Even the most dedicated natural products consumers can have a secret conventional side. Some just can't bring themselves to give up their fluffy, flower-embossed toilet paper for that thin, scratchy, recycled stuff. Others guiltily wash down their organic soy burgers with a can of Diet Coke.
And many more are unable to trust that natural personal care products will ensure that their skin stays firm and unlined for years—or decades—to come.
Shoppers who routinely buy organic soap or natural toothpaste from your store may head to the mall when it's time to stock up on anti-aging creams, lotions and serums. And it's no wonder. Conventional cosmetics manufacturers spend millions of dollars to develop and promote ingredients they promise will make middle-aged moms look like sorority sisters. Just leaf through a fashion magazine. Beautiful actress Penélope Cruz advertises L'Oréal's anti-aging skin cream with Pro-Xylane and Hyaluronic Spheres. Beautiful actress Catherine Zeta-Jones hawks Elizabeth Arden's anti-aging eye cream with Biodormin technology. Beautiful actress Halle Berry promotes Revlon's anti-aging lip cream with a ProCollagen moisture core. It's hard not to be seduced by these pretty promises of beauty and science all neatly packaged in a fancy container.
"The theory is that those department-store products would have to be much more effective [than natural products], or otherwise you could go into the garden and rub plant material on your face and get the same results," says Ben Fuchs, a pharmacist, nutritionist, cosmetic chemist and director of formulations for Boulder, Colo.-based Sanitas Skincare.
Planting the foundation
And yet, many of the department-store brands use anti-aging ingredients that are plant-based. "There are three things that have very dramatic anti-aging effects on skin—peptides, vitamins and fruit-sugar acids—and you'll find them in a lot of different brands," Fuchs says.
For proof, take a look at the labels of some conventional products. Garnier Nutritioniste's Ultra-Lift contains vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids and rice protein. Revlon's Age Defying Makeup boasts a patented botanical and hexapeptide complex. Clinique's Zero Gravity Repairwear Lift Firming Cream has a "special retinol/peptide complex with vitamins and proteins," according to the company.
Other popular ingredients found in conventional anti-aging products include minerals such as calcium and zinc, algae and other sea products, alpha-lipoic acid and Chinese mushroom extracts.
So what's the difference between the active ingredients in department-store brands and the ones you carry in your store? Surprisingly, not much, Fuchs says. Many conventional and natural manufacturers have discovered their own proprietary, botanical anti-aging ingredients, but the peptides, vitamins and acids they use to complement those botanicals often come from the same sources.
"Vitamins are incredibly difficult to [extract and process], so there are only a few companies in the world that make them" for cosmetics lines, Fuchs says. Vitamins C and E are key components in many anti-aging formulations because they're antioxidants that fight the free radicals that can damage skin and cause aging effects.
Peptides are created by extracting human hormone-like components found in living things. They can also be produced synthetically, although Fuchs says a large majority of the peptides used in skin care products come from plants. A peptide component can help the skin produce collagen, which can reduce wrinkles and plump up sagging skin. Extracting peptides from plants takes time, sophistication and money, so the situation is much the same as with vitamins.
Basically, Fuchs says, whether a company is natural or conventional, "We're all using [many of] the same ingredients, so the differentiating factors become concentration and penetration. Sanitas' Peptiderm is almost 30 percent peptides, whereas a department-store product might only have 2 percent." The reason? Surprisingly, price. Peptides can be "prohibitively expensive," Fuchs says, which actually gives smaller manufacturers like Sanitas a buying edge because they spend more of their budgets on ingredients than some of the larger conventional brands, which devote millions of dollars to marketing and packaging.
But department-store brands do spend plenty of money on delivery systems for their anti-aging ingredients. Peptides and vitamins don't do much good if they just sit on top of the skin. They need to penetrate, and that's where scientists and labs come in. Solvents and chemical reactions are needed to extract the peptides from plants and insert them into the skin. These reactions are what differentiate between moisturizing and anti-aging properties, says Lizz Starr, executive director of global product development for Origins, a skin care brand sold in department stores that contains natural and organic ingredients.
"A moisturizer treats layers of skin, kind of like fixing a leaky roof," she says. "An anti-aging formula sends signals into the cell to make more collagen and protect elastin."
That's why Origins' new U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic skin care line doesn't make anti-aging claims, Starr says. Organically grown herbs and oils can't be processed like peptides or some other anti-aging ingredients. As a result, she says, "Our organics line has purely moisturizing benefits only. The performance aspects are in our other Origins products," which contain natural, but not organic, ingredients.
A penetrating debate
But not all natural personal care companies use peptides and other chemically processed products. Jennifer Barckley, spokeswoman for Weleda, a Swiss-based natural personal care manufacturer, makes the case for nonprocessed anti-aging ingredients. "You can really augment a natural ingredient to do exactly what you want it to do in a certain period of time. But if you put chemicals in a formula with natural products, it kind of overrides the natural qualities. It can kill or stifle or mask out the benefits of the natural ingredient." For instance, she says, if a company uses processed sea algae, "In the end, is it really sea algae, or is it just one component, magnesium?" Weleda believes in using the whole plant as often as possible in its anti-aging Wild Rose Facial Care line. "Then things like the air, the sunshine, the earth are all encapsulated in that ingredient," giving the ingredient unique qualities, along the lines of terroire in winemaking, Barckley says.
Weleda relies on antioxidant-rich rosehip seed oil (Rosa moschata) for its anti-aging products. Unlike some companies that believe natural ingredients need to be synthetically processed to be anti-aging, Barckley says the Weleda philosophy is that all-natural ingredients are more easily absorbed by the body than those that have been doctored in a lab. The theory is that a botanical like rosehip seed oil "helps the skin get the things it needs to be strong and resilient so eventually you have to use less product," Barckley says.
Fuchs disagrees that chemicals used to synthesize natural ingredients disrupt the skin's natural patterns, but acknowledges: "If I was formulating for [natural foods store] brands, I wouldn't use a lot of processing chemicals because they wouldn't look good on an ingredient deck." His Sanitas brand is sold in salons, spas and natural pharmacies like Pharmaca.
So how do the natural brands that use peptides and other chemically processed items differentiate themselves from their conventional counterparts? Generally, it's in the less active ingredients like oils, herbs and other components. "We use a lot of the same ingredients as department-store brands, just in a different base," says Johannah Goldstein, an aesthetician with Juice Beauty personal care company in San Rafael, Calif. Juice Beauty spikes the peptides in its Green Apple anti-aging line with apple, grape and lemon juices. The juices are rich in vitamins, minerals and alpha-hydroxy acid, which helps the skin exfoliate and renew itself.
"Chemists who formulate for department-store brands are more concerned with aesthetics like smell, texture and color," Fuchs says. They may add artificial colors and fragrances and petroleum-based preservatives—ingredients that are rare in natural brands. Chemists who work for conventional brands are also concerned with using neutral base ingredients, says Linda Upton, vice president of marketing and education for Borlind of Germany skin care. "They use things like mineral oil that nothing reacts to, so they can produce products that are used by millions and millions of people."
The proof is in the study
Starr, of Origins, sums up the bottom line when it comes to natural versus synthetic anti-aging ingredients: "I came from the Estée Lauder brand, and I used to think that synthetics were better to prevent aging. But now I know that not only are natural ingredients so much better for the planet and our faces, but they really do have efficacy, and we couldn't say that if we couldn't back it up" with clinical studies and sensory and in vitro tests. "We can make the same claims as anti-aging products with synthetic ingredients" for all but Origins' organic line, Starr says.
And Goldstein sums up the bottom line on the debate regarding natural and department-store brands: "We do actually share a lot of anti-aging ingredients with department-store brands. If you read the ingredient list on our products versus a department-store product, you'll be disappointed you spent $75 for a jar of anti-aging cream from a department store."
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 36