Saturday, November 29, 2003

Really and truly natural?

Oh, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath
water, I’m not tarring all natural cosmetics with a
brush of suspicion. I am myself an enthusiastic
 user of both botanical and chemical-based
cosmetics. And one is happy to believe that
the more reputed a manufacturing concern,
the less they would like to muddy the waters
and risk losing the consumers’ goodwill. However,
 in these days of unalloyed contamination, it pays
 to be careful.

Natural and herbal-based cosmetics claim
to be better than the ordinary chemical-infused
 products a woman uses on her face, skin, lips
 and eyes. The former don’t use artificial dyes,
 scents or preservatives, or so they say.
However, all the hoo-haa about botanicals
could blur some facts about their relevance
 and efficacy.

India, of course, has a rich tradition of
plant-based medicines and cosmetics.

Extracts from the leaves, stem, roots and
flowers of herbs and plants have been used
to great effect in Unani, Ayurveda and indeed,
 has spawned an ancient but revived branch of
 Herbology. So much so that people are willing
to blindly believe that all plant-based stuff is
 safer than the run-of-the-mill cosmetics.

A product can be called botanical only if 50 per
 cent of its ingredients are plant extracts. Here
is where the unscrupulous elements enter, selling
 ‘botanical’ creams and lotions which sometimes
 have less than 10 per cent of plant-based
ingredients. It helps them, of course, that as a
 nation, we are still not too careful when it comes
 to reading the fine print on packaging.

Plant extracts are undoubtedly superior to
chemical-based ingredients. They are complex
and tough to duplicate, with a distinct smell
and texture. The moot point is, when a manufacturer
 claims a plant-based hair product tames tresses
better just because it is made of plant extracts,
it need not be true. This fudging of basic facts
extends to aromatic oils that profess to calm nerves,
 decrease stress levels or relax limbs. Part of
 the claim and its acceptance both, is psychosomatic,
 part based on our rich history of plant-based healing.

Let’s look at some of the more popular herbs
 and its attributed benefits. Aloe vera, say herbalists,
 is an excellent healer of sundry wounds but can cause
 allergy if used in large doses. Calendula is supposed
to cure warts, chamomile to cure insomnia, eucalyptus
 is a stimulant; evening primrose helps heal atopic
eczema and jojoba is a lubricant. Lavender is
supposed to balance the nervous system,
peppermint’s menthol effect is a coolant,
sage has astringent properties, shea butter
is an efficacious sunscreen and witch hazel,
an excellent astringent. Well, dermatologists
 refuse to give any of the above plants unqualified
 approval, with the exception of witch hazel,
saying that indiscriminate use of plant extracts
 can do more harm than good. At best, say these
 skin specialists, most of these herbs and plants
 assist in healing skin conditions.

Well anyway, you anoint your bath water with
some peppermint oil and emerge minutes later,
feeling refreshed and content. Now is that the
mind taking control over the body? The jury is
still out on that. Likewise, aloe vera and lanolin
 is a proven skin-soother in cases of inflammation
or burs; however, it is yet to be proved that
these plant extracts deposit benefits on
 smooth and unblemished skin.

Of course, it probably doesn’t do any harm,
 since most savvy manufacturers always err
 on the side of caution and use very limited
amounts of these extracts.

Then again, one must remember, the absence of
harm does not always equal benefit, does it?

Plant extracts are by no means inexpensive so
 most of these natural products, the top-draw
ones that is, invariably cost more than your
 other cosmetics.

Aromatherapists will tell you that it takes 2,000
 kilos of rose petals to make a kilo of oil. While
these products are biodegradable, they do
have a limited shelf life in the case of lotions
 and creams. Add to that the time and effort
 in locating and processing these extracts, and
 overheads for the ‘different’ packaging, though
 no one will admit to that.

Another blurring occurs when it comes to
the chemical-botanical mix.

Dermatologists will tell you that if you dip
your unsterilised finger into a jar of botanical
cream, you are only helping bacteria flourish.
 The result will show on your face and the
pot of cream. So, some synthetic preservatives
 are invariably added to keep the product from
 changing colour, consistency or separating,
to ensure you can leave it around in the sun
or inside a dark drawer without it going bad.
As a process, this is pragmatic, useful
and not in the least harmful because years
of experimentation has eliminated toxic chemicals,
 but manufacturers just don’t talk about these
 things because it dilutes that image of pure,
plant-based creams and lotions for you to soak in.

So there you have it: plant-based, no animal
 testing done, eco-friendly, with some proceeds
even going to charity. Yes, there is a peculiar
 paradox here; the run for natural and herbal
 cosmetics is increasingly plundering the earth’s
 resources. Well, no one is talking about that, either.

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