These buzzwords come with the implied message that the products they describe are in some way cleaner, safer, less irritant, healthier, better for the planet, or in some way more efficacious than synthetic, chemical-based products. The question of whether that is true or not is certainly valid when skin care professionals consider adding these products to their practice and recommending them to their clients.
COMPARING THE INSIDE WITH THE OUTSIDE
It seems obvious that the ingredients listed on a product’s label should be what is inside the product itself. Unfortunately, it is not always the case. There is not currently one, standard, regulatory body that oversees the cosmetics industry in the United States, or on a global level. The FDA does distinguish what products are considered cosmetics, foods, drugs, and even soaps; it does have guidelines for good manufacturing practices, safety testing, and labeling, but only hard-fast laws state that a manufacturer cannot place a drug or health claim on a label or in the marketing of a cosmetic. If a cosmetic uses an active ingredient that is regulated by the FDA as a drug, then that product is subject to FDA testing. Products that contain ingredients not considered drugs by the FDA are not closely monitored and have no standard requirements for cosmetic labeling.
Japan, Australia, the European Union, and several other nations have more stringent requirements that manufacturers must follow in terms of manufacturing practices, labeling, and safety and stability testing. Even so, certain ingredient blends (like fragrances, preservatives, and botanical extracts) are only required to be listed using the generic or trade name of that ingredient. For example, a fragrance listed as lavender might be comprised of several hundred individual constituents, many of which are synthetic and have been linked to health concerns, that are not required to be listed individually on a label (nor would they all fit). Even natural fragrances are blends of several different individual parts, some of which a consumer would not want to know about (castroneum or civet, for example). These blends are protected as trade secrets.
PRESERVATIVE-FREE RARELY MEANS PRESERVATIVE-FREE
Preservative-free is one of the most-common and most-demanded characteristics that holistically-minded consumers look for in a product. These consumers likely follow websites like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Chemical of the Day and have been trained to look up individual ingredients in products on applications like Think Dirty or databases like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep. These websites compile data from scientific studies that refer to ingredients in any way and then assign a safety rating based on any potential health risks that have been referred to directly or indirectly in these studies.
Though there are studies for many preservatives, the one published by Dr. Phillipa Darbre in 2004 (which indirectly linked parabens found in underarm deodorant to breast cancer tumors) is the most famous and most-referred-to study. This work sparked demands for paraben-free products and caused many manufacturers to switch to other preservatives like phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, ethyl hexyl glycerine, ethanol, butylated hydroxytoluene, and potassium sorbate to appease their audience. However, some of these ingredients also have poor safety ratings on the ingredient databases. This led to countless beauty bloggers sending the message that all preservatives are inherently bad and pose health risks — even some of the newer blends like Geogard ECT and botanical blends like Leucidal Liquid are approved for use in organic products by organizations like ECOCERT.
This trend has led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace, causing manufacturers to get more creative with their labeling, as well as their ingredient choices.
To be clear, all preservatives, even natural ones, are intended to kill microbes. However, if a product contains water, plant material, or humectants, a broad-spectrum preservative is absolutely necessary to ensure product safety, shelf stability, and inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast. The only products on the market that do not require this type of preservation are anhydrous products, which do not contain water. Even so, some anhydrous manufacturers add a mild preservative to prevent damage from consumer-caused contamination due to improper product storage and usage.
Therefore, unless the product is anhydrous, there is no way it can be preservative-free and be safe. How does that explain product labels that do not list preservatives?
GETTING AROUND PRODUCT LABELS
Though a company might not add extra preservatives to the final formulation of the product, the individual natural ingredients themselves likely already contain a preservative of some kind. That is something that does not always have to be disclosed on a product label since individual extracts or blends are considered raw materials. Most cosmetics manufacturers do not make their liquid botanical extracts, infusions, hydrosols, witch hazel, or aloe vera gel – they order them from a supplier who makes them in a laboratory and adds a preservative to that ingredient so that it will not spoil before it is even added to a formulation.
Since that ingredient arrives already preserved, and the law does not require the manufacturer to list out the individual constituents that make up that ingredient, it will most often be listed only with its Latin botanical name and should have reference of the preparation and the part of the plant from which it was derived. There are also other ingredients that make up individual ingredients, such as glycerine, ethanol, or even water; these are also not required to be listed individually on a product label since these ingredients typically make up less than five percent of the product.
One example is organic cucumber fruit extract. This would be listed on a product label as Cucumis sativus (cucumber) fruit extract, although it also contains glycerine. If the concentration of glycerine or ethanol is higher than 50 percent, an additional preservative might not be necessary, depending on the plant.
ANTIMICROBIAL PROPERTIES AND ACTIVITY
Some schools of thought teach that botanical ingredients with naturally-occurring antimicrobial properties are self-preserving, therefore, need no additional preservatives. This belief is true for the intact or dried form of the plant itself, but once it is added to a formula containing water or other humectants, which raise the product’s water activity, the product is immediately at risk of microbial growth, therefore, requires a preservative.
The second option that companies have is to use natural ingredients that have documented broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, substantiated by extensive challenge testing measured by the ingredient’s ability to inhibit microbial growth under extreme conditions and deliberate contamination for a period of time. However, since these are natural extracts in and of themselves, they will simply be listed as that botanical extract on a product label and will not have a chemical-looking or sounding name. An example of this might be honeysuckle extract, which would appear on a label as Lonicera caprifolium (Honeysuckle) flower extract or Lonicera japonica (Honeysuckle) flower extract
The fact of the matter is that fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other natural and botanical ingredients are perishable. To be usable in a shelf-stable skin care product, they either need to be dehydrated and powdered, have their nutrients isolated in a laboratory, or made into an oil or preserved, water-soluble extract, infusion, or tincture. The only other option is if the individual ingredients have been refrigerated immediately upon extraction and processing and throughout their transportation to the manufacturer or formulator, refrigerated by the formulator, and then formulated into a refrigerated product which would remain refrigerated through its entire life from manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. It is safe to say that this is highly unlikely as it would be neither logical or feasible; there is also too much room for error.
This matters for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, more and more consumers now demand transparency – they want to know what is in the products they purchase. This includes tiny amounts of functional ingredients, as well as what is in synthetic fragrances. While current regulation does not require this level of transparency on product labels or marketing, if the recently proposed Personal Care Product Safety Act2 passes, more transparency will be required.
Secondly, even if it is not intentional on the company’s part, labeling a botanical and water-containing product as preservative-free is false advertising. Many spas and consumers now purchase products specifically because they do not see ingredients like phenoxyethanol on the label, but have no way of knowing that an extract in the product contains phenoxyethanol. The term ‘no added preservatives’ is much more appropriate.
To be an informed and valid source of information for clients, it is crucial that professionals do not accept preservative-free claims without digging for more information; if the company will not readily provide that information, then they might choose to do business with one of their competitors.
PROBIOTIC SKIN CARE
The Human Microbiome Project began in 2008 with “the mission of generating resources that would enable the comprehensive characterization of the human microbiome and analysis of its role in human health and disease…”3 and concluded in 2012. This research not only shed more light on the inner ecosystem of the human digestive track, but also revealed that the skin itself has its own microbiome – its own population of beneficial strains of bacteria and other microflora. Ramifications of this information continue to be studied and how it applies to longstanding, conventional skin care formulation and the aesthetics practice as it continues to unfold.
This is an example of how the green beauty and natural health and wellness industries are beginning to converge. It shows how the skin is being seen not just as an external covering of the internal organs and systems of the body, but as an integrative part of the whole body. Its levels of balance and integrity play a big part in one’s overall health. Furthermore, one’s overall levels of health are sometimes determined by the integrity of the skin. The importance of fortifying the gut microbiome with beneficial strains of bacteria and yeasts is now mainstream knowledge and probiotic-savvy consumers have begun to ask questions like, “Will adding probiotics to my skin care benefit my skin’s microbiome?” and “Can we use probiotics in skin care formulations to prevent microbial growth rather than antimicrobials?” It certainly seems logical and some skin care formulators have begun using the term ‘probiotic’ on their labels. However, this is a case of reality not matching theory.
Just like botanical ingredients are perishable, so, too, are the living strains of beneficial microbes found in probiotic supplements and fermented foods. In order to remain active and live, they require both nutrition from plant fibers and sugars, as well as refrigeration.
During a recent lecture at the International Congress of Esthetics and Spa, Rebecca Gadberry stated that when probiotic strains die or become inactive, they actually become prebiotics the sugars and fibers that feed the strains. Prebiotics, when topically applied, can thus provide needed nutrition to the beneficial strains that live in the skin’s microbiome. As a result, they would still be a positive addition to a skin care formulation, however, they should not be labeled as ‘probiotic skin care.’
PLANT STEM CELLS IN SKIN CARE
Plant stem cells are another category of “miracle ingredients” that now appear on product labels in spas, dermatologists’ offices, health food stores, and even drug stores. The idea to use plant stem cells in skin care products comes from the fact that certain plants that grow in very harsh climates and other inhospitable environments have remained unchanged, thriving for thousands of years.4 Examples are a rare Swiss apple (Malus domesticus), lilac, gardenia, edelweiss, alpine rose, butterfly bush, and coneflower. Even when exposed to factors such as pathogenic microorganisms, extreme ultraviolet exposure, extreme freezing temperatures, and other environmental aggressors, these plants remain resilient because of a group of molecules called phenylpopanoids within their genetic makeup. Phenylpopanoids protect the meristematic, totipotent cells of the plants, which can continuously regenerate any part of the plant. Once they divide and are differentiated, they have the ability to return to their original, undifferentiated state if wounded.
The theory behind using these ingredients in topical skin care products is that these stem cells will have the same effect on human tissue and promote healing and regeneration in wounded, inflamed, or otherwise compromised skin. This does not happen as these cells cannot reproduce this action on human tissue. However, there is still much debate and controversy regarding these two opposing beliefs.
The second train of thought is that even if these cells cannot cause cell regeneration on human tissue, then they must still provide extreme nourishment to the skin. However, these individual stem cell extracts contain such a small component of the actual plant that they do not provide the same nutrition as using an extract from a whole plant part would provide. Whether or not a spa wants to carry a plant stem cell-containing product line or not comes down to a decision of marketing rather than of benefit.
THE AESTHETICIAN’S RESPONSIBILITY
Clients rely on professionals for their expertise, not only on aesthetic treatments and procedures, but also for knowledge of products and ingredients. Organically-minded consumers find products containing fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and flowers very appealing and want to believe that they are using something as close to nature as possible. Brightly-colored, food-containing masks, gels, and other products might look like candy for the skin when on display at tradeshows, which can distract a skin care professional from asking important questions like,“With what are your individual ingredients preserved?” or “How do you source your ingredients?” Often, too, product representatives have not been adequately trained with this knowledge, so they might respond with “The products are from all-natural sources” or “Everything is preservative-free.”
In the case of other trends like plant stem cells and probiotic skin care, it is important to ask clients why they want these ingredients in products, what they know about the ingredients, and where they got their information. Usually, the client is looking for a specific solution to a certain problem and the professional already has the solution in another product or service. Be aware that clients sometimes do not want to be told that what they read or heard is not correct information. In that case, it is best to provide the right information with valid sources in a gentle way and to always have an alternative and relevant solution available.
1. Pitman, Simon. Organic Personal Care Market Likely to Post Double-digit Annual Growth to 2020. CosmeticsDesign.com USA. William Reed Business Media, 29 July 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
2. S.1014 - 114th Congress (2015-2016): Personal Care Products Safety Act. Congress.gov. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
3. The Human Microbiome. Human Microbiome RSS. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
4. Pontillo, Rachael. Can Youth Be Found in A Fountain...or A Flower? Holistically Haute™. Holistically Haute™, LLC, 15 July 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Rachael Pontillo is the bestselling author of Love Your Skin, Love Yourself, and co-author of the cookbook, The Sauce Code. She is also an award winning IAHC certified international health coach, licensed aesthetician, and metaphysician. Pontillo is the creator of the popular blog and lifestyle site, holisticallyhaute.com. In her private practice, she helps women heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually from skin conditions and self-image issues. Pontillo is also a natural skin care formulator and is the founder and instructor of the six-week online course, Create Your Skincare. In addition, she is the president and co-founder of The Nutritional Aesthetics™ Alliance – a professional organization dedicated to advancing an integrative approach to healthy skin