Chemical free personal care products: Are they for real?

An incident took place in Kansas city, Florida, U.S.A. on the 1st of April, 2013. An alert was issued by two local radio show hosts warning people in their locality about a chemical that had gotten into their water pipelines and was now coming out of their taps. This chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), they cautioned, was known to cause side effects like wrinkled skin,  excessive urination, can accelerate corrosion, capable of causing suffocation which can lead to death. A minor panic ensued among the residents, who then made frantic calls to the water department and other emergency services. There was wide speculation about how the “chemical” had gotten into their pipelines, ranging from terrorists to chemical warfare and more.

Outcome: The Rj’s were almost arrested and the radio channel was forced to release a public apology saying it was an April Fool’s Day prank by their RJ’s.

Dihydrogen Monoxide, it so happens, is the chemical name for H2O, aka water.

This incident highlights the psyche of a vast number of people in today’s world. With a growing awareness among consumers about what they put on their skin and hair, this sudden chemophobia has become a cause for dismay among cosmetic formulators and chemists around the world. The word “chemical” itself has acquired negative connotations of gigantic proportions. A fear that has been fed by companies around the world who make their money selling “chemical-free” products.

Today we discuss a few terms that are used and often misrepresented, that you, as a consumer, should be aware of. What you think a term means isn’t always what it implies in formulation terms or science talk. It is necessary to be aware of these terms because it helps you distinguish what is actually good for you vs what people selling their products want you to believe is good for you. This holds true for all regulated personal care products that you may come across:

  1. A Chemical: It is any substance that has matter and cannot be separated into its individual components except by breaking the chemical bonds within it. So by definition, the air we breathe, the water we drink are all chemicals. As far as science is concerned chemical-free products don’t exist.

What you should know:

  • Which chemical ingredients are present in my product? What is their purpose in this product? Are they beneficial/harmful to me?
  • If you find an ingredient that you have heard is harmful or has a bad rap, use the internet to search for reliable, unbiased sources that will help you decide for yourself. (One such resource is Cosmetic Ingredient Review, they review and access the safety of all the ingredients used in cosmetics* and publish all the results in an open, unbiased manner.)

*Cosmetics are referred as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.” So cosmetics include not just make up products as people generally assume, but all personal care products like lotions, creams, shampoos, talc, hair oils, etc. are considered Cosmetics.

2. Natural and Synthetic Ingredients: A natural Ingredient is one that is used in its raw form, as it exists in nature. It hasn’t been altered in any way and has undergone minimum or no processing. A synthetic ingredient refers to any ingredient that is either altered from its natural state in any way or created in the lab from scratch.

What you should know:

  • Everything that exists in nature is not automatically safe to use on our skin and everything that is synthetic isn’t harmful.
  • Natural ingredients are altered physically or chemically in a lab for a variety of reasons. One of them being, to make them more skin friendly. These altered ingredients can have entirely different physical and/or chemical properties in their altered state than when in their raw state. These ingredients are labelled as “Naturally derived.”
  • Certain ingredients are replicated from scratch to mimic natural ingredients. These are done either to bring down production costs or to create a safer alternative when the natural form of an ingredient is toxic. These are labelled as “Nature Identical” or “Nature Inspired.”

Point to note: The word “Natural” has no legal definition in any FDA or cosmetic regulatory body around the world. If a word “natural” is used in reference to a personal care product, know that it is open to interpretation. Make sure you know what it actually means and not what you think it should mean.

3.Organic: Even though this term is used interchangeably with the word “natural” they are not the same thing. Organic ingredients are those that have been grown without the use of any synthetic chemicals. A formulation or a product is labelled as organic when a recognized certifying body (eg: ECOCERT, which is one of the more widely known ones) certifies it as such on compliance to its guidelines.

What you should know:

  • A company or individual claiming their product as organic is required by law to get each product certified by valid certifying organizations individually. These products which have been certified can sometimes be verified on the certifying organizations websites to make sure they are genuinely certified.
  • There is no universal standard for certification. Every certifying body has its own set of standards for certification, which vary from another. And knowing the criteria for each particular certification is important to understand exactly what the product contains.
  • For example one of the criteria for a cosmetic product to be certified organic by ECOCERT is, if 95% of the total ingredients in that product excluding water, are organic in nature. 5% of it may contain non-organic ingredients therefore “EcoCert certified Organic Cosmetic” does not mean a product is 100% organic.
  • A product containing one or two certified organic ingredients does not make the whole product organic or free from other potentially harmful chemicals. “Made with organic ingredients” and “Certified Organic Cosmetic”, notice the difference?
  • Be aware of certifying organizations and their logos. Make sure that the products you use are in fact certified and not just fake. Also be aware if the logos on the product are certifying the entire product or one of the ingredients. Reading the labels carefully will show that to you. Watch for the * symbol in the ingredient list corresponding to a logo with a *.

5.Vegan and Cruelty-free: Vegan Cosmetics are those that do not contain any ingredients from an animal source including but not limited to honey, beeswax, silk, lanolin, collagen, gelatin etc. Cruelty-free products mean that no form of animal testing was involved in the making of these products. Cruelty-free products may be vegan but vegan products need not necessarily be cruelty-free.

What you should know: These are again unregulated terms. These are certified by private organizations like PETA that certifies products as cruelty-free. Knowing the origin of the ingredients in your products is the only way to make sure the product is what it claims to be.

6.Preservative-Free: This is a topic that deserves an article or many to explain. Suffice it to say that the right preservatives are what make your products safe to use. Any product that contains water requires a preservative and even those that don’t contain water, that have a chance of contamination by people using them or environmental factors like humidity etc. require a preservative. A preservative free product is the equivalent of choosing infection. If you think preservatives are harmful then think about what the microorganisms in products without preservatives can do to you.

When you hear about a chemical ingredient, do not automatically conclude that it is harmful. Know about its uses and its toxicity levels to ascertain whether the mentioned ingredient, any ingredient for that matter, is there for the right reason and whether it is benefiting you or harming you. Like wise do not make assumptions about a product from label or marketing claims by those selling a product. Knowledge is power. Look for unbiased and reliable sources, who put the information across without swaying you in any direction. In this age of the internet where information is at your fingertips instantly, it is unacceptable not to make use of it to make an informed decision.

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