Thursday, August 20, 2009

Green and Mean:
Pushing "Natural" Cosmetics

Have you started to feel the pressure of going green with your beauty routine? Are you wondering if your choice of shampoo is poisoning you, or if your lipstick is ruining the earth? Or are you, like me, sick of having to wade through the high waters of toxic misinformation permeating our society at the moment?

In this case, I'm referring to cosmetics companies who are trying to guilt us into using their products with all the finesse of a Jewish mother of 4 (or a Catholic mother of 8) by insinuating that their "natural" skin care products have an advantage over skincare that is chemically engineered. Case in point: Burt's Bees.

If you've flipped through a beauty magazine in the past few months, then perhaps you've seen their current ad campaign, which focuses on using scare tactics to imply that using natural products is somehow better for you. They do so by juxtaposing the benefits of their product's key ingredient with more commonly found ingredients.

Let us consider the advertisement for Burt's Bees Replenishing Lip Balm which pits it's beeswax base against petrolatum, a base found in tons of popular lip soothers, from ChapStick to La Mer-even cult favorite Rosebud Salve. (In fact, most major companies, including MAC, Estee Lauder, Murad, Cargo, Laura Mercier, Philosophy, Peter Thomas Roth, and more, make lip products that are petrolatum based.) According to the ad, beeswax forms a "hydrating barrier that keeps lips moisturized" while petrolatum "moisturizes with an oil based film." Notice how Burt's uses nice words like "hydrating barrier" to describe their lip balm ingredient, but describes the competitor's as an oily "film"? Really, it's semantics, but by using a word commonly associated with the grime on your bathroom wall, they attempt to plant a negative bias in the consumer's head without using any pertinent factual information.

I represent no company, and am not selling either product, so I'm not scared to give you the facts. Oil is not bad. Skin is naturally moisturized and protected by the oil that is produced in our very own bodies. Petrolatum has been proven safe, gentle and effective in study after study. It repairs the barrier of damaged skin and helps to reduce inflammation and water loss, and it does so about as well as the skin's own natural defenses. Beeswax is a thickener that contains some emollient properties. Like petrolatum, it helps to seal in the skin's own moisture, which makes the skin feel softer and more soothed. Unlike petrolatum, it does not help to heal the skin or do anything to reduce inflammation.

Another comparison that Burt's Bees makes is that beeswax is "naturally replenishing", while petrolatum is non-renewable. I'd challenge this notion by pointing out that there have been alarming declines of bee populations in recent years; since we don't know why bees are disappearing, we don't know how to fix it, and thus, can not really say that beeswax is infinitely renewable. Petrolatum is a by-product of oil refining (or in Burtspeak: "derived from crude oil") which means that as long as we're drilling for oil, we'll have petrolatum. As much as I'd like to think we're close to independence from fossil fuels, I think we all know that's far from a reality.

Another tactic Burt's Bees uses is comparing it's apples to the competitor's oranges. The ad for their Naturally Ageless Day Lotion compares their key ingredient, pomegranate, to dimethicone, which is found in many leading anti-aging products on the market. Burt's tries to turn you against products that contain dimethicone by pointing out that while pomegranate is a powerful antioxidant, dimethicone is a silicone "film" (there's that nasty word again!) that temporarily fills in lines. No arguments here; both statements are factual, but the side by side comparison is meant to lead us, the consumers, to the impression that the Naturally Ageless Lotion protects the skin while the competitor's offering is filled with worthless ingredients that only offer a temporary pay-off.

In fact, dimethicone is added to anti-aging products for the exact benefits that Burt's Bees condemns- it makes the skin soft and smooth, fills in pores and fine lines, and helps to lock in moisture. It is not, as is implied in Burt's advertising, added to serums to provide protection. Any anti-aging product worth it's salt has SEPARATE antioxidants added to fight the damaging effects of the environment. Some, like Murad Energizing Pomegranate Moisturizer SPF 15 and Cosmedicine Global Health Face UVA/UVB, SPF 30 use both dimethicone and pomegranate extract, proving that the two ingredients are not mutually exclusive.

While there are several more versions of the "natural-vs-chemical"campaign that I could debate, I don't want to belabor the point. Sure, I could talk about the ad where they compare the buttermilk in their Baby Bee lotion to parabens, which are preservatives. I might ask why you would even want a lotion that contains a volatile dairy ingredient that has no proven benefits. I'd probably point out that preservatives keep products from spoiling- something I would want to ensure, especially on my baby's delicate skin. I could tell you that this baby lotion that Burt's Bees calls "gentle" contains Sodium Borate, an ingredient that was determined by Cosmetic Ingredient Review to be "Not safe for use on infant skin." But hey, it's natural, so it's got to be good, right? In short, no. Might I remind everyone that Poison Ivy is all-natural too? I might even offer some personal testimony by slipping in the fact that Burt's Baby Bee Buttermilk Lotion actually broke my baby out in hives (that added fragrance sure does make it smell good though!) I could do this, but I think that qualifies as beating a dead horse. I could do all of these things, and more, but I think you get the point.

Though the "natural is better" marketing ploy is certainly not new, Burt's Bees' recent campaign seems to have taken it to a new level. If you weren't aware of this trend, scan the face mags on your coffee table. If you're lucky, you may even run across "The Burt's Bees Guide To Your Well Being", a 6 page digest of the ad campaign I've been talking about (speaking of which, isn't a bit ironic that a brand touting their "commitment to The Greater Good" is printing up 6 page magazine inserts? That's a lot of wasted recycled paper and soy ink!)

I encourage you to really think about the relevancy of the comparisons that are being made. Be aware of marketing tricks that lead you to assume benefits that the company can't overtly claim because they have no proof to back it up. Use the internet as a tool of truth- sites like PubMed, Paula Begoun's Cosmetics Cop (check out the ingredient dictionary), and are out there so that we don't have to take their word for it. Knowing something is true because you've seen the proof is so much more powerful than thinking something is so simply because someone else says it is. But don't take my word for it...

In the year since I wrote this, I've come to question the bias of the Environmental Working Group, who runs the Skin Deep database. I no longer trust it as an impartial source. I have removed my recommendation of their database, and added a link to PubMed, the online archives of the US National Library of Medicine.


Anastasia said...

It's clever advertising, and it pisses me off, too. I work for a health shop and yet my stance on natural products is that they are an alternative to chemical products if, for some reason, chemical products are unsuitable for that individual.

If chemical products make your skin worse, try natural. If you have a skin condition, or allergies, try natural products. By no means, however, should you think that natural products are safer, more efficient or more effective than chemical products. Think about it - natural medicine and skincare is at exactly the same scientific level of advancement it has always been at. Zero, none. If it's unmessed with, then it's the same thing that's been used since the Dark Ages. This does not fill be with confidence.

Woman used to use powdered lead and mercury on their faces to look pale - leading to lead poisoning. Deadly nightshade was used to dilate the pupils and in severe cases caused blindness. In 17th century Italy a face powder created using arsenic killed 600 people - is this really the way we want to go back to?

So much for the virtues of natural and mineral. It's as if people believe natural things cannot be poisonous, which is unbelievably stupid. 3 whole nutmegs can kill you. 6 hemlock leaves can be fatally poisonous. Yes, that's right, 6 frigging leaves.

Anyone who thinks that people were healthier before modern science started putting synthetic chemicals in things should consider how many people died from things like gum disease, child birth and the average lifespan just a few centuries ago. Back when everything was "natural".

Anonymous said...

I rarely leave comments, but I had to say this is such a refreshing break from the usual sort of beauty blogs. Love it, and will come back for more.

Traci said...

Dear Jessica,

I found your post via the Beauty Brains Facebook page. Cheers to you for your edit about the EWG! I had read that early on they were secretly funded by lawyers looking for class action suits?! I don't know who funds them now but their interpretation of science is still questionable as it relates to skin care. Thanks for your post!

Amanda Foxon-Hill said...

How refreshing, a clear, balanced and easy-to-read article that tells it like it is. Well done.

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