A reflection on the sustainability of the “natural” skincare craze

The rise of the clean beauty movement in recent years has fuelled intense debates on the use of synthetic chemicals in cosmetic products that have led to skin irritations. Apart from the argument that petrochemicals are derived from nature too, I do not intend to wade further into the natural vs. synthetic debate.

This brief essay focuses on the environmental, socio-economic and political concerns raised by the popular use of natural and/organic skincare and cosmetic ingredients.

Firstly, setting aside the unnecessary waste created by minuscule packaging of most skincare products, most plastic pumps and sprays used to contain conventional and synthetic-free skincare products are rarely recycled.

Secondly, “miracle” botanical ingredients that power most reputable natural and/or organic cosmetic makers’ research-backed and/or anecdotal beauty claims often involved known vulnerable or endangered plant species that produce the highly sought after argan oil, baobab oil, Brazil nut oil (from the Amazon forests), frankincense, myrrh, rosewood (on CITES), cedarwood (from the Himalayas), sandalwood, agarwood (or “gaharu” from Southeast Asian rainforests) essential oils and shea butter. This list is not exhaustive. Many have been touted as “liquid gold”.

Some environmentalists believe that the cosmetic use and commercial exploitation of threatened plant species may help conserve critical rainforests in the Amazon. Current evidence in Asia, Africa and Latin America prove the contrary. This puts the onus on consumers to carefully screen sources of such ingredients.

Thirdly, few cosmetic companies provide the sort of transparency Florihana, a family-owned French distillery, does when it comes to their sources of ingredients.

Without consistent, high level of traceability and transparency, it is difficult for consumers to be confident that the supply chains of global and local natural/organic cosmetic manufacturers, including artisan ones, have not been tarnished with ingredients from the lucrative illegal trade in threatened plant species.

Fourthly, unless a cosmetic manufacturer actively and only sources certified Fair Trade/Fair for Life ingredients, one can assume often lowly paid indigenous women in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including those that do not even earn a minimum wage even in women-led, women-dominated co-operatives such as in Morocco as reported by the BBC, are working themselves to the bone to produce the “magical” oils that purportedly make you look younger.

Meanwhile, farmers in Egypt – the world’s biggest producer of jasmine blooms – are paid so little for their harvests that they have to rely on alternative sources of income such as ecotourism to make a living. Farmers in Bulgaria – the world’s largest producer of rose blooms and their pricey essential oils – also had to depend on subsidies from the government to survive when rose prices crashed in 2020 during the early onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fifthly, Israel is the largest producer of jojoba oil, another ingredient touted as akin to human sebum popular in most skincare products. It invites the question if supporting Israeli jojoba farmers is equivalent to supporting the continuous oppression of the Palestinians. Curiously the consumption of and popularity of jojoba oil have not received the same degree of flak palm oil had received from the Global North. To be fair, northern environmental NGOs have been vocal about the environmental impact of the cultivation of rapeseed and soybean oils. It was never just about palm oil.

Overall, buying products marketed as “clean beauty”, “natural” or “wildcrafted” do not automatically make anyone morally superior or better consumers. Despite the good intentions, such customers may unknowingly fuel the overexploitation of and illegal trade in threatened plant species, the economic exploitation of indigenous women and armed conflicts all at the same time.

As for whether synthetic preservatives are “unnecessary evils”, they may well be given emerging scientific evidence of the efficacy and shell life of various seed oils and hydrosols from cultivated sources. Cultivated botanical sources are not necessarily inferior to pricier, coveted wildcrafted ingredients, given persistent concerns of over-harvesting and illegal trade of vulnerable species.

READINGS

A. The Case Against Skincare

[US Press] Your Skin Doesn’t Need Skin Care (2022) https://slate.com/technology/2022/01/skincare-science-cleansing-dermatology-truth.html

[US Press] The Skincare Con (2018) https://theoutline.com/post/3151/the-skincare-con-glossier-drunk-elephant-biologique-recherche-p50

B. A History of Skincare

The Use of Plants in Skin-Care Products, Cosmetics and Fragrances: Past and Present (2018) https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics5030050

Cosmetics and skin care products. A historical perspective (2000) https://doi.org/10.1016/s0733-8635(05)70206-0

C. Anti-Aging Skincare

Cosmeceuticals (2022) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31334943/

Trends in the Use of Botanicals in Anti-Aging Cosmetics (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules26123584

Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation (2011) https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.91114

[UCLA researchers] The Truth About Over-the-Counter Topical Anti-Aging Products: A Comprehensive Review (2007) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asj.2007.05.005

D. Hydrosols/Hydrolat & Their Uses

[Malaysian researchers] Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activity of Plant Hydrosol and Its Potential Application in Cosmeceutical Products (2022) https://doi.org/10.5812/jjnpp-124018

[Slovenian researchers] Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Properties of Helichrysum italicum (Roth) G. Don Hydrosol (2022) https://doi.org/10.3390/antibiotics11081017

[Moroccan researchers] Antibacterial activity of essential oils and hydrosols extracted from some Moroccan Mentha species (L.) (2022) https://doi.org/10.55522/jmpas.V11I1.2650

[Polish researchers] Plant hydrolates – Antioxidant properties, chemical composition and potential applications (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopha.2021.112033

[Bulgarian researchers] Rose Flowers—A Delicate Perfume or a Natural Healer? (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/biom11010127

[Greek researchers] Evaluation of Essential Oils and Extracts of Rose Geranium and Rose Petals as Natural Preservatives in Terms of Toxicity, Antimicrobial, and Antiviral Activity (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/pathogens10040494

[Iraqi researchers] Antibacterial activity and medical properties of Witch Hazel Hamamelis virginiana (2020) https://faculty.uobasrah.edu.iq/uploads/publications/1599112544.pdf

[Turkish researchers] Relationship between volatile components, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of the essential oil, hydrosol and extracts of Citrus aurantium L. flowers (2020) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jiph.2019.06.017

[Vietnamese researcher] In vitro antimicrobial activity of hydrosol from Litsea cubeba (Lour.) Pers. against Helicobacter pylori and Candida albicans (2020) http://www.bmrat.org/index.php/BMRAT/article/view/610

[Moroccan researchers] Essential oil and hydrosol of Moroccan spearmint as possible antimicrobial products (2018) https://www.longdom.org/proceedings/essential-oil-and-hydrosol-of-moroccan-spearmint-as-possible-antimicrobial-products-44745.html

[Polish researchers] Preservative activity of lavender hydrosols in moisturizing body gels (2014) https://doi.org/10.1111/lam.12346

[Australian researchers] Antibacterial activity of essential oils, hydrosols and plant extracts from Australian grown Lavandula spp. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijat.2006.01.007

[UK researchers] The comparative effect of novel Pelargonium essential oils and their corresponding hydrosols as antimicrobial agents in a model food system (2003) https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.1086

E. Seed Oils & Plant Butters in Skincare

[Press] Shea trees are falling fast across Africa, victims of new pressures (commentary) https://news.mongabay.com/2021/09/shea-trees-are-falling-fast-across-africa-victims-of-new-pressures-commentary/

[Non-Academic] In a nutshell: a guide to using nut oils in your beauty routine (2019)
https://www.wellbeing.com.au/body/beauty/in-a-nutshell.html

[Non-Academic] The truth about polyunsaturated fatty acids (pufa) in skincare (2019)
https://wabisabibotanicals.com/blogs/sensitive-skin-secrets/poly-unsaturated-fatty-acids-pufa-skincare

Vegetable Butters and Oils as Therapeutically and Cosmetically Active Ingredients for Dermal Use: A Review of Clinical Studies (2022) https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2022.868461

An updated review on efficacy and benefits of sweet almond, evening primrose and jojoba oils in skin care applications (2022) https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12758

Quality assessment of cold-pressed strawberry, raspberry and blackberry seed oils intended for cosmetic purposes (2021) https://doi.org/10.17306/J.AFS.0884

Novel seeds pretreatment techniques: effect on oil quality and antioxidant properties: a review (2021) https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-021-04981-1

Identification of species-specific peptide markers in cold-pressed oils (2020) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-76944-z

Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils (2018) https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19010070

Green solvents and technologies for oil extraction from oilseeds (2017) https://doi.org/10.1186/s13065-017-0238-8

Chemical Characteristics of Cold-Pressed Blackberry, Black Raspberry, and Blueberry Seed Oils and the Role of the Minor Components in Their Oxidative Stability (2016) https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.6b01821

The Antioxidant Activity and Oxidative Stability of Cold-Pressed Oils (2014) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-014-2479-1

Oxidative stability of tree nut oils (2008) https://doi.org/10.1021/jf8000982

Fatty acid composition and antioxidant properties of cold-pressed marionberry, boysenberry, red raspberry, and blueberry seed oils (2005) https://doi.org/10.1021/jf048615t

i. Argan

[US Press] Argan Oil: A Precious Ingredient Linked to Environmental and Ethical Concerns (2022) https://www.treehugger.com/argan-oil-sustainability-5212744

Argan Oil: Chemical Composition, Extraction Process, and Quality Control (2022) https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.804587

Oxidative stability of cosmetic argan oil: a one-year study (2014) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24797024/

Oxidative stability of edible argan oil: A two-year study (2011) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2010.07.003

Therapeutic potential of argan oil: a review (2010) https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2042-7158.2010.01190.x

ii. Sea Buckthorn

Abundance of active ingredients in sea-buckthorn oil (2017) https://doi.org/10.1186/s12944-017-0469-7

Fatty acid, phytochemical, oxidative stability and in vitro antioxidant property of sea buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides L.) oils extracted by supercritical and subcritical technologies (2017) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2017.08.042

iii. Prickly Pear (Cactus Seed)

Oxidative Stability at Different Storage Conditions and Adulteration Detection of Prickly Pear Seeds Oil (2020) https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jfq/2020/8837090/

iv. Brazil Nut 

Revisiting the ‘cornerstone of Amazonian conservation’: a socioecological assessment of Brazil nut exploitation (2017) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-017-1355-3

[Press] Are Brazil nuts really sustainable? (2006) https://news.mongabay.com/2006/12/are-brazil-nuts-really-sustainable/

[Press] Brazil nut harvests heading for crash (2003) https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4502-brazil-nut-harvests-heading-for-crash/

F. Essential Oils’ Efficacy & Trade

[US Press] What Science Says About the Potential Healing Effects of Essential Oils (2023) https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/what-science-says-about-the-healing-potential-of-essential-oils

[US Press] Do Essential Oils Work? Here’s What Science Says (2020) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-essential-oils-work-heres-what-science-says/

Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work? https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/aromatherapy-do-essential-oils-really-work

i. [UK Press] Shubra Beloula: The tiny Egyptian village few know (2022) https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220106-shubra-beloula-the-tiny-egyptian-village-few-know

ii. [US Press] Perfume trade fell the Brazilian rosewood (2005) https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/world/americas/perfume-trade-fells-the-brazilian-rosewood.html

Wildcheck – Assessing the risks and opportunities of trade in wild plant ingredients (2022) https://doi.org/10.4060/cb9267en

G. Hair Care

Coconut, Castor, and Argan Oil for Hair in Skin of Color Patients: A Systematic Review (2022) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35816075/

Hair Oils: Indigenous Knowledge Revisited (2022) https://doi.org/10.4103/ijt.ijt_189_20

Commonly Used Over the Counter Therapies for Hair Growth in Skin of Color: An Evidenced-Based Review (2021) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34231986/

Sensitive Scalp: A Possible Association With the Use of Hair Conditioners (2020) https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2020.596544

Hair Cosmetics: An Overview (2015) https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-7753.153450

Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage (2003) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12715094/

H. Health sites

They provide non-commercially-sponsored, independently researched, expert-reviewed articles on clinical aromatherapy and domestic uses of essential oils, hydrosols and carrier oils.

Healthline https://www.healthline.com/

WebMD https://www.webmd.com/

MedlinePlus https://medlineplus.gov/

U.S. National Library of Medicine https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Disclaimer: I am not a trained cosmetic scientist, dermatologist or aromatherapist. Just a curious researcher and consumer. Consult medical professionals for your skin ailments.