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
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
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.
Labels: Health, herbal cosmetics, natural beauty