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The All-Bullshit List of Product Claims: Natural, Clean and Green.

The All-Bullshit List of Product Claims: Natural, Clean and Green.

 

1.1 Defining Natural

What does natural mean?

Here’s a few standard definitions to get you started. These have all been taken from the International Organization for Standardization’s guidelines on technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients and products.

100% natural: ingredients that are obtained from plants, animals, microbiological, or mineral origin. These come either by physical processing - such as drying and distilling, grinding and extraction through solvents - or certain fermentation reactions that occur in nature. All without any intentional chemical modification. Ingredients such as essential oils fall into this category. Or something as simple as sea salt.

Naturally derived: end-use ingredients that are of at least 50% natural in origin (in molecular weight). These have been obtained through defined chemical or biological processes with the intention of modification. Virtually all metal or petroleum based products are naturally derived.

Synthetic/non-natural: Ingredients obtained from fossil fuel or ingredients having more than 50% of non-natural composition.

What are "clean" products?

‘Clean’ is a marketing phrase. It doesn’t have any definition in this context let alone a legal one. When brands make this claim, they’re usually addressing the assumption that ‘clean’ products or ingredients are better for you and/or the environment.  

Are products that have less of an environmental impact important? Obviously. Should products be safe for consumers? Of course. It seems completely fucking ridiculous to have to even say this. Sustainability matters, as does product safety. No argument here. If this excludes us from ever going on Joe Rogan, so be it.  

But the thing about it is, labeling one line of products as clean, simply implies the others are dirty. A brilliant marketing tactic because to the consumer, the choice seems easy. 

Are natural or clean products safer?

Firstly, it’s literally illegal to sell unsafe cosmetic products. Regulations around the world might differ, but in the developed world, it’s fairly constant. There are checks and balances in place to ensure your products will be safe. Ingredients are rigorously safety tested. All of them.

For potentially problematic ingredients - aggregate exposure at maximal consumer usage is taken into account when setting regulatory limits. These limits are then set far below the percentages required to have a toxicological effect. 

Prior to releasing finished products into the market, manufacturers are required to take steps to substantiate safety - through things like formula stability testing, challenge testing of the preservative systems, and even skin patch testing. 

Secondly, brands have a stake in you liking their products. Releasing unsafe products would seem… unwise.

Are natural or clean products better for the environment?

No. Countless natural ingredients are fraught with sustainability challenges. From the massive amounts of plant material needed for extraction and slow regrowth, to land degradation and nefarious harvesting practices - think indentured servitude and mass machinery - just because an ingredient is natural doesn't mean it’s better for the environment. Basically, “natural” products need places to grow, and they require machines and energy for harvesting. They require all sorts of processing. 

Sometimes, making something in a lab requires a fraction of the energy that it would to extract it from the earth. A simple visualizer here would be diamonds. And to really stir up some shit, we’ll throw lab-grown meat in there too ;)

But, let’s look at Vitamin C. A naturally occurring essential vitamin found in countless plants. Virtually all Vitamin C - outside of the amounts you obtain from eating fruits and vegetables - has been synthetically produced in a lab. It’s highly concentrated, chemically pure, and easily produced. Imagine the amount of fruits and vegetables we’d have to process to fulfill the world’s daily vitamin C supplement needs?

Should I be afraid of chemicals?

No. Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. There is no life without chemicals. The demonization of chemicals, at its core, is absolutely hilarious when you really take the time to think about it. 

So, are natural or clean ingredients bad?

No. Not at all. There are countless natural ingredients that are highly effective and beneficial. The point is to not just assume that because something is natural that it is better for you. This is what’s known as an appeal to nature fallacy. 

1.2 In Defense of Preservatives

What’s the deal with preservatives and natural products?

Yet another concerning trend. The wave of “Preservative Free'' products being introduced to the market, touting their safety and naturalness. Ironically, they’re usually recalled not long after due to safety concerns. What a world. 

The issue here is rancidity - how quickly natural products “go bad”. Think of the vegetables in your fridge. Leave them long enough, and they go moldy. 

This is why cosmetic products are formulated with various preservative systems. Without them, shelf-life would be minimal, and products would turn toxic rather quickly. Unpreserved or poorly preserved cosmetic products would present a serious public health concern for consumers. 

No matter how clean and sterile the manufacturing space is, how pristine the packaging is and how carefully the products are made, as soon as water is introduced into a formulation, microbial growth happens. This is literally why finding water on Mars is such a big deal. If there’s water, there will be bacteria. And all of these personal care products - you’re keeping them in your bathroom, aren’t you? Where it steams up every time you shower, doesn’t it?

Making matters worse, when compared to conventional products, natural products tend to be more prone to microbe growth. This is because there are simply more bioavailable nutrients for bacteria to feed on. Our skin may love plant extracts but unfortunately, bacteria do too.

Do all products need preservatives?

No. Products that don’t require a preservative include water-free products such as balms or oil-based serums, or products that have a very high or low pH, like different soaps. 

Some packaging types can also help out with lowering your preservative requirements. Aerosol containers have less contact with air and less contact with you, therefore, require much less preservation.

Aren’t there natural preservatives?

Of course. They just happen to be far less effective. Using purely natural preservatives would mean the shelf-life of your product would be nearly non-existent, or conversely, you’d have a product made up almost entirely of preservatives. 

In addition, many natural preservatives can be quite allergenic, especially at higher concentrations, depending on the ingredients. 

Natural preservatives are also generally a lot more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. 

1.3 In Defense of Parabens

What are parabens?

A type of preservative. The most common ones are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. They’re often used in combinations with each paraben doing something different - i.e. it controls a different type of microbial growth.

Why do parabens have a bad reputation?

Briefly, there were studies! One found that parabens mimicked estrogen in rats - excessive exposure to estrogen has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive disorders. Another study reports that they found parabens in 20 different human breast tumors. Another one concluded that parabens are absorbed through the skin, and daily use with them can build up in your system.

Why aren’t they banned?

Because the scientific community and regulatory bodies disagree with the media’s interpretation of the studies. One of the studies was conducted on rats, with a high concentration of parabens injected directly beneath the skin. The study that reported finding parabens in breast tumors was done so without any comparison to normal, non-cancerous tissue. The study that measured the cumulative effects of parabens was done on the entire body at concentrations nearly 100x higher than would ever be used in any product.


So what happened?

The researchers behind each study actually clarified their testing and results. But, the damage to the reputation of parabens had been done. Consumers caught wind, and brands obliged to meet public perception. The scientific community - more confused than ever - began studying parabens even more. The results? No measurable problems. There still isn’t a study showing a convincing link between paraben use and negative health effects.

Does Basic Maintenance use parabens?

No. But we could, and quite frankly, we should. It would be more cost-effective. This just happens to be an instance of fear-mongering that has prevailed to the point it’s nearly impossible for young, start-up brands to risk using them. Public perception and consumer demands - no matter how misguided they may be - are still real factors to consider when formulating a product. With a strong majority of consumers convinced about the damaging effects of parabens, we felt it necessary to avoid them.

What preservatives does Basic Maintenance use?

Our products are formulated with phenoxyethanol. While phenoxyethanol has been touted as a natural preservative, the reality of it is that it isn’t. It’s entirely synthetic. Brands that claim to be all natural with phenoxyethanol as their preservative of choice are straight up lying. 


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Sources

 

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FDA Cosmetics Guidance & Regulation
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Health Canada Safety of Cosmetic Ingredients
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Regulation (EC) N° 1223/2009
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NATURAL VS. CHEMICAL –WHICH IS BETTER?
https://labmuffin.com/natural-vs-chemical-which-is-better/

The disconnection between lifestyle commentary and chemical realities. https://senseaboutscience.org/activities/making-sense-of-chemical-stories/

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International Organization for Standardization’s guidelines on technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients and products.  https://www.iso.org/standard/62503.html