The case for doing your research before investing in ‘clean beauty’

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“If you wouldn’t eat it, why would you put it on your skin?” asks Vanessa Megan, an organic skincare advocate with her own product line. We might respond that ingesting something is not the same as absorbing it. That surely she does not suggest we dine on her lotions? Or that one of the skin’s functions is to perform as a shield against the surrounding environment. Nevertheless, she has a point. Our skin is our largest organ – and we have a collective blind spot when it comes to slathering it in synthetic chemicals.

Organic alternatives are increasingly popular. In the UK, the organic beauty and wellbeing market grew by 13 per cent last year. In the US, 37 per cent of consumers agree that they bought more natural and organic personal care products in 2016 than the previous year. The latest Australian Organic Market Report confirms Australia follows this global trend. Yet certified organic products account for only a small fraction of the massive global market.

“I meet many people who eat organic food and care about a healthy lifestyle but haven’t yet extended that thinking to their beauty regimes,” says Megan, whose Vanessa Megan brand offers products made in Australia from certified organic ingredients and no synthetic chemicals. “I compare it to taking a yoga class then going for McDonalds. Or following a jog with a cigarette. Some people might be up for that, but it doesn’t seem sensible to me.”

Confession: I am that person. If I smoked, I’d think a jog bought me credits. I freak out about pesticides on fruit and veg, while merrily using red lipstick that contains lead. (Looking for an alternative? Try Aussie organic brand Nudus.)

I know nail polish can be laced with toxic formaldehyde, toluene, phthalates and hormone-disrupting TPP but kid myself that it doesn’t matter because … toes, whatevs. I’m not painting it on my eyeballs, am I? Or drinking the stuff. How bad can it be? The answer is very bad indeed.

My excuse is that I’m not “a beauty person”. I’m the only one of my friends with no Botox. I’ve never had a facial in my life, let alone collagen fillers or a chemical peel. My anti-ageing strategy is basically candle light.

In 15 years as a mag hag, I wrote precisely two beauty stories. One was an interview with the iconic makeup artist that I was persuaded to do by the fact that it took place on his tropical island. The other was about perfume. Now, perfume I can appreciate. As Coco Chanel said, a woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future. Except, she was wrong; it’s the other way around. Yep, your perfume could be killing you.

The story of which chemicals we should avoid and which are supposedly proven to be safe is a complex one. For starters, forget the term “chemical-free” – water, for example, has a chemical composition, while many ingredients labelled as “natural” have been synthesised in a lab.

Known and suspected toxins continue to be commonly used in personal care products. They include the preservative and anti-bacterial agent triclosan, phthalates (found in hairspray, nail polish, fragrances, shampoos and moisturisers) and parabens – all known hormone disruptors. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a likely carcinogen that turns up in lip gloss. Resorcinol is found in some hair dyes and has been linked to thyroid disfunction. A possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer has been much publicised – but talc is still for sale.

There’s disagreement over how much exposure to such things is safe. Brands invest heavily in testing and developing effective products based on synthetic ingredients, many of which are recommended by dermatologists. Could the current craze for “clean” beauty be about cultural context, or even climate change? Could it all be smoke and mirrors? In a recent article in The New York Times , the writer Alice Gregory argues that “our cultural infatuation with organic food and locally grown produce has surged as the earth blisters and withers. And for obvious reasons our romanticisation of nature feels urgent in a way it didn’t even a few years ago.”

Related: Why organic skincare may not be better for you

Vanessa Megan worries about fake news. She says the perception persists that “if it’s organic it’s not going to work, that it’s not going to address skin concerns, that the formulas will be goopy and unsophisticated and have nothing to do with science. That’s understandable because so much marketing power lies with established, non-organic brands, but it is simply not true.”

“The average woman applies 515 synthetic chemicals to her body daily,” says organics fan and mother of four Anna Addicoat, quoting a British survey conducted in 2009 by Biosen, a company that makes aluminum-free deodorants.

“Add this to our already-toxic lifestyle – [everything from] mobile phones [and] packaged food to pollution. Individually these things might be fine, but compounded? Well, we wonder.”

Addicoat and her husband Andrew Brown founded their organic skincare line People for Plants when Anna’s skin flared up during pregnancy. “I was in need of help with my health, particularly my skin,” she explains. “Determined to find a truly natural option and acutely aware of ingredients and foods to avoid while pregnant, I worked with a friend who’s an expert in organic ingredients, to create soothing balms, made with pure certified organic shea butter.” People for Plants lists the percentage of certified organic ingredients on its packaging, and has a strict no nasties policy – sulphate- and paraben-free, no synthetic fragrances, artificial colours or GMOs.

“It still surprises me how much people don’t know, or don’t want to know,” says Vanessa Megan. “We need broader education in this area, and this is not about you buying my products; it’s about raising awareness about what is in common use. Take mineral oil, for example. It sounds natural but it’s a derivative of petroleum, and a cheap filler that acts like Gladwrap on the skin – nothing gets in and nothing gets out.”

Both she and Addicot suggest consumers get wise to “greenwashing”, and start reading labels on skincare and beauty products like we do on food. Megan flags the explosion of so-called “natural” beauty lines from mass-market brands. “Many market themselves as ‘natural’ but add synthetic chemicals, especially preservatives, because they’re cheap. So you will see ‘natural oils’ or ‘aloe vera’ in big letters, but read the small print and it’s packed with Phenoxyetholol or parabens.”

The word organic isn’t always enough either. According to Australian Organic (which owns the certifying body of the same name) “products labelled organic and sold in Australia are strictly speaking not required by law to be certified”, thus “credible organic assurance with integrity has never been more important”. Look for products with the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) green bud logo or the international COSMOS standard. Check out this Choice story for more.

Better be safe than sorry.

Clare Press is the presenter of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast

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