It is now a well-established scientific fact that continued exposure to a wide range of synthetic chemicals leads to detectable accumulations in body tissue. These chemicals include hormones, preservatives, pesticides, artificial fertilizers and antibiotics – the list is extensive. Many of these chemicals enter our bodies from the foods that we eat, particularly if that food has been mass-produced.
If we accept the principle of trying to avoid synthetic chemicals in our lives, surely it makes sense for us to try and use organic body care products wherever possible.
Other chemicals enter our bodies either through the air that we breathe or through our skin. We all know of the health risks associated with tobacco smoking, but it is a good illustration of how potent chemicals, in this case nicotine, can pass from inhaled air into our blood steam and hence throughout the body.
It used to be thought that our skin was impervious and that no chemical substances could penetrate it and enter the body. This is now known not to be the case and skin patches containing nicotine and hormones are routinely used as an effective means of delivering these drugs into the body. It’s not just medicines that can be absorbed – it is estimated that up to 60% of any chemical that comes into contact with the skin may be absorbed into our bodies.
Since we now know that chemicals applied to the skin can be absorbed into the body, doesn’t it make sense to examine just what we are putting onto ourselves? To find out more, we need to understand some of the basics behind organic personal care products.
Herbs and herbal infusions
Depending on the formulation these can form a substantial part of a product. A key ingredient in many organic skin care products is organic Aloe Vera juice, well known for its soothing and calming properties. Herbs are chosen for their particular properties, whether they be soothing, cleansing, astringent or whatever. Ideally, they are either certified organically grown or are wild-crafted from ecologically maintained stable environments. However, on occasion, it is almost impossible to locate an organic or wild-crafted source and non-certified plants must be used – an example is Water Lily extract.
Oils and Waxes
Many different plant oils are used in organic body care products and, just as with the herbs, the vast majority should be certified organic. Examples include Palm Kernel oil, Olive oil, Almond oil, Sunflower oil and Hemp seed oil. Certified organic Bees Wax may also be used in products which need to be water resistant. Some oils are obtained from wild-crafted sources which are carefully monitored to ensure that plants are harvested in a manner that is sustainable and which does not harm the environment.
Fragrances and Scents
The fragrances found in most good organic body care products come from herbal infusions, floral waters and essential oils. Herbal infusions should be made using certified organic herbs and pure spring water – nothing else.
The floral waters used are ideally obtained through the distillation of certified organic flowers. These are true floral waters made using 1kg of herb to 1ltr of pure water, not weak infusions or fragrance added to water! Essential oils should normally be certified organic except where they are not available – an example is Myrrh.
Compare these ingredients with the anonymous scents listed by most manufacturers under the blanket name of ‘Parfum’.
Any personal care product that contains both water based and oil based ingredients must also contain an emulsifier. It is the emulsifier that enables these two normally repellent ingredients to mix together to form a cream or lotion. Without using an emulsifier, creams and lotions would separate into their different ingredients in much the same way as French Salad Dressing does when allowed to stand.
There are many different emulsifiers in use today. Some are very mild in action and also mild on the skin, whilst others are more powerful and may be more irritant. Some are extracted from natural plant sources whilst others are synthetically produced. The emulsifiers used by good organic skin care companies are all extracted from plant oils such as coconut, palm kernel and olive oil. These should be mild in action and have no record of causing skin irritation. They cost more to use than some of the more powerful, synthetic emulsifiers but we believe they are worth the extra cost.
At the time of writing, none of the emulsifiers available on the market is certified organic, but we are hopeful that this may change in the future with the introduction of new ingredients.
These are used to enable products to produce foam and to have a cleansing action. They are sometimes called ‘foaming agents’ and are found in all shampoos, shower gels, bubble baths, etc. As with emulsifiers, surfactants can be mild or strong, gentle or aggressive and from natural sources or synthetic.
Once again, organic body care companies should only use surfactants extracted from natural plant material, and choose those which are known to be mild and gentle. Examples of the surfactants we use are Cocamidopropyl betaine, extracted from Coconut oil, and Decyl glucoside, which is extracted from corn.
Unfortunately, at the present time no certified organic surfactants are available for use.
Any personal care product containing the range of ingredients described above has the potential to support the growth of bacteria, fungi and moulds, and can also deteriorate through the process of oxidation. Responsible manufacturers must therefore look for ways to ensure that such contamination and deterioration does not take place during the expected life of the product. Some High Street brands achieve this by using preservatives which have been linked to the formation of formaldehyde, a known irritant and carcinogen. Others use high levels of ethanol (alcohol) which has been shown to have a drying effect on the skin in long term use.
One UK organic body care company has found that by using a range of plant extracts taken from citrus seeds, rosemary and myrrh resin in combination with tiny amounts of a food grade preservatives such as Sodium benzoate and Potassium sorbate, it is able to achieve good product stability and safety whilst minimising exposure to synthetic chemicals.
Occasionally, in formulations with particularly high levels of organic ingredients, a stronger preservative may be required in which case a tiny amount of Phenoxyethanol may be used. Although this is a synthetic ingredient, it has an excellent safety record and is very well tolerated. It is also on the list of permitted preservatives for use in cosmetics certified as organic by the Soil Association, and is approved under the Nordic Swan mark scheme that measures the environmental and health impact of cosmetic ingredients.
Research is continuing into this area in the hope that one day it may be able to avoid the use of all non-plant sourced preservatives.