SKINCARE’S ABUSED TERMS – TOXIC, CLEAN, NATURAL, ORGANIC

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By Fraser Hill, Founder and CEO of Skinega. Also published in Beauty Matter with Fraser’s permission.

As a skincare business owner, I obviously pay a bit of attention to what goes on in the industry. In fact, it was paying attention that got me into the industry in the first place. As a career-long researcher, I never really believed anything I was told or saw, without first going crazy on the research and reaching my own informed conclusions. The more I learned about skincare, the more frustrated I became, so as I crossed a threshold of learning, I decided to stop complaining and start doing.

Skincare is absolutely riddled with confusing misinformation and overly complex ranges of products that do the same thing. The industry as a whole needs a good face wash and a clean behind the ears. The change will only come with consumer demand, and as soon as we start to clean up some of the language that we use, some common ground may be reached when it comes to truly understanding what skincare can and can’t do. So here are my top-four annoyingly inaccurate words used and abused in skincare.

1. TOXIC

Every time I see the term “non-toxic” or “toxic-free ingredients,” or worse still, toxin-free (toxin-free would not exclude any synthetic material as toxins are specifically produced by living organisms, not to be confused with the word “toxic”), I just scratch my head. This is either a completely misunderstood term, a completely abused term for the purposes of perceptual marketing (making something up to drive home some other assumptive messages), or both. I’m going to give these claims the benefit of the doubt and go with the former. What isn’t up for debate, when viewed scientifically, are the facts.

Sola dosis facit venenum– Paracelsus (1493–1541).

The above quote, by the “Father of Toxicology,” Paracelsus, sums up this argument in one Latin sentence, which translates as “the dose makes the poison.”

Everything is toxic, that is, if ingested at a certain volume or concentration, anything can be lethal. Even water can kill you if you ingest too much of it. In toxicology, there’s something called the LD50, which is a common term describing the lethal dose that would kill 50% of a test population. LD50 as a reference in itself has its flaws, but it’s a way to at least try to compare unrelated ingredient toxicity.

For example, the LD50 for tea tree oil, a natural and popular skincare ingredient, is 1.9mg/kg. The LD50 of caffeine is estimated to be 150-200mg/kg, depending on body size and so on. So is a natural skincare ingredient 100 times more lethal than coffee? Well, yes. Should you stop using tea tree oil? No, because the toxicity is irrelevant as it’s the dose and concentration that makes the poison, not the ingredient itself.

If people, when they write toxic, are referring to ingredients linked to cancer, endocrine disruptors, and so on, then they should use those terms, as toxic ingredients and “toxic-free skincare” is just nonsense. It’s like walking into a coffee shop and being asked, “Would you like to try our new toxic-free coffee?” “What? You mean all of your other coffee is toxic?” “Well, yes madam, if you drink too much of it.” “I’m okay thanks, I’ll just go and die from dehydration; I live a toxic-free life, so toxic liquids like coffee and water aren’t the way I want to go.” It’s ludicrous.

There’s enough confusion within the skincare world without us also labeling all ingredients linked to health concerns as being toxic. Perhaps the government should finally intervene and insist, as they do with drugs, to list all health concerns any of the ingredients have previously been linked to (some ingredients clearly need to also be banned). That would put an end to all of this false and misleading advertising, and it may also lead to skincare and beauty companies rethinking their ingredient lists.

2. ORGANIC

Unlike with the term “natural,” there are at least some guidelines in the US when it comes to labeling of organic skincare ingredients. However, the guidelines are not robust enough, and once again way open to manipulation, mainly of what consumers have come to expect from organic products.

Of course, in the organic food industry, organic is organic (well, there’s another debate about that claim, but it is at least quite well defined, in theory). If you buy a ready-made organic salad, organic is what you can expect from each constituent part. Unfortunately, in skincare, this isn’t the case.

In the US, products labeled “organic” (as classified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are only required to contain 95% organic ingredients (unless labeled 100% organic). Worse still, products that are labeled “contains organic ingredients” can contain as few as 70% organic ingredients. What’s the point in that? Would you not laugh if you read on a McDonald’s burger box that it contains 71% vegan ingredients (as the meat in a McDonald’s burger makes up about 29% of the total weight). So why is it not funny in skincare?

In my view, a skincare product should either be organic, or it isn’t. “Contains organic ingredients” is just a nothing statement. So what? It also contains non-organic ingredients. It’s just a pointless declaration as the sum total of all ingredients are not organic, so why call it that?

That’s not even the whole story either. Many “organic skincare ingredients” are extracts of organic produce. Many extracts used in skincare, including those from organic sources, are extracted with solvents like methanol, acetone, hexane (derived from petroleum). How did you think they were extracted? Miraculously with sustainable organic bamboo tweezers? These are perfectly safe and effective ways of extracting ingredients and should not be frowned upon, but when it comes to an organic definition, if it’s accepted that a singular ingredient or chemical can be extracted from an organic source that shows zero traces of any solvent or any chemical, why is this any different to that same extract being acquired from a non-organic source? There are no pesticides to worry about—we’re talking about one singular chemical formula that contains nothing else. This just doesn’t fit in with the whole ethos of organic as it pertains to the food world.

Also, I read recently about a 100% organic product that contained an organic skincare extract. I don’t want to give away the brand name as it’s not my place to single out other skincare brands who are just trying to get ahead in life working on their passion. However, here’s how messed up our industry is: In the full scientific report for any ingredient discovery, the report will always list the methods used and so on. This is common practice across any ingredient research. In this particular newly discovered ingredient report, that you have to dig hard to find as its certainly not in the skincare company’s website, there are two interesting parts. One is the method of extraction using petrochemical solvents for this ingredient. The second is the graphic description of the killing of pregnant mice and how the brains of the embryos were mushed up, and so on it goes. If you’re disgusted by this summary, you should read the detail. It’s like a horror movie. All of that for an extract of a plant, stripped of its organic identity by industrial solvents, and death to a bunch of mice along the way, so this ingredient can be marketed in a 100% organic brand. Readers, this is just out-of-control insanity. Stop the madness.

So, organic skincare. Amazing. For all of you that are passionate about only using organic products, its an entirely respectable wish, but when it comes to skincare, there’s a lot of work to be done for it to be as pure as the name suggests.

3. NATURAL

Does anyone actually know what “natural” means when it comes to skincare? One would assume there are some basic rules or guidelines that brands must adhere to, but there is no such thing. There is no law in the USA to convict companies for saying a skincare product is natural when it isn’t. The FDA does not even have a legal definition for natural, so how could they possibly charge anyone for its misuse?

We’ve done surveys in the past, curious as to what consumers believe natural means. The overwhelming majority of people we surveyed believed that natural should mean, natural. Not naturally derived, because nearly everything is naturally derived in some sense, like gasoline and cocaine for example.

I don’t think a consensus on what natural is will ever be reached, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as there are many different arguments for different interpretations. Ours for example, is all about skin natural. If an ingredient is recognized by skin as natural, then that’s what matters to us. For example, hyaluronic acid (HA), which is present in our skin, all of our joints, and our eyeballs, and is responsible in part for hydration and cushioning of skin, is entirely natural to skin. You can’t cold-press it from a plant though. It’s created via a green process (and some firms use animal HA) but do we call that process natural? No, but we do explain it to be skin natural, and the difference is both relevant and sensible. Are there brands out there that claim to be 100% natural but use HA? Absolutely there are. That’s their call. Kudos to them for openly abusing the laws that don’t exist. Skin, however, only cares about itself. If you’re feeding it ingredients it recognizes as being molecularly identical to that which it uses to thrive, it will thank you for it.

I just believe that the whole natural term should either not be used at all, or be very well explained on packaging in a regulated way as its such a big pull for consumers. So, for example, no company should be allowed to use the word natural on its own, unless every single ingredient is in its pure natural, unaltered, un-extracted state. This is because such a huge portion of consumers assume this is what natural means.

There could be, for example, two simple categories:

1. “Natural and unaltered” meaning the true sense of the word. This could be for cold-pressed oils, for example. Everything else would be some sub-category of “natural” where consumers could see very clearly that it’s not something that’s entirely natural and be informed enough by its clear definition to make their own conclusions as to whether it meets their own interpretation of natural, rather than use the open and abused term “natural” in the singular.

2. “Processed natural ingredients.” This isn’t one that would have natural skincare lovers reaching for the shelves, but this could be a term for ingredients extracted by chemical means or by distillation.

Statements like “contains natural ingredients” would be banned, as it could just as well read “contains synthetic ingredients,” referring to the non-natural ingredients in the same product.

These are just examples, and a proper debate should be had on the subject, but in my view, we should get to a place where, the standard is that the word “natural” in the singular is dropped unless brands are willing to detail and categorise the extent to which each ingredient is natural, and done so in a regulated way. Wouldn’t consumers respond well to better transparency?

4. CLEAN

Clean skincare. So what is clean skincare? Well, for me (and everyone believes it to be something different—there’s a pattern of ambiguity emerging) clean skincare was the final reason that really pushed me into starting a skincare company. Clean, as the industry has come to understand it, is something along the lines of, “products made without toxic ingredients, free from endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and other ingredients linked to health concerns.” That’s not a quote from a source, but rather a summary of what we typically hear.

The reason this was such a huge catalyst for me to enter the industry was this: I thought that if skincare companies are able to differentiate themselves because they are not using such horrible ingredients, what does that say about the industry as a whole? Is it really that bad that companies have to make it known that they’re not using such ingredients, and is it that bad that this becomes a unique selling point?

Then when I looked further and saw, on average, 30-99 ingredients in one moisturizer or serum, many of which do nothing to impact skin (like colors, fragrance, thickeners, shimmer, and other texture modifiers), everything fell into place.

Skincare should be broken down into two words and taken in its literal sense—skin and care. For me, “clean” skincare is about more than just not including bad ingredients, it’s about only including ingredients that will positively impact skin and nothing else. “Clean” if used at all, should be much better defined and understood, as it’s another ambiguous term that people interpret to mean whatever they think it is.

CONCLUSION: How do we clean up this mess, as an industry and as consumers? Well, it begins with a conversation, a debate, a consensus, and where necessary, legislation. In summary, here are my recommendations to get the conversation started:

TOXIC: Ban this term ever being used in skincare. It’s nonsense misleading marketing. Toxic is a reference to the lethal concentration of a substance, not the substance itself. Instead, stick to using terms like endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, only when the evidence is clearly conclusive and these references are relevant.

ORGANIC: Ban the use of this term unless something is 100% organic. Food ingredients with 0.5% pesticide traces cannot be called organic, and it should be no different in skincare. Ban solvent extracts from being called organic; they’re not. Call them “processed botanicals” in a similar way you’d call ham processed meat.

NATURAL: Similar to “organic,” if the ingredients aren’t truly natural and unaltered, they’re not natural. For “botanical extracts,” the method of extraction should be highlighted, for example “solvent,” “distillation,” or otherwise. “Contains natural ingredients” should either not be used, or replaced with “contains natural and processed ingredients.” Either say nothing, or be fully explicit, but not misleadingly in-between.

CLEAN: Let’s just clean up our act so we don’t have to continue using this word. It’s completely open to interpretation, it’s misleading, and it implies those who don’t announce themselves to be “clean” may be “dirty,” and this just isn’t always the case.

Not everybody will agree with all of this, but surely nobody is in agreement that things are fine the way they are, so let’s have a constructive, informed discussion and start to take some action. Let the conversation begin. What are your thoughts as consumers and industry peers?

Written By Fraser Hill, Founder, and CEO, Skinega Inc.

Fraser is the Founder and CEO of Skinega, Inc. He grew up and was educated in Scotland before going on to forge an 18-year career in executive consulting and research, living and working in London, Hong Kong, Poland, Canada, and in the US, working for companies including J.P. Morgan, as well as starting Consulting firms in Canada in 2008, and London in 2012. With his background in research and technology, Fraser embarked on a consumer-driven journey to seek out cleaner, vegan, more effective luxury skincare. He sought a “free from” list that went beyond just harmful ingredients to include ingredients that serve no purpose to skin’s wellbeing like synthetic thickeners, colors, fragrance, and other texture modifiers. His search was unsuccessful, so Skinega was developed over a two-year period, then formally established in 2017.

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