingredients, it is possible, but these products will not keep well, and this is a concern when offering them to consumers. Certified natural or organic products can advertise compositions with 97 or 99% natural because the only synthetic compounds are preservatives. On the other hand, for certain products like oils, chemists add vitamin E (tocopherol)! Conclusion: the natural way to make your own product at home does not cause problems, but on an industrial scale, it is more complicated.
"Ingredients of natural origin" and organic ingredients
What does "ingredients of natural origin" mean?
An ingredient of natural origin has undergone a modification and is not in the same state as it came out of the plant or mineral from which it comes. This is the case, for example, for ingredients obtained by fermentation, such as hyaluronic acid, obtained from yeasts to which chemists add chemicals.
The same goes for soap, obtained through a saponification process.
Are certain ingredients not of natural origin?
Yes, some ingredients are not of natural origin: their origin is purely petrochemical. This is the case for vaseline and mineral oils.
Are organic ingredients really better?
Currently available studies show that untreated plants that had to defend themselves against the environment to grow are more loaded with nutrients, so they are considered good. Organic production also respects the environment more, as you can imagine.
When we add to this an organic certification in the final product, it is a guarantee of rigor with controls throughout the production chain.
In the certification process of an organic product, we audit the entire chain of products, i.e., we start from the farmer who grows his olives to the brand that sells the product to the consumer.
With all these players, we will check whether the regulations (in organic farming for olives and oil) and standards (Ecocert or Cosmos since 2017 for the cosmetics part) are well respected.
For example: no environmentally toxic cleaning product is used to clean manufacturing tanks, etc.
These labels ensure the absence of controversial substances.
Note that some certifications work differently; therefore, discover the specifications of those that interest you!
Toxic and controversial substances
What is a controversial substance?
Ah, finally, we address the subject of the famous controversial substances. These ingredients have been the subject of studies that seem to indicate they may pose a risk to consumer health. The problem is that there is no consensus in the scientific community; therefore, some advocate not using them while others call for more studies. Meanwhile, these ingredients are sometimes replaced by others, compared to which science really does not move away because they were recently invented. An example is paraben. Parabens (there are several types) have been disapproved because a study links the presence of certain parabens to breast cancer in rats.
As no one else bought products with parabens, laboratories decided to replace it with MIT (MethylIsoThiazolinone), another very powerful preservative.
And unlucky, MIT is not really good, as evidenced, it is now banned. However, no one knew among consumers.
This example is one of the reasons that explain why compositions are not systematically changed in case of unproven suspicion.
How to recognize dangerous substances in the composition of a cosmetic?
This question remains complex.
First, there is European regulation as the first filter; this legislation prohibits ingredients when health risks are demonstrated. If products from non-EU countries contain a prohibited ingredient, it will be the first warning sign.
Moreover, the same study conducted by an independent laboratory is often interpreted differently.
The goal of consuming as much natural products as possible is just the first step because not everything is available in a natural state, and natural is not synonymous with safety.
Natural often means "inert to health" for people, and that is not true. On the contrary, there are cancer drugs developed from plant active ingredients, proving, if necessary, that nature is very potent.
All this to say that zero risk does not exist, and it is not due to laboratories' bad intentions, but also because we move very quickly and do not always have perspective on everything.