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Is 100% Natural, 100% Best?

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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog discussing 100% natural products versus products which contain some non-natural ingredients. It was a discussion that had been raging in my head for sometime. As much as I want to stay 100% natural I appreciate how difficult this can be and I feel that, at times, 100% natural does not mean 100% best.

Let me explain my feelings further.

A couple of weeks ago a friend gave me a beautiful body mist product made by a company who professes to be 100% natural. True to form, when I read through the ingredients, all I could see were natural and very attractive and beneficial ingredients. However, two questions immediately sprung to my mind:

(Click 'Read more' to continue)

Firstly, the product listed a mix of water and oil ingredients and, as you probably know, water and oil do not mix. So I wondered where the dispersing agent (the ingredient which enables oil and water to combine) was listed among the ingredients.

Secondly, the product did not seem to list a preservative in its ingredients. When water is used in a product, the product becomes a paradise playground for bacteria, fungi, yeast and mould.


Where is the dispersing agent?

Before I contacted the manufacturer with this question, I decided to perform a very simple experiment: I poured a small amount of the body spray into a glass and noticed that there were two different layers – one of water and one of oil. This answered my question – no dispersing agent was used in the product. This also explained the request: "SHAKE WELL" on the directions label.


Where is the preservative?

There was no simple experiement that I could run to determine the answer to this question so I asked the manufacturer. I also consulted a shop where the same brand of product was sold. I received a very similar answer to my question from both sources:

"The product contains essential oils which act as a preservative"

It seems that the view that some essential oils, particularly citric ones, (and also vitamins) can sufficiently act as preservatives is not uncommon. It seems that more and more companies are taking this standpoint as the pressure to produce 100% natural products grows.

So my question is:  Are essential oils and/or vitamins efficient preservatives?

There are a number of natural preservatives available in the production of cosmetics such as Grapefruit seed extract, Alpha tocopherol (also known as vitamin E), and potassium sorbate. Natural preservatives are considered safer by many because they have always existed in nature, our immune systems are used to them, and most of the preservatives that come from a plant source are safe for humans. However , the main disagreement when it comes down to the use of natural preservatives in cosmetics is that they are simply not powerful enough.

According to author of "Preservatives for Cosmetics", David C. Steinberg, essential oils that have demonstrated antimicrobial (an agent that destroys microorganisms that might carry disease) activity include caraway, cinnamon, clove, cumin, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, rose, rosemary, sage, sandalwood and thyme. Unfortunately, the percentage required to adequately protect a product from microbial growth generally exceeds the recommendations for safe amounts of essential oils to use in skin care products.

Further reports stress that natural substances that show antimicrobial activity are either not adequate for broad spectrum protection or they have undesirable qualities. Most natural substances are not active against the most threatening microbes, pseudomonads, which are prevalent in water. Others, such as essential oils, require very high concentrations to be effective. Some have offensive scents or colours that would be unacceptable in skin care products, whilst many become inactivated by manufacturing procedures and other factors. So a natural preservative is not really an option.

As I've already mentioned, anything that contains water (ie. creams, gels, lotions, etc) is a paradise for bacteria, yeast, fungi and moulds, and the natural sugars in plant extracts are their favorite snack food. Bacteria is a fact of life in cosmetics. Indeed, David Steinberg in his book "Preservatives in Cosmetics" trademarked the perfect saying when it comes to bacteria, "Remember, Preservatives are Safer than Bacteria".

 So. You basically have a choice:

  1. You can buy and use a preservative-free water-based cosmetic with a shelf-live of less than 2 weeks if kept refrigerated at all times. (Think about it - by the time you actually buy that product it is most likely already older than 2 weeks and will mostly likely not have travelled in a refrigerated truck from the manufacturing plant to the shop wherein you purchased the product. Nor will the shop be displaying such products in a refrigerated cabinet.)

  2. You purchase a water-based cosmetic which contains a preservative.

If a cosmetic has even a trace amount of water in it, it must be preserved by some method. This is fact. There is simply no such thing as a preservative-free cosmetic.

Bacteria require water to grow and the majority of cosmetics contain high enough water levels to easily grow bacteria. Many natural substances offer some antibacterial benefits. Certain essential oils, like Tea Tree, Thyme and Oregano at high concentrations can be helpful with some strains of bacteria. Unfortunately, however, your bathroom, handbag, car, or desk drawer is not an ideal condition for natural cosmetics as steam, heat, direct sunlight and other adverse conditions help encourage bacterial growth and most “natural preservatives” cannot be used in strong enough concentrations to fight contamination without running the risk of skin irritation or allergic reactions. Others are useful only against certain strains of contaminants and for limited amounts of time. And while Vitamin E, Neem and Rosemary Oleoresin Extract (ROE) work wonders at keeping oils from turning rancid, they don’t protect against all forms of gram-positive, gram-negative bacteria and yeast which are common in unprotected cosmetic products.

What is most frightening is that the product might look and smell just fine, but will be full of micro organisms that are dangerous to your skin and health. Some products may look fine on the outside, but when you run them through micro testing, the bacteria, yeast, fungus and mould count can be off the charts.

Other times, the signs of contamination are more visually obvious. Possible signs of a product going bad can be a rancid odor, product separation and visual evidence of mold in a variety of colors. The problem with the visual or smell test is that they can be very deceptive to the untrained nose or eye. An unstable, under-preserved product can be contaminated by the water in the product, spores in the air, even unseen contaminates in your packaging and the germs on your hands. A good stable preservative system can keep your product safe and free from these microorganisms for years.

I have discussed here the need for preservatives in water-based cosmetics i.e. any products which contain the ingredient water or aqua. Preservatives, however, are not a requirement in cosmetics which do not contain water/aqua. However it is important to note that all cosmetics must be treated with care and should only be used with caution beyond their recommended shelf life.

The aim of this blog is to help you understand the cosmetic minefield a little more. It can be confusing and disconcerting when buying cosmetic products because we all just want the best for our skin and we are all becoming more and more aware of the nasty, cheap ingredients that have been used (and are still sometimes used) in cosmetics. But whilst searching for the ideal and most natural product for our skin we must also exercise caution. As I have mentioned above, just because something is 100% natural doesn't mean to say it is 100% best.

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