Can Cosmetics and Toiletries be Organic?

The Haughley experiment demonstrated beyond doubt the viability and sustainability of organic farming.  The produce of organic farming whether arable, dairy, poultry, horticultural or livestock, is said to be better for human health.  Whilst there are undoubted benefits to ecology and bio-diversity as well as animal welfare, hard science does not support the claim of human health benefits.  There is a constant argument over nutritional values and comparisons have been made between organic and conventional farmed produce with little difference shown.

The urban consumer has little relationship to agriculture and the countryside.  The urban consumer’s relationship is with the supermarket and the media both of which informs the consumer of the hazards and benefits of food stuffs. The consumer weighs the benefits of and costs of organic produce based on such information mostly reduced to slogans and sound bites.

Most people would accept that you are what you eat.  Human building blocks are made from food.  It simplistically follows that better food equals better ‘us’. It is true we can improve health by eating properly. There is also a feeling that a healthy plant, grown nearer to nature, is better for us.  Many feel such a plant is better than a plumped-up chemical fed plant dosed on pesticide and herbicide.  This is an instinctive reaction not a scientific fact.

Most consumers turn to organic produce because they are afraid or suspicious of chemicals, distrustful of high profit pharmaceutical industries, etc.  This is with good reason as agro-chemicals have been shown to be damaging to the environment and to human health.  Little trust is placed in government permitted levels that allow for maximum safety levels and assurances that past mistakes cannot be repeated.  In addition no real scientific work has been undertaken on researching the ‘cocktail’ effect of chemicals sprayed on crops, or even animals, one after another.

One cannot however dismiss government tests out of hand.  There are, clearly, safety limits.  Most people with healthy livers and immune systems should be able to cope with minute chemical traces and most of us should survive happily.  We are built to survive chemical attack. 

Food is chemistry and we absorb minute poisons even from the soil.  Some folk even surviving minute traces of arsenic found in soil!  Others do not survive and are poisoned.  We must never discount the fact that we are individuals with individual responses to substances either natural or synthetic. Our health and abilities to survive varies with time and age. It follows therefore that average safety is not total safety by any means. 

Some even in orthodox medicine feel that the rise of cancers (substantially caused by ‘irritation’ to cells so causing mutation) is due to the wide variety of hazardous chemicals used in agriculture and found around us in common place substances such as household cleansers and cosmetics.

Individual responses based upon a person’s genetic profile, especially in nutrition, make it difficult for hard and fast tests to show whether one food is better than another.  For example blood tests are taken of a person’s vitamin profile when fed one substance as opposed to another, say an apple versus a pear.  Perhaps a test is made organic versus orthodox produce. Such a test will vary according to the person’s genetic ability to use, hold or take up that vitamin.  Vitamin status will depend upon current health and clearly the body will excrete what it doesn’t need. Such comparative tests critical of organic food (showing no difference in take up) are not valid. Bio availability in the food is not measured only blood levels.

Whilst it is easy to discuss the overall value of food stuffs it is not possible to categorically state that there is an intrinsic difference between organic produce and conventionally produced produce in orthodox scientific terms.

Most organic production is in third world countries or in second world countries (mostly east European) where many studies show positive health differences and benefits compared to the developed world where reliance is made on conventional farming and processed foods.  This should cause us pause for thought.  Many consumers are turning to organic produce for this reason alone.

Is it rational however to apply nutritional information or consider agricultural methods to cosmetics and toiletries?  There has been a large consumer trend to turn to natural cosmetics but the definition of such is very woolly and elastic.  Popularity has supported demand for organic cosmetics and now there is a multiplicity of small brands in the market making this claim.  Recently the giants L’Oreal and Estee Lauder have entered this organic arena.

When I first promoted organic cosmetics and toiletries my idea was to simply make an extra outlet for herb growers and oil producers.  For me it seemed a simple extension of the market allowing specialist producers to, for example, make extra fragrant essential oils.  I now regret introducing the symbol scheme at the Soil Association into this arena.

The reason for this is that all certifying bodies have moved on from my simple approach which was to say that X product contains A, B, C, D, materials of organic origin.  Seeing a market opportunity this quickly led to manufacturers saying that their product was 90% organic but a competitors’ was only 50% organic.  Cosmetic science is not that simple! 

Cosmetics are essentially a mixture of water, fats and, combining the two, emulsifiers.  These substances form a base into which are added so-called actives.  An active is normally derived from a plant immersed in a solvent to extract certain chemicals – the ‘actives’.  Each solvent extracts different forms of chemicals.  There is no such thing as a whole active containing all the elements of the plant.

Arguments then ensue as to which and what process is good for you.  For example should a solvent such as a vegetable oil be refined or not?  Should propylene glycol be used as a solvent when extracting from an organic plant?  You will notice that a subtle change is now occurring.  We are no longer considering whether the materials used are organic but beginning to state that the finished product, or the cosmetic itself, is organic. In my opinion except for the simplest of products such as massage oils this is not an intelligent or helpful approach.

To make this clear, a vegetable oil on sale may be milled from organic palm plantations.  At the point of production it will undergo several processes depending upon the purpose for which it is to be used.  It may end up on a dinner plate or as a massage oil, or as a detergent.  In the latter case it may have other molecules added to it, perhaps some minerals. 

At what point do we say that one process is good and the other bad?  A classic example is sodium lauryl and laureth sulphate, a common detergent that is very widely used.  This detergent was the subject of an internet scam that misled people into thinking that it was a cancer causing agent.  It is a very famous urban myth.  People still subscribe to the myth unaware of its origins.  It is not accepted by certain organic movements based purely on this mis-information.  Other objections to SLS and SLES is that it is a de-greaser and is therefore bad for you.  In fact, all detergents are de-greasers.  That’s what detergents do – de-grease.  It doesn’t matter whether the origin is palm oil, sugar beet or even honey.  It doesn’t matter whether it is a sulphonated detergent or a betaine or a glucoside.  All detergents are tensides, surface acting agents and grease dissolvers. 

This was recognised by a German brand of Czech derivation in the 70’s to which I contributed. This brand EcoGen promoted milk whey as a buffer between detergents and the skin which were universally considered bad for skincare.  The brand concentrated its efforts too in reducing the biodegradability of the materials to a few days rather than the legal month. The residual biomass only being good bacteria. The range concentrated upon the skin as a bio factory not a covering. Hence all the ferments used in production were built to encourage skin bacteria. In other words like so called yogurt drinks the product was ‘live’.  It was ‘organic’ in a completely different sense to the usual description. It was organic because it cooperated in a live way with micro organisms for the benefit of the macro organism the skin. Detergents were just surface tensides and no more.

Detergents have different values and their application depends upon many considerations  and we should not be simplistic in our evaluation.  Claim and counter claim should be carefully examined.  In this process it is very easy to lose sight of the original intention which surely is the promotion of organic agriculture in a ‘good for the environment’ context.  Surely the idea is to grow organic palm oil, organic sugar beet or produce organic honey and let the cosmetic scientists ramify, extend, extrapolate or process this original starting material according to its purpose

What is needed is more education as to effect and purpose for different materials. This is something manufacturers could do well without trading on emotion.  There is clearly too much fear being pumped into the marketing or organic cosmetics and toiletries and not enough education.

For example:  whilst decrying certain detergents and solvents, large numbers of so-called natural and organic cosmetic and toiletry manufacturers produce soap.  Soap is not a kind product.  Soap manufacturing, whilst an ancient trade, is not the most pleasant of manufacturing processes; and presents numerous hazards.  Soaps are water soluble salts of sodium and potassium fatty acids found in beef and mutton tallow or palm and coconut oils. These are chemically treated with strong alkalis such as caustic soda or caustic potash. In the process glycerine is formed as a by product. Whilst the materials used in manufacture maybe organic the effect on the skin is very poor. The skin ph is disturbed and it closes down. An alkaline environment is also surprisingly supportive of pathogenic bacteria. The tight feeling after using soap is the skin reacting against the soap not cleanliness!

The skin is correctly called the terrain. On and in this working organ lives a multitude of acid loving bacteria which are not only our first line of defence against pathogenic organisms but a micro world of recycling and regeneration. My point is that if the skin were soil, the terrain, the organic movement would oppose these products as bad for soil bacteria. They would be equivalent to herbicides!

Making claims for being organic implying that it is ‘better for you’ should not just be about what a product has not got as part of its formula. Classically synthetic preservatives are disliked or banned by those who are pro organic. Claims such as not containing parabens are informative but what does the product contain? 

Water a key cheap ingredient of cosmetics is generally regarded as in need of a preservative to protect against bugs degrading the product. A claim may be made that a product is organic and does not use preservatives. In the small print in the ingredient list we will often find alcohol and glycerine both of which are preservatives. Neither of them is particularly good for the skin. Both are solvents and alcohol in particular as many of us know makes the skin shrink, shrivel or sting. Yes it screams! Glycerine is also a humectant, it attracts moisture, is cheap and ubiquitous in organic or natural creams. In a dry atmosphere perhaps in an air conditioned office in New York or a winter climate in Britain where does it obtain the water? Clearly not from the atmosphere but from underlying skin tissues which have closed down to precisely stop moisture being drawn to the skin surface. This causes imbalance and irritation. In Japan in a humid condition it contributes to a feeling of excessive surface sweat or greasiness. Yet these ingredients are hailed as organic so better for you. I think this is quite misleading.

Essential oils which are my major interest can readily be identified as organically grown. The process they undergo can change their effect and chemistry. Sometimes promoted as organic preservatives many are not as effective as suggested. Recently legislation has forced sellers to identify a number of allergens to be highlighted in these materials. As an essential oil proponent I believe this to be overstated and find myself in the same position as preservative manufacturers.

Components can be isolated from essential oils and blended to form perfumes. Such an approach shows that we can expect to see organic perfumes. However the separation and extraction method may legislate against organic rules that only allow perfumes to come from whole essential oils. This would be nonsense as the chemical constituents of an essential oil should be viewed as no different from any other constituent of say a food such as a vitamin. 

The various committees that make up organic certifying bodies should rethink their approach. What is good for soil bacteria has been proven to be the right farming approach. Likewise what is supportive of the skin acid mantle should be considered from a similar organic position.

It cannot be the best policy for Organic associations to avoid this issue as they have well along a pathway stating and ruling what is good and what is bad. To ignore organic products which are demonstrably bad for the skin acid mantle is to run two conflicting philosophies.

Surely in a complex area of what is best for skin well being it would be better to allow competing manufacturers simply to state what organic content they have. Individual ingredients can be certified and the market left to do what it does best – sell its products whilst the associations do what they do best – educate and inform not regulate. Then farmers are left to do what they do best – compete with each other in producing ever better quality organic produce.

One other aspect of the organic movement relates to what we loosely call ‘energy’ or, in the east, ‘chi’.  In certain circles it is believed that life energy flows through and into all living things.  Eastern medicine subscribes to this view and there are overtones of this in western homoeopathy. 

Everything is made up of whirling atoms but atoms hang together for strange, energetic, perhaps magnetic, reasons, assuming different shapes and forms.  This is physics, not chemistry.  This is an area where the principle idea of ‘organic being better for you’ can shelter.  This sub-molecular and atomic physics is an area much written about.  Authors range from Fritjof Capra to Deepak Chopra, Dr William Collinge to James Lovelock.

In organic agriculture there is a tendency towards this almost homoeopathic but unprovable by orthodox science, view.  Science requires reproducibility.  My experience has been that health is highly individualistic and hardly repeatable. 

There is actually even a branch of organic growing called Bio Dynamics, quite popular in the Low Countries and Germany.  Their system relates much to Rudolf Steiner’s principles and even encompasses planting with the phases of the moon.  To many the idea of subtle energy is a step too far and is light years away from the supermarket shelf where the real battle is about profit not value. Science would argue that we’ve entered the realm of belief not fact.

I am not concerned about this criticism.  To me the subtle energy of organic growth is very important.  It lies very closely alongside modern physics, the so-called new physics and quantum physics.  After all, history teaches us that we need believers to have progress.  Believers are not always backward looking just sometimes they look forward and advance to places others will not go due to peer pressure. At one time science believed the world was flat and the heretics were the round earth people!  It wasn’t just deduction and mathematics that won the day.  It was sensibility and observation.  Proof came after belief.

There is something about the idea of organic growing that touches our senses.  It feels right. There are justifications in ecology for supporting organic growing. There are belief systems that make us feel comfortable about our choices. There is evidence of sustainable agriculture. Organic food is popular and fashionable. Organic food should make for a better deal for farm prices. There are many reasons for buying organic produce including vegetable oils and essential oils and simple cosmetics such as butters and salts. As regards emulsions and detergents or soaps, Cosmetics and Toiletries the jury is still well and truly out. 

J.Kusmirek ©

March 2008

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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