March 2009

Lisa Kind - Editor

Esthetic Endeavors | by Judith Culp


Natural and Organic Skin Care Facts and Myths

Everyone seems to be jumping on the “green” bandwagon and the buzz words of the day are natural and organic.

A web search on those key words brings back staggering numbers of results. Unfortunately most results yield little factual information and a lot of lovely wording designed to hook the buyer.

Most consumers think of natural as coming from nature or more specifically from plant resources. Experienced estheticians smile at this new goal.

Cosmetics have been using ingredients from plants for as long as they have figured out a way to extract them. We know the Egyptians used plants as key components of beauty care.

Today’s estheticians are becoming more educated and understand cosmetic chemistry better. They know that plants are chemicals. Water is a chemical. Everything but light and electricity is a chemical.

Natural things are still chemicals, even though the consumer may not realize this. Despite all this confusion over terminology there is good news: plants are finally being appreciated. What is changing are the ways of incorporating botanicals so they are more stable.

Plants are not naturally or inherently stable items. You take cuttings from your flower garden and put them in water and they will soon start to wilt and decay. Vegetables or plants that are past their prime in the garden also start to break down for recycling into mulch.

The same thing historically happened in cosmetics. The base ingredient for many cosmetics is water. Water itself is a great breeding ground for bacteria. We can see this in any still water, like a pond, left undisturbed. Add plants that naturally have a life – decay cycle to this and the problem is exacerbated.

The tricky part has always been how to stabilize these ingredients to make them useful in the product and not to break down or go bad before they are used up. Home care products are even more complicated because consumers frequently dip their fingers into the jars and again there is the high risk for product contamination.

Historically the answer was to use preservatives. Now the traditional preservatives that have stood the test of time are slipping out of favor. Cosmetic chemists have been working for years to find alternatives that will do the job. Finally they are meeting with success and finding ways to use alternatives to the classic parabens and other preservatives.

Essential oils have been used due to their naturally high antibacterial and fungicidal properties. But the strong aromas associated with these oils can make them inappropriate for some consumers. It’s an ongoing process to find ingredients that will protect the product from growth of microorganisms but not interfere with the action of the botanicals included for their skin benefits.

It is important that we as estheticians know and understand what is in those natural products we are using and selling that is protecting the cosmetic from growth of harmful microorganisms. Some ingredients can be incorporated for use in more than one way. An example is Vitamin C derivatives.

Some of these have been used for their benefits to the skin. But the same ingredient may be incorporated to act as a preservative. It is important to note that if it is there as a preservative its benefits will be used up doing this task and it will have less or no value left to benefit the skin itself. A chat with a knowledgeable representative of the manufacturer can generally clarify which ingredients are doing what function in the specific product.

There is also the question of whether the full plant is used or components of it. This is not an issue where we can have one correct answer for botanicals. Some plants are best used as a whole plant extract. This means they are not refined or processed to remove odors, colorants or any part of the plant compounds.

But other plants are more useful when their attributes are separated out into what is called an isolate. In medicine digitalis is isolated from foxglove. In skin care allantoin is isolated from comfrey. Isolates give us a more intensively active ingredient.

Organic is a term that is frequently used to enhance perceived value. The government has established strict guidelines for what can be called an organic product. Some ingredients are readily available from certified organic providers but others like cranberry are very difficult to find. For manufacturers to claim their products are organic requires tracing and verifying that ingredients are grown and handled in specific ways.

There are loopholes to calling a product organic for the percentage of ingredients that are included in the product but may not be available from an organic source. A common way to confuse the issue is to include the word organic in the name. The name is just that, a name. If we were to brand our product Organics, this would be the name, not necessarily a reflection of the contents. But if we state on our label “natural and organic,” then we are making a claim for the source of ingredients and must be able to substantiate this with documentation.

More natural and organics in products is a key marketing direction. It will be our job as estheticians to make sure we understand what claims the manufacturer is making and to check out that they deliver. Is the entire product natural and organic or is it based on this type of ingredient? What is the preservative system? Some manufacturers claim their product to be preservative free. Then what is its shelf life and what makes it so? Something needs to be in the product to prevent the growth of microorganisms or we risk skin reactions to the product or even the microorganisms in it.

With every new wave of interest and every new direction of product, questions must be asked to protect our investment and our reputation with our clients. We must seek out the facts amidst the buzz and excitement. Our businesses and our futures are dependent on our analysis and critical thinking skills so we can truly know what is and is not natural and organic.

Judith Culp, a CIDESCO Diplomat has been in the esthetics industry since 1980. A CPCP permanent makeup technician for over 18 years she served a 4-year term as a Director for the Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals, two years as their president. She is president of Culp Enterprises Inc. and CEO of NW Institute of Esthetics. Judy Culp is available for consulting. For more information visit