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The Journey to Natural
The Journey to Natural

Finding skin-care products that you love can be quite a journey. But many of us are choosing to make that journey a natural one, switching our conventional products for chemical-free alternatives. Still, it’s a choice that can be wrought with many questions: What makes a product truly natural? Why should I switch? And will the products really work? Read on for the answers.

What Makes a Product Truly Natural?

Over the years, as natural products have grown in popularity and we’ve become more conscious about what we put on our bodies, eco claims on conventional products have exploded. But how can you be certain if a product is really natural — and what makes a product natural anyway? “Unfortunately, terms like ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ and ‘eco-friendly’ have no legal definition, so companies can make claims on their products without it being true,” says Alexandra Spunt, who co-authored the book No More Dirty Looks with Siobhan O’Connor. “To find out how clean a product is, ignore the marketing claims and look at the ingredient list. With a little research, you can become an ingredient expert in no time.” No More Dirty Looks, Stacy Malkan’s book Not Just a Pretty Face and are good places to turn for helpful information and tips for finding truly natural products.

Renée Loux, author of Easy Green Living, says if you can’t pronounce a product’s ingredients, don’t use it. But Loux adds that some companies, especially those like Weleda that follow European labeling standards, use the botanical or Latin names for plants. Because these names may look unfamiliar, companies will often put the English names in parenthesis for clarity.

Another helpful tip is to look on the packaging for certifications that have clearly defined parameters, such as the Natural Products Association (NPA), NSF and NaTrue, which is the European standard under which Weleda products are certified natural. “If you just see the word “natural” or “organic” but no certification, then it’s up to the company whether that means something real,” says Loux.

Naturalness is not just about ingredients, however — it’s also about how those ingredients are treated. “I often compare natural cosmetics to organic apples,” says Vincent Letertre, technical director at NaTrue. “You can pick an organic apple off a tree and eat it on the spot. Cosmetics are different. You cannot pluck flowers and just put them in a bottle. You have to treat the ingredients in some way, and it’s the way they are treated that matters. This is where the definition of natural cosmetics becomes really important, because these boundaries must be strict. That is why NaTrue allows only very few processes, including saponification (the process used to make soap) to chemically transform natural ingredients.” He adds that if a product passes NaTrue’s natural-certification process, you can trust that it has met the strictest standards for natural products possible.

Why Should I Switch to Natural?

There are many reasons to go natural, but perhaps the biggest reason is health and safety. What we put on our skin has tremendous impact on our health and the environment’s. Our skin is our largest organ — up to 60 percent of what we put on it is absorbed in our bloodstream. Right now, it’s not a requirement in the U.S. that ingredients be tested for safety before use. Weleda, along with several other natural product manufacturers, has been working on finalizing the details of The Safe Cosmetics Act, currently in Congress, which would require product ingredients to be proven safe before they can be used.

But why do companies use these synthetic chemicals in the first place if they are potentially harmful? According to Loux, one reason is because they are cheap and seemingly effective, but in the long run, this comes at a cost that doesn’t show up on the sticker price. “Preservatives like parabens, for example, are used in formulas because they are effective at keeping products from going rancid, but they are also a common cause of allergic reactions and contact dermatitis,” she says. “They have even been linked to endocrine disruption, because they mimic hormones, and reproductive toxicity.” Formulas can also be unintentionally contaminated with potentially harmful byproducts, such as 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, during the manufacturing process. “With repeat use of these products day in and day out, we’re talking about disrupting things in our body,” says Loux. “I question, what is the real cost?”

Also, by using the chemical equivalents of natural ingredients, conventional manufacturers avoid inconvenient fluctuations in the availability of raw materials. “With natural ingredients, you never know how much raw material you can harvest year to year because of the climate and other variables,” says Letertre. “It takes time, risk, money and effort to grow plants organically.”

Many people choose natural products because of their lesser environmental footprint. Loux recommends that we “think beyond the drain.” “Look not only at what the product is made of, but also at the life cycle and what happens when we’re done with it. Look at the company’s values. Personally, it makes me feel good to contribute to companies that are mindfully doing business, both for their employees and the environment. Our dollar is our most powerful vote. With every transaction, we’re supporting the world we live in — for better or worse.”

Will the Products Really Work?

Natural or not, we want our skin-care products to live up to their promises. And, according to Lisa Lomupo a holistic esthetician in Westchester, NY, the benefits of natural products are far superior to conventional. “Natural products work on a deep level to help the skin heal, repair and find its balance — not just to give you a quick fix,” she says. “Just like your body can more effectively use vitamins from whole foods than it can from synthetic vitamins, the skin is better able to utilize oils, fatty acids, antioxidants and other nutrients from plants than it can from chemical imitators.”

Conventional products, says Loux, perform in the way that we expect them to — shampoos are sudsy, for example — but that doesn’t mean that they work any better than natural products. “Of course, not all natural products are effective, and equally, not all conventional products are effective,” she says. “It’s the quality of the formulas and how they are put together that matters. Everyone has a unique biochemistry that responds to different products in different ways. You have to find the products that work well for you.”

And when trying out a new natural product, Loux suggests using it for a few days before determining whether it works. “Your skin has to adjust,” she says. “It’s like switching to a non-toxic household glass cleaner from a conventional one. It may not work as well initially because there is chemical buildup on the window. But if you keep using it, over time you will find it works just as well,” she says.

And remember: less is more. “We’ve been trained to use so many products that, physiologically, our skin doesn’t know how to work on its own,” says Loux. “By using natural products, we give our bodies the support it needs to heal itself.”

So the next time you’re running out of your favorite body wash or moisturizer, replace it with a natural one. You can slowly make over your medicine cabinet one product at a time — and you can start making a real change on your journey to natural. —Carrie Ruehlman

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