Over the past few years, the word ‘chemical’ has become the Justin Bieber of the beauty industry—everyone loves to hate on it. You could say this is because we’re turning into conscious consumers, but the thought is largely fueled by the rise of the natural beauty industry. At ELLE we are big supporters of ethical, homegrown beauty brands, but we also love our time-tested mainstream products. As more people favour handmade, all-natural formulas over dermatologically-tested, lab-created solutions, you can’t ignore the fact that natural may not be the best for everyone. While we can’t do enough to change your mind about Bieber, we can debunk some myths surrounding natural beauty products.
We speak to Dr Kiran Sethi, dermatologist and founder of ISYA Aesthetics to help us understand what the labels really mean
When the label says “all-natural’
The word ‘natural’ is used in various ways by beauty brands, and it usually implies that the ingredients are found in nature. This could mean lemon juice in skin brightening serums (that could cause more harm than good), or carmine (that’s derived from insects) in red lipsticks. Natural is not always the best when it comes to beauty, and Dr Kiran believes it’s time we stop looking for a natural skincare miracle. She says, “That may mean using a vitamin C product in the morning to prevent pollution damage, but understanding that amla juice won’t cut it because it simply doesn’t stay active when exposed to the sun.” She also warns against brands that claim to have natural formulations, but also use artificial fragrances and colours that can be very harmful.
When the label says “handmade”
With DIY concepts on the rise, a lot of natural beauty brands have been putting more emphasis on the term ‘handmade’. This often means a small team mixing your moisturisers or shampoos in their kitchens, giving the illusion that it’s just as wholesome as the DIY besan face mask you whip up at home. This also means that products aren’t going through the usual quality check they would undergo in a lab set-up. “I can’t trust handmade because there’s no authority checking the formulation or identifying what’s being used. What if they are using regular tap water with bacteria? I want a licensed product,” says Dr Kiran.
When the label says “free of sulphate, silicone and paraben”
These ingredients have earned a reputation for being the bad guys of beauty. Almost every natural beauty brand boldly labels products as ‘free of sulphate, silicone and paraben’. While the brand’s intentions are to reduce any damage, a closer look at the ingredient list reveals alternative ingredients that have similar properties but different names. Dr Kiran explains, “Silicone is replaced with ingredients like long chain carbon synthetic compounds that approximate silicones but not as effectively, or with oils. Sulfate is simply replaced with another detergent. I don’t fully understand if there’s a change but it’s less irritating. If it’s a foaming surfactant you end up in the same boat.”
Do we really need to fear these? “They aren’t harmful in small doses,” says Dr Kiran. “I would avoid parabens, but if a medication needs it I wouldn’t stress on it. Sulphates are drying and silicones tend to cause build-up that’s about it—they’re not harmful to health.”
When the label says “ECOCERT certified”
When a product is certified by ECOCERT or COSMOS it doesn’t mean the entire product is organic or safe to use. It simply means that 95-99 per cent of the natural ingredients used in the formulation are organic. And a product is only required to have 20 per cent of these organic ingredients (10 per cent for wash-off products like cleansers). Sometimes this can be skewed even further Dr Kiran warns, “Beauty brands will often use a small percentage of an ECOCERT certified ingredient, and call the whole product ECOCERT certified.”
How to be a smart ethical consumer
Instead of cancelling brands, be a smart shopper. Natural beauty brands may be as good as conventional brands, but they’re not always the safest option. Dr Kiran Sethi lays down a few rules when you buy your next beauty product:
1) “Look for words like ‘safe’ and ‘ethically’ derived.”
2) “I am always suspicious of a key ingredients list. Look for a full INCI (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient), even if it’s ayurvedic. Indian ayurvedic manufacturing licenses allow the use of antibiotics and mercury without any mention on the label, which is very scary.”
3) “It should always be manufactured in a real factory, not in someone’s home.”
4) “It shouldn’t contain artificial fragrances and artificial colours.”
5) “I want to know the pHs of the products because it’s important for skin and scalp safety.”
6) “Ask the brand about their testing processes, like microbial testing, heavy metal testing, etc.”
7) “Truly organic ingredients and an organic product made properly in a lab or factory setting is much more expensive. Those ingredients cost a lot!”
8) “There is always individual variability. We have understand each product’s function and use them rationally based on what we are looking for.”