Despite growing consumer awareness and federal regulation surrounding the term "organic" in the past several decades, the shift towards organic has focused predominantly on the agriculture industry. And while the quality of the food we eat has an enormous impact on our health and well-being, the importance on what we put on our bodies can't be overlooked!
In March of this year, we were honored to participate in a panel with the lovely founders of Celsious and Grammar NYC entitled "Why Organic? The Not So Pretty Impact of Pesticides in Fashion, Beauty and Household Cleaners." For those of you who couldn't make it to the event or simply want to educate yourself about the importance of choosing organic in all aspects of your life, we've put together some of the information we shared at the panel below. Since we're focusing on skincare, we encourage those of you interested in learning more about organics in the fashion industry to reach out to our friends at Grammar for some straight talk about clothing and chemicals!
And now for some not-so-pleasant skincare facts...
EXPOSURE TO CHEMICALS IN SKINCARE
According to a 2004 study conducted by a coalition of environmental health and public interest organizations, including the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average adult uses 9 personal care products every day, which amounts to 126 unique chemical ingredients. For the average woman, these numbers increase to 12 products each day and 168 unique chemicals. More than a quarter of women use 15 or more products daily. Now that's a lot of products if you think about it!
What all these numbers mean is that a large quantity of people are being exposed every day to known or probable human carcinogens and/or reproductive and developmental toxins and they don't even know it. While there are regulations in place to protect the consumer against the possible health risks associated with all these sneaky chemicals, the problem lies in the fact that the high frequency of exposure isn't properly accounted for.
EXPOSURES ADD UP
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the panel that reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics, treats each incidence of exposure to an ingredient as a singular, isolated event. The reality, however, is that consumers are exposed to multiple chemicals at a time and often from numerous sources, including food, skincare and cosmetic products, household cleaners, chemically treated fabrics like clothing and bedding, etc.
This changes the picture significantly, and indicates that miscalculated threshold limits on ingredients could be leaving us vulnerable to a number of health problems. In other words, as the EWG warns, "Exposures add up." This problem is compounded by the fact that our bodies have a history of chemical exposure that comes into play whenever we encounter new substances; we are not, as the safety assessment methodology assumes, a "clean slate."
THE FUNCTION OF THE SKIN
So what happens when all these chemicals come in contact with our skin? Isn't that what our skin is for - to keep the nasty stuff out?
HOW THE SKIN WORKS
The skin does in fact act as a large protective shield, insulating our bodies, protecting our organs, keeping out harmful substances, and preventing infection. It is also the largest eliminatory organ in the body, purging toxins through perspiration. All sounds good so far!
However, what goes out must come in; the skin is a two-way membrane, and while it eliminates waste products, it can also absorb toxins into the circulation system through its numerous hair follicles and sebaceous glands. To put things into perspective, one square inch of skin contains around 65 hair follicles and 100 sebaceous glands. So the skin can, in fact, absorb quite a bit of what we put on it.
"COSMETICS" VS. "DRUGS"
Why then, are so many people in the dark about the reality of transdermal chemical exposure? Part of the problem is the term "cosmetic" itself. The FDA defines cosmetics as "articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body...for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance." In order to legally call a product a cosmetic, therefore, a manufacturer cannot make any claims that it penetrates the skin. Such claims would warrant that the product be marketed as a "drug" and subject to much stricter regulations.
While necessary and well-meaning in its intent, the regulatory distinction between cosmetics and drugs leads to a false impression that topical products marketed as cosmetics don't penetrate the skin. It means that some skincare manufacturers can use harmful ingredients in their products that would never be allowed to be taken orally but are absorbed into our system through the skin nonetheless.
WHY CHOOSE ORGANIC?
So how do you know the difference between something that's safe put on your skin and something that's not? Unfortunately there's no one easy answer here. And with the market for green beauty growing and becoming ever more profitable, the temptation to "green wash" is everywhere.
Many people simply look for products that claim to be "natural," but this term is not regulated and means different things to different people. For example, some companies may use the word "natural" to describe an ingredient that originally came from nature, but was then processed to a point that it became something else entirely. Phrases like "derived from coconut" in an ingredient list should be read with a healthy degree of skepticism by the conscious consumer. Always do your research to determine how natural an ingredient you don't recognize really is.
And finally we arrive at the term "organic." Unfortunately, even this term is unregulated as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products and is often misused by manufacturers. It is, however, regulated by the USDA as it relates to agricultural products. Organic certification is the most reliable guarantee that an agricultural product not only comes from nature but is minimally altered from its natural state. According to the USDA, “certified organic” means free of synthetic additives and not processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering.
GETTING SKINCARE SPECIFIC
But because organic certification was originally created for the agricultural industry, it doesn’t always translate perfectly to personal care products, which often contain non-agricultural ingredients like minerals and clays. This can make it difficult for cosmetic manufacturers to earn the USDA Organic Seal for certain types of products. Certification can also be costly for small brands like Oil + Water. When buying from a smaller company, instead of looking for an organic seal, take a peek at the ingredients list on the label and check out how many of the individual ingredients are listed as organic.
Above all, build trust with the companies you buy from and support. Ask questions if you're unsure of anything, and do your research to ensure that the ingredients they use are carefully sourced and certified organic and/or wildcrafted whenever possible. If the ingredients in a product are truly natural, most will be easily recognizable to you on the label. If any are not, ask!
IS NATURAL REALLY BETTER?
Now we all know that just because something comes from nature does not mean it's automatically safe. Allergies to natural substances can be deadly, and isn't everything made up of chemicals anyway?
Nature is still a grand mystery to us in many ways, but what we do know is that humans have relied on nature for sustenance for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have a great deal of cumulative knowledge on how to use nature for our benefit, and what is safe versus what’s not. Our relationship with the natural world is much more tried and tested than our relationship with synthetics.
THE ALLURE OF CHEMICALS
In fact, household use of synthetic chemicals began fairly recently, during a time when technology and convenience were relatively novel concepts. The industrial revolution brought with it the wonder of technological innovation and the efficiency of mass production. Things could be made cheaper, faster, and in much larger quantities. And as end users might not actually purchase a mass-produced product until long after the manufacture date, chemical systems had to be devised to keep products stable for much longer periods. At home, newly working mothers found themselves looking for ways to streamline household tasks to make room for their new roles in the workplace.
These factors, among others, contributed to the allure of the chemical breakthroughs proposed as miracle solutions for modern living. Decades later, we now see the effects that this approach has had on our bodies and planet, and the time has come for us to reassess. There are no miracle solutions and convenience comes at a cost. We need to operate with a healthy awareness of all we have yet to uncover about the long-term effects of relatively new synthetic chemicals on our bodies and planet.
CHANGING MINDSETS AND EXPECTATIONS
So what can we actually do? How can we start to make healthier choices for ourselves and our planet? What changes can we make?
- In terms of skincare, we need to change the perception that a longer-lasting product is a better product. If we buy less products in smaller quantities, we can invest in more natural and organic options that contain less chemicals and preservatives.
- We should treat what we put on our bodies more like what we put in our bodies. If we think of skincare more like we think of food, we're more likely to buy based on what we know we'll use in the short term.
- We should familiarize ourselves with the scents, textures, consistencies, and colors of real, natural products and start to question products that are over-engineered to look, feel, or smell a certain way.
- We need to learn to be okay with sacrificing a small amount of convenience for better health. For example, rather than buy a hydrated clay mask full of preservatives, look for a dry powder like our Herbal Clay Mask, which has to be mixed with water before use. The extra step may take a minute, but not only is it better for you, it also becomes part of a more mindful ritual that encourages you to slow down and feel present in your self-care routine.
- Always ask questions and look for companies who are willing to give you answers! Nothing is more important than demanding transparency and honesty. You have the power to change the beauty industry for your generation and for those to come.
Erika Martins is the founder of Oil + Water. Read about her here.