When it comes to personal care, today?s consumers are fixated on one thing: purity. The good news is that they are turning to natural products to get it. So many people are switching to natural, in fact, that the natural personal care industry is booming—sales have increased by 50 percent since 2000, reached $5 billion in 2004 and are projected to grow to $7.9 billion by 2009, according to the market research company Packaged Facts.
However, finding pure personal care products isn?t as easy as it seems. At the moment, purity translates into organic products that are naturally preserved and exclude parabens. If you?re like most retailers, though, you?re probably confused about the facts surrounding these stipulations. What makes a product actually clean? Are preservative-free personal care products even possible? If you find yourself scratching your head about the answers to these and similar questions, read on.
Can we trust organic?
Shouldn?t labeling beauty products organic be as simple as it seems to be for organic food? Unfortunately, it isn?t. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforces the use of the word organic on food, it does not directly regulate the labeling of organic beauty products. Companies may use the organic label if they meet the standards for food, but regulations strictly for personal care are not in place. (See ?NOP reverses stance on organic nonfoods,? October NFM.)
Michael Wrightson, president of the U.S. division of Lagona, a German personal care company, says that European products have benefited from regulation not present in the United States. The BDIH, an association of European organizations, makes sure that companies follow strict guidelines before using the term natural. ?Products have to go through rigorous testing to ensure their compliance with the standards set by the BDIH and to ensure that all ingredients in the product are listed on the label,? he says. ?This allows consumers to trust the manufacturer and to know that what?s on the label is also in the bottle.?
Wrightson says much of the confusion surrounding natural personal care products in the United States stems from the absence of such a control agency here. Gay Timmons, a Los Gatos, Calif.-based inspector for several organic certifying agencies, agrees. ?The FDA regulates pharmaceuticals, but not cosmetics. If someone puts one drop of organic oil in their product, they can put organic on the label. The only state with a barrier against this is California. There, a product must contain 70 percent organic material to include the word organic on the label,? she says.
It seems that until firm regulations are enforced, or until we all move to California, consumers and retailers alike are going to have to rely on their adept label-reading skills and their trust in ethical companies when looking for organic personal care.
Preservatives: friend or foe?
When it comes to preservatives, the difference between personal care and food is shelf life. Consumers have come to count on beauty products that last a long time. ?The FDA expects personal care products to be shelf-stable for three to five years,? Timmons says.
In personal care, there are three types of potential contamination: oil rancidity, fungal growth and bacterial growth. Most products are water-based and call for an especially strong preservative system to keep them fresh. ?Oil-based products are easy. A simple antioxidant, like vitamin E, can stop them from going bad. Water-based products, on the other hand, need a preservative that can stop bacterial and fungal growth,? Timmons says. ?The vast majority of personal care products fall into this category.?
And here?s where it gets interesting: Different companies have different understandings of what constitutes a safe preservative. Until recently, the most common and effective of these preservatives, parabens, were thought to be harmless.
Parabens? dirty little secret
Parabens, extremely efficient synthetic preservatives, are under attack by consumers and retailers, largely due to a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, which found parabens in 18 out of 20 malignant breast tumors.
Despite these findings, Rob Holdheim, president of Better Botanicals, a natural personal care company based in Herndon, Va., believes that parabens are the best preservative option available today. ?All of the hype against parabens is exaggerated and created by limited information. Parabens are the most effective and most widely tested preservative available,? he says.
Timmons agrees and says that the 2004 study was poorly designed. ?So far, no research with valid peer reviews and a control has been done to support the study,? she says.
Besides being very effective, parabens are also popular because a little goes a long way. A water-based product can contain a tenth of a percent of parabens and remain shelf-stable for up to five years. Holdheim argues that this allows his products to contain a greater percentage of herbal ingredients, making them more natural overall. ?Our competitors judge the level of naturalness by what?s not in the product. We define it by what is in the product,? he says.
Despite their efficacy, however, parabens are quickly losing favor among consumers. As a result, parabens have become taboo in many naturals stores. Some retailers are refusing to stock new products that contain parabens, causing many companies to scramble to remove them from their ingredient list.
This process worries Holdheim, who maintains that it is extremely difficult, expensive and time-consuming to reformulate products to be as effective without parabens. ?What concerns me is that people are arbitrarily attacking parabens and making it so that manufacturers have to take them out if they want to survive. There?s pressure to change over very quickly, and there are two ways companies are going to do that—lie about what?s in the product, or reformulate products too hastily, using ingredients that are less-tested than parabens and potentially harmful,? he says.
Despite his adamant beliefs, Holdheim acknowledges that even Better Botanicals is succumbing to the demands to eradicate parabens. ?The bottom line is, we?re not immune to the pressure. We are changing, and I feel that in doing so, I?m compromising the quality of our product,? says Holdheim, who has already spent more than a year trying to formulate paraben-free products. ?I want to switch to something that I know is safe and is going to work, which takes time. I?m not going to switch overnight to a system that I haven?t fully tested,? he says.
Paraben-free and proud
What about the companies that have never used parabens? Diana Kaye, president of Terressentials, a Middletown, Md.-based natural personal care company in business for 14 years, says that parabens, along with other chemicals, should never be included in personal care products. ?What we rub onto our bodies does affect the health of the body. Chemicals do migrate through the skin and can end up in our bloodstream, in our fatty tissues, in our organs. More and more people are beginning to understand the connection,? she says.
The limited shelf life of chemical-free products does not faze Kaye, however, whose products have a shelf life of nine to 12 months. ?No one wants to eat food that is three to five years old. Fresher food is healthier, and the same goes for beauty care,? she says.
Kaye says manufacturers should look for other options when preservatives are necessary. ?Look at the Egyptians. They used natural substances like essential oils and resin to preserve human bodies, which they did very successfully for thousands of years,? she says. She cites examples of other natural preservatives, including vinegar, sugar, salt, honey and certain essential oils, like clove oil. ?We need to trust research to discover the incredible things that are out there and incorporate these things into innovative products. There are thousands of plants that have natural preservative properties—we need to find them and use them.?
Many German and Swiss personal care companies have eschewed synthetic preservatives from the beginning. According to Wrightson, the European market demands the absence of parabens in personal care. ?Lagona hasn?t used parabens in all of its 26 years. In Germany, it?s so standard [not to use them] that it has no news value anymore. We don?t even highlight it on our label. People fully expect there to be an absence of synthetic preservatives,? he says.
Instead of synthetics, the German model uses an ?overall strategy that involves the material used to make the product, the process by which the company combines the ingredients, the way the product is packaged, the size of the product and ongoing testing of the stability and effectiveness of the product,? Wrightson says. Also, European companies can count on the BDIH to keep them in line.
Unfortunately, paraben-free does not always mean toxin-free. ?The problem is that manufacturers will use a common alternative that?s worse than parabens—imidazolidinyl urea, for example, which is a formaldehyde producer—just because it?s not out of favor in the marketplace,? says Tara Estabrook, a Coeur d?Alene, Idaho-based consultant for natural personal care companies. ?They?re just substituting a different chemical with its own set of problems,? she says.
Even grapefruit seed extract, long thought to be an innocuous preservative, is under fire for containing toxins. According to Timmons, ?Grapefruit seed extract is not simply an extract. It?s a multi-ingredient product that includes a variety of things: an extracting agent, which can be something like petroleum or alcohol, plus a chemical preservative.?
In 1999, a study in the German journal Pharmazie found that it was the other preservative chemicals in grapefruit seed extract, like benzethonium chloride, triclosan and methyl paraben, that did the preserving. The study tested six different types of grapefruit seed extracts and found that five of the six had strong antibacterial effects against the test germs. All of those five grapefruit seed extracts contained the chemical benzethonium chloride. In the one sample of chemical-free grapefruit seed extract the scientists tested, no antimicrobial activity could be detected.
After completing a separate study on grapefruit seed extract, a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that some commercial grapefruit seed extracts contain benzethonium chloride. To make matters worse, companies are not required to include the chemicals in grapefruit seed extract on product labels. It turns out that this natural-sounding substance is much more than many consumers and retailers believe it to be.
What about the environment?
The chemicals used in beauty care products affect not only our health, but that of the environment as well. Consider the fact that in 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey found traces of pharmaceutical and personal care products downstream from water treatment plants in 139 rivers in 30 states, meaning that even after the water was treated, not all chemicals were removed.
Furthermore, one of the chemicals found in commercial grapefruit seed extract, an antimicrobial agent called triclosan, reacts with the chlorine in regular drinking water to produce chloroform, according to a study published in 2005 in Environmental Science Technology. The formation of chloroform is of concern because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifies it as a likely human carcinogen. The researchers also found that when triclosan and chlorine react to sunlight, the dioxins created can be even more toxic, and in 2003 Environmental Science Technology published research showing that that the presence of triclosan can negatively affect algae and other water-dwelling populations.
Parabens are not off the hook, either, when it comes to the environment. According to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, ?Although the risk from dermal application [of parabens] in humans is unknown, the probable continual introduction of these benzoates into sewage treatment systems and directly to recreational waters from the skin leads to the question of risk to aquatic organisms.?
Ultimately, negative environmental effects will impact humans. ?The goal should be sustainability—to make the safest products with the least possible effect on the environment. If a product harms the environment, the water, it?s going to come back to us as consumers anyway. When consumers understand the environmental impact of all of these chemicals and preservatives, the pressure to stop using them will increase,? says Timmons.
What to do, what to do …
With so many opinions circulating about what makes a pure personal care product, it?s hard to know what do as a retailer. Despite all the differing voices, most will agree that maintaining customers? trust is of utmost importance.
First and foremost, be candid about the options available to your shoppers. ?Consumers have a right to know what?s in their products. Be honest with them about the choices they make. If a company decides that parabens give the greatest assurance of microbial safety, they have the right to use them, and a consumer has a right to know that,? Timmons says.
Secondly, educate consumers on the facts behind the frenzy. ?The American public wants performance, convenience and purity when it comes to personal care, but they don?t understand the complications behind getting those three things into one bottle,? Estabrook says.
Finally, Kaye urges retailers to think differently about the shelf life of personal care products. ?Retailers need to shift their mentality about beauty care. We are all capable of understanding the need to rotate food products. Now we should expand that philosophy and understanding to personal care products. Move freshest and newest products out to the consumers because they?re the healthiest,? says Kaye.
Timmons agrees that the time has come to believe in the possibility of creating pure personal care. ?We just have to be patient and let creative people be creative,? she says.
Christine Spehar is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 12/p. 26, 30