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Truth Serum: Exposing "Clean and Natural Beauty" Myths

In the world of beauty and cosmetic formulating people often use a lot of terms such as clean, toxic, "chemical free", synthetic, organic, and natural to refer to products and ingredients. There is no shortage of blogs, articles, or headlines informing consumers what ingredients to use, which to avoid, which are best for the environment, which are "safe" and which are not. But the truth is there is a lot of misinformation out there that stems more from emotion and opinion than from digging into the data and science.

Let's look at a few examples:

Myth #1 -- Chemicals and preservatives in in cosmetics are dangerous or toxic: Have you ever seen the alarming ad, video, or post terrifyingly explaining that "the competition's brand" is "full of chemicals or toxic chemicals" but "our brand" is clean, natural, organic etc.? And some consumers are really down on preservatives and feel if they can't pronounce an ingredient it must be bad for you. Let's debunk these myths!

  • All matter is made of chemicals. Atoms and molecules make up the matter all around us. Water is a chemical. Jojoba oil is a chemical. Essential oils are chemicals. Chemicals can be natural, naturally derived, nature identical, or synthetic. They can be derived from plant material or made in a lab. But all cosmetics no matter what ingredients are in them are made of chemicals. No chemicals no product. And if a chemical is approved for use in a cosmetic it is considered safe. Having a list of approved ingredients allows for the creation of safe cosmetics. An interesting aside, at the time of writing this post I can still find DIY sites with recipes for "natural" or "old fashioned" cold creams and other products that use ingredients such as borax that are actually banned for use in cosmetics. (1)

  • Ever leave leftovers in the fridge a little too long or bread or fruit on the counter past its prime? Ewww! That awful smell, the weird fuzzy stuff growing can be bacteria, mold, and/or fungus. And microbes not only like to grow in food, cosmetics such as skin and hair care products that contain water are the perfect breeding ground for these unwanted guests. Preservatives are added to cosmetics to prevent cosmetics from spoiling and to keep consumers safe from health risks associated with microbes. Cosmetic manufacturers aim for a shelf life of 2 to 3 years for safety and economic reasons. While many germs are harmless some can cause serious health risks. People can be blinded or sickened by contaminated products or in the least have a product that separates, smells bad or is growing mold. Preservatives can be natural, nature identical, or synthetic. Some are approved for use in natural and organic products. But the truth is preservatives are an important ingredients used protect products and consumers. Unpreserved products can potentially give rise to the growth of bacteria, molds, and fungus which can be a nuisance in the least case and a serious or fatal health hazard in the worst case. Preservatives ensure product safety when properly used and that is a good thing.

Myth #2 -- Free-From Claims: Have you ever gone grocery shopping and seen a bag of gummy candy proudly proclaiming to be "fat free"? Or non-GMO salt? (spoiler alert there is no DNA in salt that can be genetically modified) Free from claims are everywhere in the United States from food to cosmetics. But are they helpful, fair, or substantiated?

In the EU "free from" claims fall under more scrutiny than in the United States. If a cosmetic uses an ingredient that is considered safe for use in cosmetics by regulatory agencies (for example sodium laurel sulfate or polysorbate 80) then it's not truthful to imply that by NOT using it in a cosmetic, the cosmetic is inherently safer. Consumers can chose to avoid whatever ingredients they wish, but the truth is that any cosmetic ingredient used within its regulatory limits is considered 'safe' when used in a cosmetic product. To imply otherwise can be misleading.

Myth #3 -- If an ingredient is natural it is safe and won't cause irritation or sensitivity: When I first became interested in aromatherapy many well-meaning essential oil advocates claimed that because their essential oils were the highest grade available and "better than organic" they would never cause irritation or adverse reactions. This is simply not true for essential oils or for natural ingredients. Consumers can be allergic to all sorts of ingredients derived from nature. Some of the most common allergens and sensitizers such as linalool, limonene, and benzyl alcohol are found in essential oils and naturally derived ingredients. Furthermore as an aromatherapist and cosmetic formulator some natural ingredients and essential oils have dermal limits imposed on them. Why? Because they may contain ingredients known to be carcinogens, neurotoxins, allergens, sensitizers, or other undesirable compounds. For example rose absolute may contain the carcinogen methyl eugenol. If a cosmetic formulator wishes to incorporate rose absolute into a facial product they must ensure that rose absolute does not exceed the maximum dermal limit set by IFRA (International Fragrance Association). Some essential oils can also be phototoxic (for example bergamot essential oil) and increase ones sensitivity to the sun when applied above dermal limits or simply cause burning and blistering (cinnamon bark for example) if applied topically without adequate dilution. And individuals can be allergic or sensitive to all sorts of natural ingredients -- from oranges and avocados to eucalyptus and shiitake mushrooms and extracts or actives made with or from such ingredients can likewise cause an adverse reaction. And some individuals can be highly sensitive to organic, all natural cosmetics simply because they are sensitive to the irritants or allergens in essential oils or plant compounds. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it free from chemicals that have been found to cause harm or won't cause irritation or sensitivity.

Myth #4 -- Non cosmetic ingredients (such as gasoline or antifreeze) are used by some brands: I used to see an ad touting that some skincare brands used gasoline in their products, there were pictures of biohazard waste containers, oozing slime, and all sorts of scary images followed by how their brand could save the day. I recently saw an article claiming "You're smearing fossil fuel on your face" -- yikes! As consumers yes it is important to understand what is in your skin and hair care products but it is misleading for brands to imply that using an ingredient derived from a petroleum by-product is the same as using petroleum that you'd put in a car on your skin. While some cosmetic ingredients may be derived from petroleum by products, rest assured ingredients like gasoline or automotive anti-freeze are NOT allowed in cosmetics.

Myth #5 -- If I recognize an ingredients (such as vitamin C) then I can be sure it is 100% natural: Ingredients can be natural, naturally derived, nature identical, a naturally derived synthetic, or synthetic. Let's take vitamins for example. We know that vitamins occur in nature. Vitamins can be derived from plant or animal sources (depending on the vitamin). But it turns out that it can be more cost effective to synthesize vitamins in a lab by creating nature identical molecules. Likewise sometimes active ingredients from threatened species can be synthesized as a way to help conserve a particular species and ingredients such as peptides are synthesized from amino acids. So while one may assume an ingredient is natural because it occurs in nature, natural identical ingredients created in a lab are actually synthetic. And this is the perfect segue into the next myth...

Myth #6 -- Natural ingredients are more sustainable and better for the planet: As we peruse a cosmetic ingredient label the thought of botanical ingredients growing in rolling fields or an herbalist wildcrafted herbs and flowers at their peak creates an idyllic image of how wonderful this product must be for our skin and the earth. However sustainability is a complicated topic. The way a natural ingredient is obtained and its impact on the environment is of great concern to brands concerned about sustainability. Agriculture can be a very environmentally disruptive process. It can utilize much space and resources such as water and nutrients for growing a crop and energy to harvest the plants and process them to produce or extract the ingredient of interest. You may have heard of land being cleared of forest for the sake of growing a more profitable crop. Wildcrafted ingredients (such as frankincense essential oil) when not sustainably sourced can damage plant populations and threaten species. More sustainable growing practices, watch groups, and policies can be put in place to ensure more sustainable choices are made and green chemistry principles that look at the life cycle of a raw material from start to finish (source, production, use, disposal, biodegradability) are used. And in some instances it making a nature identical synthetic raw material in a laboratory can actually put less strain on the environment rather than trying to extract it from natural source. It can also result in a purer raw material that does not have to be further refined. Looking at the big picture is an important with regard to making the best choices for sustainability and the planet.

The internet if full of so much information but if there is one thing I've learned in cosmetic chemistry coursework that there is a lot of misinformation out there. I hope this post gave you some food for thought about some popular myths we often see when it comes to cosmetics and beauty and the need to go beyond the headlines and dig into the facts.

And if you have questions about aromatherapy or cosmetics formulations and are looking for help in troubleshooting formulations or creating white label or private label products book a discovery call today. We cater to Indie brands, small business, and Bespoke formulations.

Aromatic blessings,


"It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision." - Barbara Jordan

“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”― Thomas A. Edison

Cosmetic Ingredient Database Website, Annex II list of banned ingredients entry accessed from


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