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Introduction

How natural is “natural”? How ethical is “ethical”? Greenwashing is a huge issue today. Lack of proper industry regulation means that a product can be called ‘natural’ even if it contains as little as 1 per cent natural ingredients. Most skincare creams contain dozens of synthetic chemical ingredients.  Of course not all chemicals (synthetic or otherwise) are bad, and there’s no such thing as a completely “chemical free” product (if one understands the basic science of chemistry). There is, however, such as a thing as a product being free of synthetic chemicals. Additionally, while the use of synthetic chemicals does not necessarily translate into cause for concern, there is certainly a genuine issue about the harmful and unharmful effects of synthetic chemicals, as ongoing scientific studies are beginning to reveal.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

How natural?

The problem is that the health and beauty industry is a maze when it comes to navigating the truth, especially for the average consumer who may not have the time to pick at all the fine details. The deeper point is that if not all chemicals are “bad”, discerning the “good” from the “bad” is not always an easy task. Even scientists with degrees in botanical chemical science, let alone biology and chemistry, will frequently say that it is wise to be careful when it comes to what you put on your skin. The truth is that the skincare industry is poorly regulated, both in Europe and North America. In a 2005 article in Scientific American, concern was raised about “regulation after the fact”. The same concern seems to still be largely prevalent today.

The honest answer to concerns about which synthetic chemicals are safe and which are not is that right now our best scientific knowledge is still cloudy. There isn’t enough scientific evidence to completely understand the long-term effects of certain synthetic chemical ingredients in our skincare products. Having said that, a list of commonly used chemical ingredient have been found to be a health risk, which recent research has described as the “dirty dozen”.

Skin irritation is a common complaint with cosmetics. Irritation and allergies tend to be more common in people with eczema, asthma and hay fever, and usually involve the appearance of inflammation, itchiness or redness. As all cosmetics have the potential to cause a reaction if enough people use them, warnings tend to be given only for high-risk products such as hair dyes. However, allergic reaction to hair dyes is quite rare; but in this case it is recommended to do an allergy test before each application.

Synthetic chemicals such as propylene glycol are known to cause problems for sensitive individuals. Fragrance-free skincare creams, and those which are made from certified natural ingredients, are thought to be less likely to irritate the skin.

What’s the problem?

Your skin is the largest organ of your body. And while scientific research shows that what you put on your skin will likely also be absorbed in your bloodstream, to greater or lesser extent, there is little knowledge about the severity of possible instances of bio-accumulation. As part of The Soil Association research, a leading independent toxicologist “reviewed the ingredients we found in products which say organic on the label and identified the Terrible Ten: Ingredients which have been shown in wider use to cause problems such as allergies, hormone disruption, or harm to the development of unborn babies”.

Emeritus Professor Vyvyan Howard of the Centre for Molecular Bioscience at Ulster University, who assessed the ingredients used in the potentially misleadingly labelled products and came up with the ‘Terrible Ten’, said: “I was shocked to find ingredients which could contain human carcinogens in products with labels which could misleadingly suggest that they might be organic. Genuine organic products are independently certified and I would encourage consumers to choose those to be sure they are keeping away from ingredients included in the Terrible Ten.”

The “Terrible Ten” includes a mix of ingredients, from imidazolidinyl urea to retinyl palmitate. Research by The Soil Association in conjunction with Prof. Howard cites a number of scientific sources, which you can survey here.

Meanwhile, one could possibly expand the “Terrible Ten” list reported by The Soil Association to the “Dirty Dozen” – a popular list of chemicals commonly found in beauty products being investigated by scientists for their potentially harmful effects in the long-term.

Bio-accumulation

Even though the big cosmetics firms love to use the word “natural” on their products, most skincare creams use synthetic chemicals, some of which are potentially toxic. In response to the use of synthetics, consumer groups have responded by expressing concern about ‘bio-accumulation’, the science of which is constantly growing and expanding.

The science of bio-accumulation is still in its infancy. It is thought that many chemicals ‘bio-accumulate’, meaning that they aren’t broken down by the body. Some can also interfere with the hormone system and may cause cancer. The long-term effects of these chemicals are so far unknown. Depending on which synthetic is being studied, some studies suggest that for bio-accumulation to be a concern, one would have to apply unpractical amounts of a product in excess for a very long period.

Oxybenzone is a good example as it has been a particular focus of scientists in recent years, as has Retinal palmitate. Of the two, Oxybenzone seems to have received the most attention as panic stirred about its possible detrimental effects. Concerns include how it possibly interacts with the hormones of the body in sufficiently high doses, as suggested in a 2001 study on rats. But in 2011 further research concluded that one would need to apply excess amounts of oxybenzone constantly for 36 years for there to be the same level of risk found in the rats. Though there are still question marks, such as in the findings of a 2004 study that suggested traces of oxybenzone may be found in urine the day after application, the implication of what this means and the need for further research remains open.

The lesson, in any case, is that it is always best to research and review the body of scientific evidence before reacting to claims about chemicals and their potential effects.

Animal testing

Since 2013, personal care products tested on animals can no longer be sold in Europe – even if the testing was done outside Europe. However, that doesn’t mean that companies selling their products in Europe do not continue to test products (or ingredients) on animals outside Europe and continue to sell them in other markets. This means that companies can still profit from cruelty to animals, just not in Europe.

The only way to be completely sure you aren’t indirectly supporting animal tests is to purchase products from companies that don’t do any animal testing – look for Cruelty-Free International’s Leaping Bunny symbol, which guarantees that the company in question does not test on animals anywhere in the world. PETA also has a searchable database of companies that do and do not test their products on animals.

Packaging

A particular problem with moisturisers is the amount of packaging they create. Most brands use plastic packaging, which is most likely to end up in landfill, with only a small amount being recycled or incinerated. Some brands such as L’Occitane and Weleda use glass and aluminum, which can be easily recycled to package some of their ethical skincare products. The Body Shop used to refill old bottles, although these days not every shop offers this facility (and we have concerns over their parent company since the takeover!).

Ethical Comparison – Skincare Rankings Detailed Table



Keyword-Research
Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Bulldog, Fushi, Green People, Honesty, Oy!, Odylique, Dr. Hauschka, Spiezia Organics, Lush, Neal’s Yard, Weleda, Clarins, L’Occitane, Aveda, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Origins, Biotherm, Clearasil, E45, Garnier, L’Oreal, Nivea, The Body Shop, Ponds, Simple, Olay, Boots, Botanics, Clean & Clear, Neutrogena.

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LAST UPDATED: 2017