Natural skin care – full of irritants!

The crunchy set tends to eschew mainstream beauty products, often because they have scary-sounding chemicals in them.  And sometimes the chemicals are genuinely of concern.  I remember when scientists first found that phthalates might act as hormone disruptors in the human body.  Even though this was an extrapolation based on animal exposure and high levels, I decided to avoid scented products as much as possible while I was pregnant and nursing, because they could include phthalates without having them listed in the ingredients.  Maybe it was an abundance of caution, but it didn’t cost me much to simply buy unscented hand lotion and refrain from wearing perfume for a while.

There can also be ethical concerns, from animal cruelty to how manufacturing affects the environment, that motivate people to choose natural products over the basic drugstore and department store brands.

But sometimes people choose natural products over mainstream ones for totally bogus reasons, and often the natural product will have more dangerous ingredients likely to cause a reaction.

Perhaps the biggest offender is peppermint oil.  It’s extremely popular in lip products, presumably because we like the breath-freshening potential.  It also pops up in many products meant for oily, acne-prone skin, along with its cohorts eucalyptus, menthol, and camphor.  I can only assume it’s used because it has such a strong psychological connection with freshness.  In reality, peppermint and similar oils are very irritating to skin, and irritation is a big contributor to acne!

Check out this Beautypedia review of Aubrey Organics Natural Herbal Facial Cleanser for Oily Skin:

Claims: Keep your complexion fresh and clean and give your face a lift with this hardworking cleanser ideal for oily or blemish-prone skin.

Review: Natural Herbal Facial Cleanser, for Oily Skin is painful to even write about! This very irritating cleanser exposes skin to soap, witch hazel, alcohol, eucalyptus, camphor, and menthol, among other problematic ingredients. Ouch!

Lemon and other citrus oils are another popular, yet counterproductive addition to many natural products.  They smell wonderful, sure.  And this is another ingredient that has connotations of freshness and being squeaky clean.  But citrus oils are phototoxic and can cause a sunburn-like reaction when they are exposed to light.

On the flip side, most natural living resources decry mineral oil as a toxic, synthetic derivative of petrochemical refining.  Depending on the prevailing fad, they promote plant oils like jojoba, almond, olive, and avocado oils, or the most recent darling, coconut oil.  Now these plant oils can be just fine and do very good things for the skin, but mineral oil has actually been shown to be one of the mildest, most effective moisturizing ingredients, and the least likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reaction.

People just can’t seem to get past the idea that it comes from petroleum.  (And I suppose it’s arguable that there are ethical objections to using petroleum-based products, but I seriously doubt purchase of Revlon lipstick would drive global oil drilling if we weren’t fueling our cars with gasoline.  Mineral oil is a useful byproduct of gas production.)  Witness this rationalization from Green Living Q&A when someone brings up the above-referenced information from cosmeticscop:

There are many more health effects associated with mineral oil, but my reason for not using it personally is that it is a refined petrochemical, it may have unknown toxic contaminants, it is incompatible with my body and the environment, and there are natural alternatives. A nut oil, for example, is simply pressed from the nut. Though separated from the nut meat, it is still in the form in which it exists in nature.

Yes, surely there is less danger of bad reactions if we use nut oils.  No one is allergic to nuts!

When people make decisions based only on such fuzzy ideas as what’s “natural” and what isn’t, it can lead to some really perverse results.  Someone desperate to avoid mineral oil due to speculation that it might contain toxins may enthusiastically embrace a product that will cause chemical burns to their skin if they wear it outdoors.  A shopper who wants to clear up her skin without exposing herself to the evils of sodium laureth sulfate (which is actually a mild cleanser, unlike the similarly-named sodium lauryl sulfate), may scrub with a minty-smelling natural cleanser that winds up irritating her skin, thus increasing oil production and blemishes.

The best thing you can do is investigate the ingredients in a product and determine if they are likely to cause you a problem.  As you may have gathered from my linkage in this post, I’ve found Paula Begoun to be an excellent resource for uncovering the bunk that abounds both in mainstream and crunchy cosmetics.  But even perusing Wikipedia to research ingredients of concern can be helpful.  What isn’t helpful is relying on labels that say “Natural!”

About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on October 24, 2011, in Natural Family Living and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. People keep forgetting that “natural” is not synonymous with “harmless.” After all, mercury is natural, but I don’t want it in anything that goes on my face.

  2. Arsenic is always Chris’s favorite. They’re elements – you can’t get more natural than that!

  3. This makes me think of some comments I read that Gisele Bundchen made ages ago about not wearing sunscreen because she “doesn’t want that poison on her skin”. All I could think is “You know what’s poisonous? Chemo that you’ll need for your skin cancer.” This seems to fall in with the not using mainstream products because of silly fears and lack of proper research. It really bugged me.

  4. Sorry to be an ignoramus, but what do you mean by ‘the crunchy set’?

  5. Good question! I will write a post about it. Sometimes I forget I’m steeped in a subculture and not everyone knows the lingo.

  6. You know, when I was buying the Organix brand shampoo I wondered about all the unfamiliar names of likely synthetic ingredients. I suspected that it was a case of innocent until proven guilty since that is how our system often works.

    Was not aware that lauryl and laureth were different. I always read them as the same thing. Also loved your breakdown of the various mineral oils.

    I get easily overwhelmed with the bombardment of information, and appreciate blog posts like this that help me make sense of it all! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. 🙂

  7. Also, I had a funky reaction on the back of my neck from one of the natural shampoos I got from Whole Foods. The skin right under my hair line was dry and itchy. I bet it was due to one/some of the irritants you list!

  8. I lurves you even more now. *smooches!!*

    I’m a big fan of olive oil though. I slather my babies with it.

  9. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing unnatural about petroleum; it’s formed through pressure and heat from fossilized algae and plankton, an entirely natural process, and I don’t really see how separating nut oil from a nut by applying is any less artificial than separating out mineral oil by applying heat (i.e. distilling it).

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